History trail charts course from plague to modern day

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 February, 2011, 12:00am

The Shek Kip Mei Fire of December 1953 is widely known as the trigger for the city's mass public housing programme, but few people can point to the 1894 outbreak of bubonic plague as the instigator of the colonial government's decision to build sound public sanitation and health systems.

The plague epidemic was a turning point in the city's medical history, says Dr Faith Ho Chi-suk, chairwoman of the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Science's education and research committee.

'The government realised it had to improve Hong Kong's public sanitation and public health to stop the epidemic and avoid another, or Hong Kong's economy would be badly hurt,' Ho said.

During the run of the epidemic - 1894 to 1923 - 20,489 people died from the plague, which broke out in the overcrowded Tai Ping Shan Street area in Sheung Wan. The building that houses the museum was built in 1906 as the Bacteriological Institute as part of efforts to fight the plague.

Ho and her colleagues at the museum have mapped out a 110-minute walking trail across Sheung Wan and Sai Ying Pun to bring this important piece of history back to life.

The Tai Ping Shan Medical Heritage Trail takes visitors to 16 sites. Some are historic buildings, such as the museum's premises and the former Chinese Lunatic Asylum, now a methadone clinic, in Eastern Street. Others are modern structures on historic sites, such as the Caine Lane Garden, which used to be a disinfecting station and ambulance depot.

The walk takes in Blake Garden, possibly the city's first urban renewal project, also prompted by the plague.

'The government realised it had to improve the sanitation of the Tai Ping Shan area, so it announced the Tai Ping Shan Resumption Ordinance, under which it demolished all the tenement houses in the area and built a brand new neighbourhood,' Ho said. 'It reserved an open space for the community and this is how we now have Blake Garden.'

Other public facilities included the Pound Lane Bath House. Built in 1904, it was the city's first public bath house and provided free running hot water, with a total of 170,000 people using it in 1904 and 1905, Ho said.

The trail, which starts at the museum and ends at the Old Tsan Yuk Hospital in Western Street, also tells a story of gradual Chinese acceptance of Western medicine.

When it was built in 1870, Tung Wah Hospital only practised Chinese medicine, but the government ordered it to start providing Western services after the plague. In the middle of the trail, in the Hospital Road area, a group of government-built hospitals provide Western medical services. And at the trail's end are two hospitals and clinics built by the Chinese community in 1922 that practise Western medicine.

Guided tours will take place on Sunday. Museum member Ko Wing-man hopes they will become a fixture. The museum and district council are erecting plaques at the 16 sites.

Health walk

1 HK Museum of Medical Sciences (former Bacteriological Institute)

2 Site of former London Missionary Society Chapel and Nethersole Dispensary (now part of Blake

3 Pound Lane Bath House

4 Tung Wah Hospital

5 Former Chinese Lunatic Asylum (now a methadone clinic)

6 Former Western District Plague Hospital and Chinese Public Dispensary (now Centre for Heritage)