The story of Tsim Sha Tsui’s clock tower: how it survived World War II bombs and moves to demolish it, and rang up 100 years this spring
- Built as part of the Kowloon-Canton Railway terminus, the clock tower began operating in March 1921; it was spared demolition along with the station in 1978
- Every 15 days, technicians climb its staircases to maintain its four clock faces. Only Japanese occupation in World War II stopped it telling the time
For Hans Fok, the clock tower on the southern tip of the Kowloon peninsula in Tsim Sha Tsui holds a lot of memories.
Hongkongers of his generation remember the clock tower being part of the Kowloon-Canton Railway’s Edwardian-style terminus next to the Star Ferry terminal. From there, trains took passengers to Guangzhou in southern China, where many boarded other trains to reach cities throughout the country.
“When I was five years old, I came here to take the train during Ching Ming Festival. At the time it was so crowded, I followed the adults. We couldn’t get onto the train so the adults lifted us up into the train through the train window. It was quite an emotional memory for me,” says the 60-year-old Fok.
All that is left of the railway station today is the 44-metre-tall clock tower, whose mechanism began operating 100 years ago this spring; the anniversary fell in March.
According to Christine Mok Yuk-ha, a representative of the Antiquities and Monuments Office (AMO), the colonial British administration decided in 1906 to build a railway line from Hong Kong to Canton [now Guangzhou] but had not settled on a location for its terminus.
“The train system was in operation by 1910, but the actual location for the railway terminus … wasn’t finalised until 1912,” Mok says.
During the consultations on the station’s location, and its subsequent construction, Mok says, a nearby warehouse owned by the Hong Kong & Kowloon Wharf and Godown Company was rented to serve as a temporary terminus for the railway.
The clock tower was built at the same time as the rest of the station, whose exterior was completed in 1915. “But the interior was not completed due to the outbreak of World War I, which prevented the shipment of the materials, including the clock and bell from the UK … [until] 1920. They were both finally installed on March 22, 1921,” says Mok.
The one-tonne bronze bell was cast in 1919 and used to hang in the dome of the tower, chiming every hour. It now sits at the tower entrance, on top of several railway sleepers.
“Originally they used batteries to run the four clocks and the bell. There were difficulties in maintaining them … and in 1950 they were changed to run on four separate motors powered by electricity,” Mok says.
The only time the clocks stopped working was in World War II during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong; the clock tower sustained some damage from shrapnel and gunfire, and the clocks were started again in 1945, reportedly with the help of the crew of a Canadian battleship, the Ontario.
In the late 1960s, it was decided the station lacked the capacity to handle the railway’s growing number of passengers, and that a new terminus would be built in Hung Hom. This began operations in 1975.
Plans were drawn up to demolish the station in Tsim Sha Tsui, but not before a protracted discussion about whether it, or just its clock tower, should be preserved for posterity.
Advocates of heritage preservation, such as the Tsim Sha Tsui Kaifong Association, argued the clock tower had been a familiar site to “thousands of tourists and local residents”, while the Kowloon Residents Association insisted the clock tower be retained “in any circumstance”.
“We feel the image of Hong Kong will be damaged if the tower is demolished. It features in practically every international film depicting Hong Kong,” they said.
However, critics, including well-known designer Henry Steiner, felt that if only the clock tower was preserved, it would be dwarfed in future by the buildings next to it and the result would not be aesthetically pleasing. And Urban Council chairman A de O Sales said: “Time will show how ridiculous it is to leave the clock tower standing in the way of an ultra-modern complex.”
While the clock tower would stay, it was decided in the late 1970s that the railway station would be demolished to meet the need for better civic facilities – but only after Britain’s Queen Elizabeth turned down a petition from the Hong Kong Heritage Society to preserve the terminus in June 1978.
Taking down the station without damaging the clock tower was not easy.
“To preserve the clock tower when the former terminus was demolished, some consolidation works were carried out,” explains Karen Fung Ka-yan, also a representative of the AMO.
“For example, some of the wooden floor slabs were replaced with concrete ones to secure the tower. Some of the wooden staircases were replaced with iron ones, while some wooden windows were replaced with steel ones. Maintenance works were also carried out on the interface with the former railway terminus.”
Eleven years later in November 1989, the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, built on the site of the former railway terminus, was officially opened by Prince Charles and Princess Diana.
Because of its historical value, the clock tower was declared a monument in 1990 and protected under the Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance. Every 15 days, technicians climb up its wooden and steel staircases to maintain the clocks.
A technician who has helped maintain buildings for the department for the past 37 years, and who declined to be named, explained that as long as the clocks are regularly maintained there are no problems.
“We brush away the dust and add oil to the motor and they work fine. We have changed the motor three times,” he says.
During typhoons, keen observers will notice the towers clock faces are set to half-past six. “When they were building the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, this area was a construction site,” the technician says. “During typhoons, the hands of the clock would fall down like sharp needles and we’d have to pick them up.
“So we came up with the idea of setting the time at 6.30 so that the clock hands wouldn’t be as vulnerable to the strong winds, and it worked. So as soon as it is typhoon signal 3 we will go up to set the clock at 6.30. By the time it’s typhoon 8 it’s too late – we can’t get up there.”
AMO representative Mok has fond memories of growing up before there were mobile phones – a time when she and her friends would use the clock tower as a meeting point.
And for newlyweds Phyllis Chung and Jerry Pun, the clock tower was the perfect place to have their photographs taken dressed in their wedding outfits. It was where they watched the many fireworks displays that have taken place in Hong Kong – although none have been held in the past two years.
“Tsim Sha Tsui is a beautiful place and the clock tower is a Hong Kong landmark, so that’s why we want to take pictures here for our memories,” says Chung.