A Brief History of Noho

Queen's Road

Queen’s Road, near Noho, in 1930 and today. Photo by HK Man

Noho is Hong Kong’s newest neighbourhood. It’s also one of the oldest. This is, of course, an old part of town that has just recently gentrified and been given a New York-inspired moniker, which stands for North of Hollywood Road and is a counterpoint to the already-trendy enclave of Soho, which as you might guess sits on the other side of Hollywood Road.

Though it might now be known for dining, drinking and shopping, Noho was once associated with a few other things: revolution, prostitution and printing. First developed in the 1850s, shortly after the arrival of the British in Hong Kong, the area around Gough Street was a borderland between the city’s European and Chinese quarters. To the east were the banks, clubs and colonial institutions that served Hong Kong’s elite; to the west was a parallel Chinese city, crowded with migrant workers and merchants from across the harbour.

Living conditions were dire. With the villas and apartments of Central reserved only for whites, space was at a premium, and Chinese families were forced to live seven or eight to a room in squalid tenements.

“A family of husband, wife, children and grandparents squeezed into an area of less than 10 square feet, sleeping, eating, washing and bathing together, like silkworms caught in a cocoon or ants in a hole,” wrote the journalist Wang Tao, who lived in Hong Kong in the 1860s and 1870s.

Toilets were non-existent and domestic animals shared the space with humans. This overcrowding led to a disastrous outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1894. When the disease finally cleared, an estimated 20,000 people were dead.

But even disease could not dull Hong Kong’s allure as a trading post — and with trade came money, and with money came idealists looking to finance their plans to spark revolution in China. Wang Tao was one of the first Chinese intellectuals to argue that Western-style democracy should be adapted to China. He often worked closely with the Scottish sinologist James Legge, with whom he translated the Five Classics of Confucianism in Ying Wa College on Aberdeen Street.

Shortly thereafter, in 1884, a young Sun Yat-sen was studying at the Central School, an English-language college located on Gough Street. Wang’s ideas resonated deeply with Sun, who had just returned from studying in Hawaii, where he learned English and was exposed to Western political thought.

Over the next twenty years, Sun travelled between Hong Kong, Europe and North America, drumming up support for his dream of overthrowing China’s ruling Qing Dynasty. He spent much of his time on Gough Street, where a friend, Yang Heling, hosted revolutionary meetings in his family’s variety store. Sun and his allies made no fewer than six failed attempts at revolution before finally succeeding in 1911, when the Wuchang Uprising set off a chain of events that led to the collapse of the Qing empire.

Life in Hong Kong continued just as it had before the revolution. In the early twentieth century, Gough Street, Hollywood Road and Aberdeen Street were the centre of a busy commercial area — and red light district. Nearby streets like Possession and Tai Ping Shan were packed with brothels that served Hong Kong’s largely male population of Chinese migrant workers.

Wealthy merchants from Canton often kept mistresses in Hong Kong — a mirror phenomenon to today’s “Shenzhen girlfriends” — lavishing them with gifts and providing them with apartments. These mistresses were known in Cantonese as yi nai; On Wo Lane, running between Gough Street and Queen’s Road, was popularly known as Yi Nai Lane because, according to legend, one merchant was so enamoured with his girlfriend, he bought her all of the houses along the street.

In the 1930s, the brothels were relocated further west, to Shek Tong Tsui, and after World War II, the area around Gough Street settled into a comfortable working-class existence. It was a neighbourhood of old shophouses and family-owned grocery stores, workshops and printing houses.

Then, just a few years ago, it began to attract businesses priced out of trendy Soho. New designer boutiques and quirky restaurants began opening. Yang Heling’s old shop is now Paul’s Kitchen, a Western-style bistro. Nearly all of the area’s old shophouses have been redeveloped and even many of the walkup apartment buildings built after World War II are being replaced by highrises.

Even if the buildings are changing, though, it’s still possible to get a sense of Noho’s history. The government has installed signboards to mark important historical sites, including those where Sun Yat-sen lived, worked and studied. And the quiet, narrow streets themselves, linked by small laneways and stone steps, seem to recall another era. Even the recent gentrification has given the area an alluring mix of fashionable restaurants and traditional street vendors.

A century ago, the area around Gough Street straddled two worlds — and, in a way, it still does today.

Queen's Road

Wo On Lane

Queen's Road

Gough Street

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Monday December 14 2009at 10:12 am , filed under Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, History, Society and Culture and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Comments are closed.