Out and about

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 October, 2009, 12:00am

Hong Kong Island's dramatically beautiful Pok Fu Lam coastline attracted the attention of European mariners when the cataract at Waterfall Bay - then a major coastal landmark - was described in Admiral George Anson's Voyage Around the World, first published in 1748. In 1816, Waterfall Bay was the naval rendezvous point for the Amherst mission, which unsuccessfully attempted to regularise diplomatic relations between Britain and China.

Mountain streams that fed the falls were dammed when Pok Fu Lam reservoir, Hong Kong's first major water storage facility, was completed in 1863, but the waterfall survives, albeit as a rather sad trickle sandwiched between Wah Fu Estate and Bel-Air On The Peak. The latter development stands on the coast, but never mind; this is Hong Kong, after all, where accurate real estate descriptions are rarer than smog-free autumn days.

Once deeply indented with small scenic coves, most of Pok Fu Lam's coastline has been reclaimed in recent decades. Names such as Sandy Bay and Telegraph Bay - this was where the 19th-century Eastern Extension Telegraph cables came ashore in Hong Kong - mutely recall the vanished natural features.

Cooling southern sea breezes and expansive island views combined with convenient proximity to the city made Pok Fu Lam a favoured residential area from the 1860s. Perched just below the reservoir, University Hall, a student hall of residence at Hong Kong University (HKU), was built in 1861 as the out-of-town residence for Douglas Lapraik, a watchmaker who later established a shipping business. Then known as Douglas Castle, it was bought in 1894 by French Catholic missionary organisation Missions Etrangeres de Paris, which added a chapel - now used as a student refectory - and subsequently built Bethanie, across the road, as an infirmary and to house a printing press. Both buildings were acquired by HKU in 1954, and Bethanie was used by Hong Kong University Press for many years.

Next to Bethanie stands a series of cowsheds built by the Dairy Farm Company. Dairy cattle were lot-fed in specially built sheds - animals and feed were both imported from Australia. Bethanie and the dairy buildings have been extensively restored and incorporated into the Academy for Performing Arts complex.

Some substantial old houses remain on Pok Fu Lam's hillsides. Jessville, built by pre-war Legislative Councillor William Ngartsee Thomas Tam and named after his wife, is probably the most impressive. According to a family story, Tam asked his new bride what she wanted for a wedding present - a house or a world trip? She asked for the house - and was given both.