Eye on Wan Chai

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 August, 2006, 12:00am

Wan chai is a wonderfully colourful area of Hong Kong - with a very eventful history. A bit on the seedy side, but with plenty happening all of the time. It's a place that stays awake 24 hours a day.

Wan Chai is a good place to spend hours walking around - and in this humid weather, there are lots of fast-food outlets, tea shops, pudding shops and noodle shops for you to stop off and replenish your liquids and salts.

What can I see?

If you're into religious history, Wan Chai has a number of temples dotted around. These include the Pak Tai Temple, which was built in 1863 and is on Stone Nullah Lane. Inside is apparently a bronze idol of Pak Tai which dates back to 1604. This little temple was used as an education centre in the early 1950s for underprivileged children who could not afford to go to school.

Around the corner from the temple is the now 12-storey building of St James' Settlement which helps Hong Kong's poor. It was set up in 1949 to help the children of squatters who lived in the area.

The organisation's founder, Bishop Hoare, wanted to provide young people with an education and later a job, enabling them to become independent and able to finance themselves.

Other temples include the Hung Shing Temple, which was built in 1860 and is on Queen's Road East.

Is there a nullah in Stone Nullah Lane?

There certainly used to be. As well as the St James' Settlement building, on the other side of the street is the Blue House - a historical landmark about to be turned into a folk museum.

The building dates back to the 1920s and the proposed museum will house artefacts donated by residents and former residents of Wan Chai. These should be interesting exhibitions as they will showcase the trades and craftsmanship of people living around the area, as well as how they used to live.

What about the seedy side you mentioned?

Wan Chai is famous for its bar and red-light district. American author Richard Mason wrote his book about a Hong Kong prostitute The World of Suzie Wong, which was published in 1957, after staying in Wan Chai for three months in the 1950s.

The book was made into a movie, which was filmed in Hong Kong. The film was an international success, but many Hong Kong girls called Suzie decided to change

their name.

When I said 'seedy' I was also referring to Wan Chai's rough history. It was populated in the early days by sailors, some of whom were pirates.

During the opium wars of the mid-19th century during which Hong Kong was ceded to the British in 1841, there was sometimes a bad feeling between the Chinese and the British, and this spilled over into the population in Hong Kong. It led to a notorious poisoning incident in Wan Chai.

What sort of poisoning incident?

According to Arthur Hacker's Wanchai, at dawn on January 15, 1857, Manchu guerillas decided to attack the population by putting arsenic into their morning bread so they would die or be severely uncomfortable after their breakfast. They chose bread because Chinese people were more likely to eat rice, leaving Europeans as the victims.

But it didn't work out like that. The poisoners hadn't factored in that the Indian community also ate bread and were thus the first to get sick, before the westerners got up later and realised what had happened.

The governor at the time, Sir John Bowring, and his family also got sick from the poisoning.

No one died, but the proprietor of the Esing Bakery in Wan Chai, where the poisoning happened, was arrested on his way to Macau. He was found not guilty.

Later, and somewhat unfairly, he was banished from Hong Kong.