Pagodas have been a landscape feature in China for more than 1,000 years. While many rural pagodas have decayed over time into picturesque, gently leaning semi-ruins, with greenery sprouting from upper storeys, those within cities have generally been permanently maintained and embellished with colourful urban legends.
Guangzhou has two towering pagodas. These are likened to the two masts of a sailing junk, with the five-storey Zhenhai Tower, atop a fragment of the old city walls, regarded as the vessel’s symbolic poop deck. The structures date back to the city’s eminence as the eastern terminus of the Maritime Silk Route from Europe, via Asia Minor and the Indian Ocean, and are seen as enduring, 1,000-year-old links to the wider world.
The word “pagoda” is of Persian or Hindi origin; it sounds similar in both languages and provides a historical link between India and China. Known in Chinese, however, as “tap”, the typical pagoda shape derives from the Ashoka-period urn (now housed in the Indian Museum, in Calcutta) that, according to legend, contains a portion of the cremated remains of Gautama Buddha himself. Modern urns for cremated human remains are euphemistically known as “golden pagodas”.
The closest ancient pagoda to Hong Kong is in Huizhou, on the East River, some 100km northeast of Shenzhen. Known as the Sizhou pagoda, this Tang dynasty relic commemorates an early Buddhist sage named Seng Jla. Song dynasty poet Su Dongpo described it as the Great Sage Pagoda. Like most others, Huizhou’s pagoda has been badly damaged and fully rebuilt several times, most recently in 1618, and is now surrounded by the extensive, beautifully kept West Lake gardens.
Hong Kong’s only “ancient” pagoda is the Tsui Tsing Lau, a small structure at Ping Shan, in the northwestern New Territories. First built in 1486, and originally seven storeys high (though some accounts suggest five), it was destroyed by a lightning strike and reconstructed with only three storeys. Now completely dwarfed by the nearby Tin Shui Wai MTR Station, Tsui Tsing Lau remains as a rather sad fragment from earlier rural times, completely marooned out of time, place and context.
Hong Kong’s most notable, popularly remembered pagoda, however, did not date from antiquity, but formed part of the Tiger Balm Gardens, above Tai Hang. The tallest structure in Hong Kong when it was completed, in the early 1930s, the Tiger Pagoda remained a prominent, muchloved landmark on the hillsides behind Causeway Bay for decades.
Property conglomerate Cheung Kong bought the gardens and adjacent Haw Par Villa, the Hong Kong residence of legendary Tiger Balm founder Aw Boon Haw, from Aw’s daughter, Sally Aw Sian, in 1998. Under a subsequent conservation deal reached between the government and the developer, Haw Par Villa itself, and its private garden, was retained. Apparently the developer was prepared to include the pagoda as part of the package but, unfortunately, the clique of breathtaking mediocrities that passed for expert opinion on the Antiquities Advisory Board decided it was not worth keeping, and the Tiger Pagoda was demolished in 2004.
More than a decade later, a suitable adaptive reuse for this extraordinary mansion has – to no-one’s real surprise – yet to be found. Large private houses tucked away in inconvenient locations, such as Haw Par Villa, combined with bureaucratic processes that would try the patience of a pantheon of saints, remain a major challenge for successful conversion initiatives, however well-intended.
For more on Hong Kong history and heritage, go to scmp.com/topics/old-hong-kong