Neighbourhood Sounds

Happy Valley: charmed life in the valley of the graves

It's a cosy community away from the hubbub - and home to six cemeteries - but Happy Valley residents are struggling to hang on to the past

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 October, 2012, 11:34am

To outsiders, Happy Valley has not really changed much since the 1970s.

As billboards, buildings and businesses appear and vanish almost every season in Wan Chai and Causeway Bay a 10-minute tram ride away, Pau Ma Dei (horse racing place) as it is known in Chinese, stands serene amid the clamour and chaos of urban Hong Kong.

Towering housing blocks may dominate the hills around it but low-rises still line the tram tracks on Wong Nai Chung Road, the throughway which leads into the quiet neighbourhood and then out on the other side, passing by the large Hong Kong cemetery.

But locals say much of the neighbourhood's charm has gone. While the old-style tenements stand frozen in time, residents complain that Happy Valley has, like other areas in the city, suffered from a "corrosion of communal life and culture".

Sallar Lam is among residents voicing their concerns about changes around them.

Born and raised in Happy Valley, Lam now manages her family's 43-year-old dry goods store on Yuk Sau Street. In the old days, she said, extended families would live on the same street to be close together and everyone knew one another.

The neighbourhood was historically a middle-upper class area, Lam said, and people were "really different and seemed to be more refined". Many from the entertainment industry would also choose to live in the area because of its seclusion.

"People who lived here before were very respectable and polite," said Lam.

"Now [Happy Valley] is only seen as a high-end property neighbourhood with good school prospects for children," said Lam, with a shake of her head. "People who lived here used to take pride in being residents of a cultured community and actively take part in communal things.

"If there was a burglary, the horse grooms would be the first to come out and help - they were even faster than the police," she said. "[The community] is a lot more complicated now, though still better than it is outside."

Part of the colonial-era city of Victoria - a conurbation which covered much of the northwestern shores of Hong Kong Island - Happy Valley wasn't named after the wealth of its residents or the joys of horseracing. The name stems from a more morbid aspect of local history - to counteract the existence of cemeteries and burial grounds in the area since the 19th century.

The neighbourhood has six cemeteries - burial grounds for the diverse people who passed through the city in the past century-and-a-half. They include a little-known Jewish cemetery built in 1855, sandwiched between a Buddhist school and a Buddhist Temple on Shan Kwong Street.

The land was donated by the Kadoorie family, a prominent Jewish family living in Hong Kong who founded the CLP Group and Peninsula hotels.

Many of the city's important people are buried in one of these cemeteries, as well as those with specific religious backgrounds, and is a rich source into the city's colonial past.

There is a Parsee cemetery and a Catholic cemetery, as well as Jewish, Muslim and Hindu cemeteries and the Hong Kong Cemetery. The equine Chinese name of the area came about later. The first recorded race in Happy Valley was in 1846, according to the Hong Kong Jockey Club. Races started off as an annual event, and were reserved for the British and the Chinese elite. The first permanent stands were built in 1931, with stables higher up on Shan Kwong Street.

"I remember waking up to the sound of horses clip-clopping down for their morning exercise," said a former resident who declined to give his name. He said horses would tread down Shan Kwong Street to the tram terminal every morning.

"In Happy Valley those days, horses were king," he joked. Cars would stop and the beeping of horns was not allowed when the horses walked past. But that is now history - the horses have been moved to Sha Tin and the stables pulled down and transformed into recreational land for members of the Jockey Club, an institution that remains exclusive to the rich and powerful in Hong Kong.

And in the end it was money that changed Happy Valley, along with an influx of outsiders.

Higher property prices and allied property speculation, frequent visits by pregnant mainland women to the prestigious and private Hong Kong Sanatorium - the city's most expensive hospital - and transient tenants diluted the original character of the previously small and stable community. The population of the neighbourhood is 13,228, according to the 2011 Census.

Happy Valley residents consciously try to retain the neighbourhood's old charm and genteel respectability, and are often reluctant to see new development. The neighbourhood is one of the few in Hong Kong that actually resisted proposals for an MTR station in its midst.

"No, we don't want the MTR coming in," said the 80-year-old owner of an old cha chaan teng, who only gave his surname as Chan. "It'll only bring in more complicated people."

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