Hong Kong takes visitors on a heritage voyage

Published on : Monday, December 21, 2015

Assistant Curator Christine MokAs Hong Kong continues to grow and change, remnants of its unique past remind us of the events that have shaped its character and people. From centuries-old Chinese structures to 19th century colonial architecture, many of these historical sites are protected as Declared Monuments.

The Government recently added three buildings to its list of declared monuments, bringing the total to 111.

The façade of the 123-year-old Old Mental Hospital at 2 High Street, Sai Ying Pun; the 108-year-old Signal Tower in Signal Hill Garden at Blackhead Point, Tsim Sha Tsui; and the 93-year-old Race Course Fire Memorial at So Kon Po have all been deemed important aspects of Hong Kong’s cultural legacy.

Fascinating façade
The Old Mental Hospital, or what remains of it, is a handsome two-storey granite structure built in 1892, which is rumoured to be the site of ghostly sightings and is better known by its nickname.

“It is referred to as the High Street Haunted House. We are not trying to fuel superstitious beliefs, but if we’re talking about collective memory or social values, many people know that when you mention the High Street Haunted House, it can only mean one place,” Leisure & Cultural Services Department Assistant Curator Pauline Poon explained.

The façade’s heavy early Baroque features, including grand arch verandahs, ornamented railings and a lower level of rusticated granite blocks are rare in Hong Kong, particularly as they were constructed using local materials.

Known for its Victorian architectural style the building was used as the dormitory for the civilian hospital’s nursing staff. An increased demand for mental healthcare facilities in the 1930s led to it being converted into a psychiatric hospital.


“There is still a red house in the High Street today which was originally used as wards for mentally ill patients. They would stay there while waiting to be transferred to hospitals in Guangzhou. But in 1937, Guangzhou was occupied by the Japanese, so the transfers stopped,” Ms Poon noted.


When Castle Peak Hospital opened in 1961, the Old Mental Hospital became a day treatment centre for psychiatric out-patients before being abandoned in the 1970s.


The building fell into disrepair and was badly damaged by two fires. The destruction of the historic building prompted the Government to take action to preserve and restore what was left of it.


The building is considered one of the oldest surviving structures testifying to the development of Hong Kong’s mental care services.


Treasured timepiece
The three-storey Signal Tower was built in 1907 by the Hong Kong Observatory.


The tower used to house a timeball device signalling accurate time to the public and mariners so they could adjust their chronometers.


“Shortly before 1pm every day, the hollow copper ball would be raised by hand-winch to the top of the mast, then at exactly 1pm it was released and dropped to the foot of the mast,” Assistant Curator Christine Mok explained.


From 1920 the ball was dropped twice a day at 10am and 4pm.


The tower has a heavy classical Baroque design with Edwardian features. It was built with a combination of red brickwork and light-coloured stone. Another storey was built in 1927 to enhance visibility.


Although the tower ceased service in 1933, it is still a landmark in Tsim Sha Tsui.


East meets West
Some monuments mark the city’s major events. The Race Course Fire Memorial, situated on the hillside above the present Hong Kong Stadium at So Kon Po, is the only memorial in Hong Kong dedicated to those who died in the 1918 fire at Happy Valley Racecourse.


Tung Wah Hospital staff were among those who helped at the scene and later suggested that the Government build a memorial.


“The Government, Tung Wah Hospital and the public donated funds to build the memorial. The whole community responded immediately to a major disaster and the memorial is testament to that important part of history,” Assistant Curator Humphrey Yuen said.


A close look at the memorial will reveal not only pavilions, glazed tiles and ceramic ornaments commonly found in Chinese architecture, but also classical Italianate granite niches, containing marble memorial plaques.


The memorial is an exquisite work combining both Chinese and Western architectural elements, demonstrating that Hong Kong is a place where East meets West.


To learn more about the city’s historical buildings visit the Development Bureau’s heritage conservation website.

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