Before the bulldozers: a look back at Hong Kong’s long-lost buildings and what replaced them

A new book, Hong Kong Then and Now, with dozens of rare and unpublished photographs, highlights loss of fine colonial architecture to relentless march of city’s insatiable redevelopment

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 July, 2016, 4:18pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 July, 2016, 10:59am

Many of Hong Kong’s fine old colonial buildings disappeared forever in the 1970s and 80s as developers, keen to build much taller constructions in their place, began bulldozing their way across large parts of the city, including Wan Chai and Central.

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What has been lost, and what was built to replace it, is highlighted in a new book, Hong Kong Then and Now, which contains more than 160 rare and previously unpublished photographs and contemporary views taken from the same locations.

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The book’s British author and photographer, Vaughan Grylls, who has visited Hong Kong regularly since 1986, spent about six months collecting together the images – “nearly a 1,000 photographs from a variety of sources, including old postcards, photo libraries, old books, photos sent by friends of friends – you name it”, Grylls told the South China Morning Post.

[Hong Kong’s] urban redevelopment came with a vengeance in the 1980s ... almost all of the Western and Chinese urban buildings developed during the Victorian and Edwardian periods were rapidly demolished and replaced by larger and taller buildings of contemporary design
Lee Hoyin, University of Hong Kong

He then visited Hong Kong for two weeks locating and photographing the Now pictures for the book in May last year.

Editing down the pictures for the finished book was only one of many challenges facing Grylls, 72, the author of three other Then and Now books on Oxford, Cambridge and Singapore.

“I had to leave out a huge number from the first cut, but ultimately only about a dozen I finally agonised over dropping,” Grylls said.

“Having 10 brilliant photos, of say Happy Valley Race Course, and having to choose just one or two was not easy.

“My editors were brilliant in helping with the most difficult decisions on in or out.

“[Another challenge was] accepting that the book would have to be directed artistically by the Then photos I chose, rather than the Now photos I took.

“Ultimately the book was really about how Hongkongers lives have changed over the years and why – and that my photographs, Then or Now, were really a way of showing this, and the book was not about me as a photographer.

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The hardback book’s 144 pages include a useful location map showing where many of the old photographs were taken, plus detailed captions providing background information for readers.

Ultimately the book was really about how Hongkongers lives have changed over the years and why – and that my photographs, Then or Now, were really a way of showing this
Vaughan Grylls

Included among the book’s photographs is one of a rare series of colour photographs, taken in 1954 by a then young British soldier Roy Passingham while he was on shore leave, showing the old Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank and Bank of China. These colour photographs were published in the Post in 2015.

“I would have liked to have had the opportunity to have more Then Then Then and Now sequences, such as the HSBC bank sequence [of photos],” Grylls told the Post.

“But that would have made the book much bigger.

“I do believe in being succinct about showing how our lives have changed from those of our forebears. Not showing everything may engage the reader more because they can fill in the cuts from their own imagination or knowledge. A bit like making a film.”

The major wave of redevelopment in Hong Kong happened shortly after the second world war.

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The new development largely took place on the fringes of traditional urban areas located on the northern coast of Hong Kong Island and on the Kowloon Peninsula, as well as – starting in the 1970s – in the rural areas of the New Territories. The urban core of Hong Kong was still largely intact and relatively undisturbed.

Professor Lee Hoyin, director of architectural conservation programmes at the University of Hong Kong’s faculty of architecture, said that Hong Kong’s “urban redevelopment came with a vengeance in the 1980s, when property development took off as a mainstay of the economy.

During a 21-year span, numerous private and public buildings, which would have likely become important heritage buildings today, were demolished
Lee Hoyin, University of Hong Kong

“During this time, almost all of the Western and Chinese urban buildings developed during the Victorian and Edwardian periods were rapidly demolished and replaced by larger and taller buildings of contemporary design,” Lee said.

“Arguably, the catalyst for this redevelopment tsunami was the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, which marked the beginning of the end of Hong Kong as a British colony.

“With Hong Kong now living on borrowed time, the colonial government implemented a high land-price policy to boost the property market as an exit strategy for the economy.”

Lee said: “[In the 1980s] while Hong Kong society focused on making money in the present, before an uncertain future through the 1980s and 1990s, the colonial government was reluctant to impose real or perceived obstacles to the booming property market, which might infringe upon the development rights of private property owners.

“The colonial government’s self-imposed conservation restrictions resulted in a limited number of heritage buildings and sites being protected by the Ordinance as Declared Monuments.

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“From 1976, when the Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance was enacted, until the last day of the colony on June 30, 1997, only 65 monuments had been declared, consisting mostly of government and institution-owned buildings in the urban areas, as well as communally owned village buildings in the rural areas.

Too much of the old colonial architecture has been lost, which is a shame, for it too was part of Hong Kong’s history. Hong Kong needs to cherish its astonishing history
Vaughan Grylls

“A number of non-buildings were also included, such as rock carvings, the fortified walls of walled villages and a flight of steps with four gas lamps.

“Given a span of 21 years, the underwhelming conservation results were telling. Indeed, during this 21-year span, numerous private and public buildings, which would have likely become important heritage buildings today, were demolished.”

Grylls, who trained as a sculptor at the Slade in Britain, and developed an interest in photography when he needed to take pictures of his sculptures for an exhibition catalogue, said he had mixed feelings about the loss of many of Hong Kong’s historic buildings.

“Some of the modern architecture is simply stunning – among the best in the world,” Grylls said. “[But] I cannot say I was keen on the new Hong Kong Club.

“Too much of the old colonial architecture has been lost, which is a shame, for it too was part of Hong Kong’s history.

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“I’m pleased to see that there has been something of a reverse in thinking more recently - for example, the preservation of the Pedder Building – and that Hong Kong has not gone the whole hog as many mainland Chinese cities have. Hong Kong needs to cherish its astonishing history.”

Researching, photographing and writing the Hong Kong book was a pleasure, but also a challenge “as Hong Kong is an ever changing city”, he said.

I have tried to capture that energy of Hong Kong in my Now photographs. I first appreciated that in 1986 when returning to Hong Kong after travelling for the first time into China and Tibet. Hong Kong must never lose its specialness
Vaughan Grylls

“As some of the photographs show, it’s not always a question of Then and Now, but a Then, Then and Now, with little if any visual carry over between the images.

“Sometimes the carry-over lies entirely in the topography; other times in an insignificant part of a building or a garden that has somehow escaped the relentless bulldozing, rebuilding and reclaiming.”

Grylls said he had often found it difficult to find the locations for his Now photos in modern-day Hong Kong.

“First of all an interesting Then photograph may have to be dropped if the location is now say, a car park or a militarily restricted area,” Grylls said.

“Then there are the challenges of working on location, such as the Then photograph which has been wrongly catalogued as to the street or junction from where it was taken, so I then had to become a detective to find the real location and I was running out of light or time or both.

“I would get a great buzz in solving these headaches when I finally did pick up the true location often from just one meagre visual clue.

“There were also the places that were closed for one reason or another, or say a truck was parked in the way of the shot I wanted, or a building was completely covered in scaffolding – the sort of things you come across when you turn the corner and say ‘Oh no!’.”

Grylls said he likes Hong Kong – “a city that buzzes with people” – and whenever he visits he finds it an enticing mixture – “vibrant, exhausting, crowded, hot, annoying, pushy, grabby, showy, vulgar, relentless and ...brilliant!”

He added: “I have tried to capture that energy in my Now photographs.

“I first appreciated that in 1986 when returning to Hong Kong after travelling for the first time into

China and Tibet. Hong Kong must never lose its specialness.”

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Grylls had been sent to China and Tibet by Williams College, a private US liberal arts college in Massachusetts, to prepare for an exhibition in Chicago following his appointment as professor of its new photography and video department.

“My assignment began and ended in Hong Kong – my first time in the city,” Grylls said. “I have visited Hong Kong regularly since then.”

He continued to visit Hong Kong and China over the next 20 years for work after becoming dean of the School of Art and Design at the University of Wolverhampton in 1988, and then, from 1996, director and chief executive of the Kent Institute of Art and Design, which became the University for the Creative Arts.

“I represented the British art schools I happened to be running at the time at British Council education fairs for 20 years and I had a Hong Kong office responsible for east Asia,” Grylls said.

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“As a photographer I used my downtime for my own work, photographing in Hong Kong, Macau and on the mainland.”

He was commissioned to research, photograph and write the first of his Then and Now books, on Oxford and Cambridge, after he retired in 2009.

Later he provided the Now photo updates for other books in the series, including Los Angeles, Hollywood, Sydney, Melbourne and Rome, before starting work on the Singapore and Hong Kong editions.

So does Grylls think he will do a second book on Hong Kong?

“Maybe – in five years it will have changed again!” he said.

Hong Kong Then and Now, by Vaughan Grylls, is published by Pavilion Books