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SUNDAY MORNING

Then & now: Seats of power

In their heyday, sedan chairs ranged from the simple to the opulent according to their user's status, writes Jason Wordie

 

Other than the Peak Tram, inaugurated in 1888, sedan chairs offered the only form of transport to get to The Peak from Hong Kong's lower levels before motor vehicles were introduced. Sedan chairs came in a variety of forms. Commonly, two light, tensile wooden or bamboo poles were used as support for a wicker armchair, while more heavy-duty models had a box-like seat with canvas covers for shade and protection from the rain. Sedan chairs were mostly used in steep, hilly places where wheeled vehicles such as rickshaws were unsuitable; foreign-built hill-station resorts in central China, such as Moganshan and Kuling, all had them.

Hong Kong Island's 19th-century backstreets were built to accommodate sedan chairs. Staircase-like, pedestrian "roads", common in Central and Western districts, have intermittent flat areas where bearers could stop off to get a better grip on the poles; incised cross-hatchings on many older street-stairs offer enduring reminders of how inadequate footwear meant non-slip surfaces had to be created.

Some sedan chairs were very distinctive. Hong Kong's governors deployed eight scarlet-clad bearers who marched in unison; more opulent private chairs - much like personalised number plates today - made clear the identity of the important (or self-important) personage passing by.

Most public sedan-chair coolies were impoverished rural migrant workers - no one with better employment prospects took on the job for long. Many were dead by their early 50s through overwork and tuberculosis, compounded by an enlarged heart and varicose veins. Opium use - mostly for pain relief - was also common. Sedan chairs were still found on Hong Kong Island in the early 1960s.

An elderly friend, now deceased, once told me about her father's chair bearers, offering a fascinating vignette of a vanished Hong Kong lifestyle just outside living memory. Joan had come back out to Hong Kong from England in 1931 to be her father's housekeeper, and for some years she lived with him in the family home on The Peak. Subsequently shelled flat by the Japanese, who later built their war memorial on its foundations, the site is now Cameron Mansions.

Joan's father, Colonel H.B.L. Dowbiggin, had come to Hong Kong in 1906 and lived here until his death, in 1966. From the outset, "Dow" had a private sedan chair, and even after cars became common, he continued to use it on a daily basis. Joan maintained that the gentle motion of the chair conveying her father down into town of a morning was a most effective hangover cure. Every day he would descend from Magazine Gap, accompanied by the Cookie and No1 houseboy. After depositing the old man at his office, the servants went to the market, loaded up the chair with everything needed for the day and went back up the hill. Father and daughter lived with nine staff, all of whom were fed and looked after.

Other than in old films and photographs, the only place to see a sedan chair (of sorts) in action in Hong Kong now is around The Peak during the annual Sedan Chair Race, which has been held by the Matilda International Hospital since 1975. Colourful themed costumes create a fun spectacle, as chair-bearing teams race to the finish line. A charitable trust typically raises about HK$3 million a year from teams of repeat participants and all proceeds go to small, worthwhile local charities.

 

 

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Then & now: Seats of power

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