Book review: A Walking Tour: Hong Kong by Gregory Byrne Bracken

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 December, 2012, 6:36pm

A Walking Tour: Hong Kong
by Gregory Byrne Bracken
Marshall Cavendish

Author James Clavell wrote that "you live for today and to hell with everything, grab what you can, because tomorrow, who knows? … nothing lasts in Hong Kong".

Nine years after Irish architect Gregory Byrne Bracken first cast an informed eye over the city's notable landmarks and forgotten treasures in his charming walking-tour guidebook, our demolition-obsessed developers' insatiable bulldozers mean it's time for a second edition.

His spare, finely observed writing and more than 80 delightful architectural sketches remain, but the informative book, which also covers the historic buildings of Macau, has been fully revised, and has 20 new illustrations.

As you would expect, this slim, pocket-sized volume contains all the usual suspects: eight easy-to-follow city walks, with approximate duration times, including The Peak, Tsim Sha Tsui and Causeway Bay; handy, hand-drawn maps; and recommendations of not-to-be-missed places, views and shops.

Yet Bracken also provides an absorbing insight into the architectural types and terms of many of the city's buildings, plus a generous scattering of quirky cultural trivia: bamboo scaffolding, for example, is favoured over steel because it is lighter, five times cheaper, four times faster to raise and withstands typhoons better.

As an architect, he remains disappointingly restrained when commenting on the city's worst modern designs: the ugly 1996 Peak Tower merely "seems to fall short of what is expected to complement its spectacular surroundings"; the equally awful, windowless Cultural Centre was, he says, compared to a "giant bathroom" because of its external, pale-pink ceramic tiles.

However, Bracken's guide, one of a series of six that includes Singapore, Shanghai and London, has much to recommend it.

He says "an enclave" of the city's old colonial shophouses - shops with a house above - remain, for now at least, around the Johnston Road area of Wan Chai, including The Pawn bar and restaurant, plus a few on Queen's Road Central, near Aberdeen Street.

These survivors, built in the neoclassical style, favouring symmetrical, elegant proportions, and columns and pillars popular from the 17th century, tended to be taller than those in other regional cities - "a testament to Hong Kong's perennially high land prices". Sadly, some things never change.