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Text and photos
by Daniel Allen.
Ensconced on a leather sofa in one corner of hip Hong Kong restaurant The Pawn, local architect and property developer Alan Lo smiles gently as he recalls fond childhood memories.
“As a boy I would be the one sent on errands to the traditional Chinese medicine shop,” says Lo. “They were all on the ground floor of tong lau buildings in this neighbourhood. Somebody getting sick always meant a trip to the tong lau. And that also meant a trip to the other shops below, which sold all kinds of delicious goodies.”
With a spartan, cookie-cutter structure that originated in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, tong lau – or Chinese tenement buildings – first began to appear in Hong Kong in the mid-nineteenth century. Typically two to four storeys high, most had overhanging balconies, with the ground floor housing a shop, and the upper floors used as living quarters, frequently for the shop owner’s extended family.
“In their original form, the tong lau buildings of Hong Kong were quite primitive living and retail spaces,” explains Connie Lam, Executive Director of the Hong Kong Arts Centre. “There were no elevators, there were no toilets. There were often multiple families living in one room, and bathrooms and kitchens were shared. There was little or no privacy. Most enjoyed a kind of air-conditioning that relied on coastal breezes.”
Despite their stark functionality, today an increasing number of Hong Kong residents are enamoured of their local tong lau. Hunkered down beneath the ex-colony’s numerous shiny towers like children wandering through a room full of adults, for many they evoke a bygone era.
“I think it’s the humble, human side of tong lau that really draws me to them,” says Lo. “There’s no glitz or glamour to these buildings. Yet there’s a real village-like feel to tong lau neighbourhoods. Everyone knows each other; the same people eat breakfast together in ground floor cafes every morning. When you’re living in a city populated with so many huge, impersonal skyscrapers, any structure that can engender this kind of community spirit has to be treasured.”
While early forms of tong lau appeared in Hong Kong in the mid-nineteenth century, they rapidly multiplied during the 1940s and 50s, as Chinese immigrants poured into the British colony from the mainland and urgently required accommodation. The last tong lau were constructed in 1964, when changes to planning laws saw the age of supertall Hong Kong buildings really take off.
Today multiple development projects are reshaping nearly every part of Hong Kong. “The new won’t come unless you lose the old” runs the old Chinese maxim, neatly encapsulating the city-state’s approach to construction. With land at a premium, any building deemed obsolete or outdated is invariably demolished. Over the last few decades the wrecking ball has been taken to whole swathes of tong lau in the name of progress, and they are now a relative rarity.
“Today tong lau are definitely an endangered species,” says Lam. “Still, enough currently remain, mostly in parts of Wan Chai and Sheung Wan, to provide a record of Hong Kong’s most important vernacular architecture. We can’t be complacent though. We have to fight to preserve what’s left.”
Awareness of the need to preserve Hong Kong’s architectural heritage is undoubtedly on the rise. Anger at the destruction of the city-state’s heritage sites came to a head with the recent demolition of the Star Ferry Pier, a famous Hong Kong landmark.
“Smart people woke up and realised that the end point of all these so-called ‘urban renewal’ projects was a city with no soul,” says Lo. “Conservation and development are not mutually exclusive. Outdated buildings can be upgraded and repurposed, or architects can integrate new features. Thankfully this is now what we are seeing with a growing number of tong lau.”
History is hip again
Lo himself is already a key stakeholder in the push to preserve local architecture. Nine years ago he co-founded the Press Room Group, a company which now runs a collection of food and beverage spaces in revamped buildings across Hong Kong. When the group opened The Pawn, a trendy gastropub housed in one of Hong Kong’s most distinctive tong lau buildings, it almost single-handedly transformed the Wan Chai neighbourhood.
Set over three floors, The Pawn has real character, with an outdoor terrace overlooking the neon lights, trams and skyscrapers of Wan Chai. Key features of the original tong lau structure have been preserved, such as the narrow entrance staircase, high ceilings and the compartmentalized interior.
“Constructed in the 1880s, this building once housed the Woo Cheong Pawn shop,” explains Lo. “Most of Hong Kong’s pawn shops, of which there are still hundreds left, operate out of tong lau. As well as place to live, the upper floors were used to store all the pawned goods. In the past people would even pawn their blankets in the summer to make ends meet.”
Today The Pawn forms part of the Wan Chai Architectural Heritage Trail, a pedestrian-oriented route which makes the perfect introduction to tong lau. Highlights include the Blue House, a recently renovated tong lau with an eye-catching turquoise facade. This distinctive colour was not a deliberate aesthetic decision – when the building was originally constructed the decorators apparently only had blue paint left.
A living architectural museum, the Blue House has been repopulated with residents, and an old-fashioned medical clinic and dessert shop opened on the ground floor. Adjoining them is the Wan Chai Livelihood Museum, showcasing tong lau life with a focus on the handicraft and light manufacturing industries once prevalent in the area.
A stone’s throw from the Blue House is the Green House, another artfully converted tong lau complex that now boasts an all-white facade. Home to a collection of animation studios, the French-made windows, narrow staircases and ornate balustrades serve as reminders of the block’s architectural history, while cha chaan teng (tea cafes) on the ground floor serve up delicious fare such as milk tea and Hong Kong-style French toast.
Hoteliers, restaurateurs and home owners are also transforming tong lau into hip new hangouts and homes. Successful renovations usually require real architectural expertise and no small measure of ingenuity, not to mention deep pockets and a sympathetic bank manager.
“For me the best tong lau makeovers are where the key architectural features are retained,” says Lo. “This means carefully deciding what stays and what goes. If you rip too much out then you start to lose the character of the building.”
Located in Wan Chai, Mingle Place By the Park is a 1960s tenement building that has recently opened as a trendy boutique hotel. With most of the interior structure preserved, the hotel is a unique showcase of the tong lau era, with each floor displaying photos and art from the nineteenth century through to the 1970s. Most rooms also feature 1960s Hong Kong decor and vintage furniture pieces, and even include period toiletries, radios and telephones.
“This building is located close to where I grew up in Wan Chai,” says owner Fanny Cheuk. “I spent much of my childhood in this neighbourhood, and Mingle Place by the Park is my attempt to transport guests back to the 1960s era. Repairing, renovating, decorating and licensing the building was a major challenge, but I think it was worth it.”
Over in the Sheung Wan neighbourhood, Wing Lee Street is another must-see for tong lau enthusiasts. Made famous as a result of the 2010 movie Echoes of the Rainbow, which was mostly shot on Wing Lee, this is the last, fully intact tong lau street in Hong Kong. It had been slated for destruction as part of a redevelopment scheme, but following a public outcry all 12 buildings are now set to be preserved and used for homes and small businesses.
The increasing number of locals and tourists now visiting Wing Lee has had a transformative effect on the street’s environs. Just around the corner on Shing Wong Street, tong lau-based cafe Common Ground now serves up some of the best burgers and lattes in town.
“I love tong lau neighbourhoods,” says Caleb Ng, who runs Common Ground with his twin brother Joshua. “Right now we’re just a few hundred metres from the hustle and bustle of Hollywood Road, but you can see how relaxed and intimate everything is here. Being on a street like this is perfect for the intimate, personal environment we are trying to create for our clientele.”
In their own idiosyncratic way, Hong Kong’s tong lau are as important architecturally as the hutongs (old alleyways and courtyards) of Beijing and the shikumen (tenement buildings) of Shanghai, reminding locals and visitors alike of the city-state’s unique heritage. With many still threatened by redevelopment projects, the efforts of pioneering individuals such as Alan Lo and Fanny Cheuk will hopefully ensure some survive for future generations to connect with and enjoy.
“Not everyone in Hong Kong wants to live and work in a nondescript shoebox hundreds of metres off the ground,” says Lam. “I think we are now seeing the financial ambitions of a few property developers balanced by the will of the majority. It’s a sign of maturity, and tong lau have been the catalyst.”
- The Pawn Restaurant
- Common Ground: 19 Shing Wong Street (next to Wing Lee Street)
This article was first published in the January 2015 issue of Finnair's monthly in-flight magazine Blue Wings.