Breathing new life into Blake Garden

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 March, 2011, 12:00am

Occupying a small, hilly patch of land between Ladder Street in the east, the Tung Wah Hospital in the west, Hollywood Road in the north and Bonham Road in the south, the Blake Garden area might be up-and-coming today, but that wasn't the case for most of the past century.

'Ten years ago, this area was still associated with death,' said lifelong resident Katty Law Ngar-ning. First settled by mainland migrants in the late nineteenth century, the neighbourhood quickly became an overcrowded when the colonial British government banned all Chinese from living in Central. In 1894, squalid living conditions led to a devastating outbreak of bubonic plague killing more than 2,500. In response, the government razed most of the area and built Blake Garden, Hong Kong's first public park.

The legacy of the plague, along with the presence of coffin makers and a temple that serves as a shrine to the dead, left the neighbourhood with an inauspicious reputation that kept people away. So did a lack of access: most of the neighbourhood is made up of dead-end streets, pedestrian-only terraces and steep staircases, which has prevented the kind of redevelopment seen to the west in Sai Ying Pun and to the east in Central.

'Because there is no through traffic, you won't believe how quiet it gets at night,' said John Batten, who has lived in the area since 1992. 'In the morning, all I hear is birds and children playing in the park and people playing basketball.'

The previous owners of Batten's 400-square-foot flat were a family of four looking for a bigger home. Similar exchanges have taken place over the past 10 years, as newcomers, usually singles or couples, buy and renovate apartments - attracted, in many cases, by the quiet, out-of-the-way atmosphere that the neighbourhood's once-malignant helped create.