Historical influence

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 May, 2012, 12:00am


By an odd but fitting coincidence, Cyberport - the development so synonymous with IT and all things hi-tech, wired and connected - is built on a site associated with the cutting-edge communications technology of an earlier age. In the 1870s, telegraph cables connecting Hong Kong to the rest of the world came ashore here, and the reclaimed land that Cyberport now occupies was once better known as Telegraph Bay.

Interesting reminders of earlier times can be found around the area, which is still one of Hong Kong Island's most desirable residential districts, with sea breezes and wide views across the water to Lamma and Lantau.

On the hill overlooking Cyberport, Bethanie is a historic building that can be visited by the public. It was built in 1875 by the Missions Etrangeres de Paris, a French missionary society, as a country retreat for their priests who needed to recover from the pressures of proselytising deep in the mainland. A press was also established there, printing religious texts in many languages.

After a century of use, Bethanie fell into disrepair, and it wasn't until 2003 that it was given over to the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, which undertook Unesco award-winning renovations. In particular, the original pitched roof has been innovatively reinstated using glass panels.

The building now houses the academy's school of film and television, plus a museum that explains its long history. Admission is HK$25, while there are hourly guided tours. English-speaking guides take tours at noon and 4pm from Monday to Saturday and at 4pm on Sundays.

Next door, two octagonal cowsheds built in 1886 were the original premises of what became the Dairy Farm company - a successful venture to provide fresh milk to the growing European population of Hong Kong. Now, they are a performance venue known as the Wellcome Theatre that also hosts exhibitions. Other old farm buildings nearby are now used by the rookie chefs of the Chinese Cuisine Training Institute.

The neighbourhood has influenced Hong Kong's history in other ways. The bauhinia blakeana, the purple flower that came to represent Hong Kong, was first found on a hillside here by the French fathers of Bethanie. The bauhinia became the emblem of Hong Kong when the special administrative region was established on July 1, 1997.

On the other side of the road, Pok Fu Lam village is chiefly notable for the fact that the land must be worth a fortune, yet people grow vegetables on it. There's a century-old brick pagoda hidden in its warren-like alleyways, but it is a challenge to find.

Opposite Bethanie is a narrow road leading gently uphill to the dam of the Pok Fu Lam Reservoir. This is a peaceful, forested part of the district that is also home to a riding school. You can walk from here all the way up to The Peak on a vehicle-free road that is rightly popular with hikers and dog walkers, the views getting better the higher you go. Other trails lead around the hillside to Aberdeen.

The reservoir was the first to be built in Hong Kong, way back in the 1860s, and an aqueduct - its route now followed by the eponymous Conduit Road - carried water to the city. At the dam, near some Victorian waterworks quarters, there is an information board with location photos from those early days. Look for the white Gothic castle and compare the view today; in fact, the unusual mansion is still there, though its towers and battlements are hidden by trees.

Originally called Douglas Castle after its first owner, Scottish shipping tycoon Douglas Lapraik, it's now known as University Hall and is used as accommodation for students. While you cannot enter, you can get up close to inspect its somewhat overwrought and out-of-place architectural features.

The stream that runs through Pok Fu Lam does not flow as strongly as it did before waters were diverted to the reservoir, but it still empties into the sea just south of Cyberport, at Waterfall Bay Park, a leisure spot. After rainstorms, the cascade is an impressive sight.