October 5th, 2010

Hong Kong’s Disappearing Shophouses

Johnston Road, Wan Chai. Photo compilation by Lee Chi-man

When Philip Kenny wanders around Hong Kong, taking photos for his blog on local heritage, one type of building always catches his interest: Chinese shophouses. “They are a reminder of what Hong Kong used to be like — a bit old and rickety, perhaps, but vastly more colourful,” he says.

Kenny knows, however, that many of the shophouses he stumbles across could soon disappear. “I mourn the fact that pre-war buildings that have survived many years of Hong Kong’s harsh climate, as well as street fighting and bombing raids during the war, end up being torn down on the whim of a developer,” he says.

Step back in time to the 1950s and shophouses, with their stone façades and distinctive balconies and verandahs, would have been found on nearly every major street in town, from Yuen Long in the north all the way down to Aberdeen in the south. Today, all but a handful have disappeared, scattered like ashes from a fire. Recognizing the threat to Hong Kong’s heritage, nearly 100 shophouses are now being restored by the government and the Urban Renewal Authority (URA), but many more have been left untouched, their chances of survival growing increasingly slim.

“They are extremely vulnerable,” says Lee Ho-yin, the director of the University of Hong Kong’s architectural conservation program. For every shophouse that is saved, like the famous Blue House in Wan Chai, dozens more are razed for development. “There was a beautiful row of shophouses [in Tai Hang] that was torn down two years ago without anyone noticing, and they were a lot more architecturally significant than the Blue House,” he says.

But Hong Kong has only limited tools at its disposal for preserving shophouses. While the Antiquities and Monuments Office can assign buildings one of three grades to reflect their historic value, only declared monuments, of which there are 94, are legally protected from alteration or demolition. In recent years, the URA has begun to restore shophouses located near its redevelopment projects, but its efforts have been controversial, with heritage advocates accusing the authority of using turning the buildings into attractive shells for high-end businesses.

What complicates matters is that few individual shophouses are worthy of being considered historic monuments, says Lee, who calls them “the speculative buildings of their time,” not altogether different in purpose from the glossy apartment towers being built today. What makes shophouses important, he says, is that they are a bridge between the past and present. “That continuity is what keeps cultures and communities alive.”

Queen’s Road Central, Sheung Wan. Photo compilation by Lee Chi-man

The origins of shophouses can be found in the cities of southern China, where trade with the West in the 19th century led to an explosion of economic activity. Narrow two- and three-storey buildings with shops on the ground floor and living quarters above soon spread from cities like Guangzhou to trading ports with large Chinese populations, like Singapore, Saigon and Bangkok, where they came to dominate the urban landscape.

In Hong Kong, shophouses evolved into several distinctive types that can still be seen today. Some, like the shophouses along Queen’s Road Central, have large verandahs that hang over the sidewalk. Others on narrower streets, like the Blue House in Wan Chai, have cantilevered balconies or no balconies at all. Most shophouses had between 400 and 1,000 square feet of space on each floor, with a single large room and a kitchen at the back of the flat.

Though the shophouses were normally quite spacious, they were often crowded with tenants and large families, especially after hundreds of thousands of Chinese refugees spilled into Hong Kong in the 1950s and 60s. Thomas Ngan, who now works in a customer service centre, lived with his family in a shophouse on Lockhart Road in the 1960s. “It could be gloomy,” he says, because the stairwell had no light and even in the flat, fluorescent bulbs emitted only a weak glow. Ngan’s family partitioned their flat’s single room into three smaller spaces, with his family in the middle, their grandmother in another cubicle and his aunt, uncle and cousin on the verandah, which they boarded up. It was cramped, but it did have a modern toilet, unlike many shophouse flats.

Ngan moved out of the shophouse when he was four, but he still returned to visit his relatives until they left in the 1970s. The building was demolished shortly before the MTR was built in the late 1970s. “Those shophouses represent a way of living, a fading era, which many of us would still like to linger,” he says. Like Philip Kenny, Ngan has taken a special interest in Hong Kong’s remaining shophouses, and he often posts on the heritage website Gwulo. “There’s nothing like home, especially if home was one of those shophouses.”

The condition of Hong Kong’s remaining shophouses varies. “They are quite a mixed bag, from well kept and caringly renovated ones to abandoned, derelict ones crumbling at the edges,” says Kenny. Many of the worst-preserved shophouses are located in neighbourhoods like Mongkok, Sham Shui Po and Cheung Sha Wan, where redevelopment pressure is intense and owners can expect a big payout if they sell their building to developers. But Ngan has also noticed some shophouses that have been kept in excellent condition, especially those that are home to pawn shops, which often use the upper floors for storage.

A well-maintained shophouse in Kowloon City

Dilapidated shophouses in Sham Shui Po

The Woo Cheong Pawn Shop on Johnston Road in Wan Chai was a landmark for years until it was slated for redevelopment by the URA. Instead of demolishing it, however, the authority bought the pawn shop and three adjoining shophouses and converted them into a commercial space that now contains a British-style bar and restaurant called The Pawn. (The original pawn shop was forced to move down the street.) While some considered it a successful example of preservation winning out over demolition, it has attracted criticism from those who say it maintained only the veneer of shophouse heritage without any of the substance.

“The most important thing they should have preserved was the interior of the pawn shop, but they took it all down,” says Mathias Woo, an architect and cultural critic. “There used to be a fascinating bird shop on the ground floor that was taken away, too, and a shop that was selling second-hand clothes. Now everything is high-end food and beverage. Heritage buildings should be more diverse and affordable, something the public can enjoy. Something local that reflects the old neighbourhoods of Hong Kong.”

The Woo Cheong Pawn Shop was just the beginning of the URA’s efforts to preserve Hong Kong’s shophouses. It is now planning to restore 66 more prewar shophouses in Kowloon and on Hong Kong Island, including 20 shophouses on Shanghai Street and Prince Edward Road in Mongkok, the largest shophouse conservation effort Hong Kong has ever seen. While the URA is still acquiring properties in those buildings, it has suggested that it will provide space for everyday businesses, so as to avoid repeating the experience of The Pawn. “Tactical measures will be adopted to maintain local characteristics and enhance district vitality as far as practicable,” says a spokesman for the authority.

A row of ten Shanghai Street shophouses that will be restored by the URA

The URA should not only preserve the architecture of the shophouses, it should help sustain the eclectic businesses they now house, says Lee Ho-yin. In the case of the Woo Cheong Pawn Shop, “they should have given it a 10 or 20 year lease and allowed it to stay.” Conservation shouldn’t preserve shophouses like museum pieces, he says, but it also shouldn’t wipe out existing local businesses. “Gentrification in itself is not a bad thing, but it’s not good when it happens too fast.”

What might help is for incentives to be given for smaller developers to restore old buildings. “We’re so used to the kind of large-scale development done by big developers or the URA that we take it for granted that this is the only way to do things,” he says. “One reason Hong Kong is so weak at historic conservation is the lack of diversity in our land development system.” So far, private developers have restored a number of early postwar buildings from the 1950s and 60s, but only a small number of prewar shophouses have been restored privately.

There’s another challenge, too: recording the living heritage that is lost when shophouses are redeveloped. “It’s a failure that in the past we focused mainly on the physical side of these buildings but seldom took what happened inside seriously,” says Lau Chi-pang, an assistant professor of history at Lingnan University and a member of the Antiquities and Monuments Office advisory board. “Over the past 20 or 30 years, there have only been a handful of historians trained in Hong Kong history, so we lack the resources to do these kinds of investigations.”

That leaves it to amateur historians like Ngan and Kenny, who continue to document Hong Kong’s shophouses, even as they disappear. “Heritage preservation really needs to come from the grassroots,” says Kenny. “If people aren’t interested in preserving their own cultural heritage then it’s already a lost cause.”

Surviving — but unprotected — shophouses in Sham Shui Po

See more photos of shophouses at the Hong Kong Shophouses Flickr group. This story was originally published in China Daily on October 5, 2010.


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3 comments

  1. Patrick Donovan says:

    It’s great that you’re bringing these things to the fore.

    I didn’t even realize that Hong Kong had “shophouses.” They certainly seem less architecturally distinctive than the Malaysia/Singapore variety, which have visible sloping roofs, more architectural details and arched windows. These seem more modernist/functional. They’re perhaps less attractive but you’re right that any city needs to preserve buildings of all types from different eras to remain an interesting multilayered place.

    October 5th, 2010 at 12:21 pm

  2. Christopher DeWolf says:

    If you look at photos of 19th century Hong Kong, almost all buildings had pitched roofs, but building codes led to flat roofs in the 20th century. In fact, early building codes were the primary force that shaped shophouses in Hong Kong, similar to how they determined the form of triplexes in Montreal.

    There might have also been some cultural factors at play because the shophouses in Guangzhou are very similar to those in Hong Kong. Macau too, but there are naturally more Portuguese influences there.

    The earliest Hong Kong shophouses had more neoclassical details, as you can see in the second then-and-now photo, but most of the surviving ones date from the 1920s and 30s, when they had more Art Deco influence. Modern variations of the shophouse were built right up to the 1960s.

    Of course, many have been altered with renovations and illegal additions, which masks some of their original architectural details.

    Also, as you mention, the case for preserving shophouses rests less on their architecture or historical merit than on the diversity they add to the cityscape, not to mention their particularly elegant urban form. Walking down an arcaded sidewalk is much more pleasant than walking down an exposed one with sun beating down and air conditioner water dripping on your head.

    October 5th, 2010 at 1:21 pm

  3. Nulnoh says:

    I think that these shophouses forms a very unique urban scape. it is the identity of Hongkong. Preserving them is key to promoting a new form of tourism, Architectural Tourism.

    November 15th, 2010 at 10:49 am

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