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History of Hong Kong districts

Kowloon Tong history: Hong Kong’s original garden city and its unusual path

  • Starting out as a middle-class Eurasian enclave, Kowloon Tong was later inhabited by well-to-do families and celebrities like Bruce Lee
  • Hidden behind high walls, many villas became love hotels
PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 November, 2018, 12:30pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 November, 2018, 7:37pm

When you step off the train at Kowloon Tong, you enter a different Hong Kong. The skyscrapers are gone, replaced by low-slung houses surrounded by greenery and walls. Wide, curving streets sweep up to the Lion Rock Hill, which looms over the neighbourhood like a sentinel. Narrow lanes lead to surprising gardens where palm trees and acacias emerge from well-tended lawns. This is a suburban version of Hong Kong – a garden city built as an alternative to the teeming streets nearby.

After the British leased the New Territories region in 1898, it did not take long for Hong Kong’s urban development to rush past the old border on Boundary Street, which runs through the heart of Kowloon district. High rents and crowded living conditions plagued Hongkongers even then, and businessman Charles Montague Ede saw an opportunity to offer them a new kind of life.

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Born in Constantinople (now Istanbul) to a family with Cornish roots, Ede spent nearly his entire life in Asia, working for the Union Insurance Society of Canton in Shanghai, the city of Yokohama in Japan and eventually at the company’s headquarters in Hong Kong. That is when he became familiar with the city’s robust Portuguese community, a distinctive middle class of clerks and managers who had roots in Macau. Eurasian in origin, they were often fluent in several languages, including Cantonese, and they served as middlemen between Chinese workers and expatriate British bosses.

The community had been based in present-day SoHo for many years – Club Lusitano, the social club they frequented, was originally located on Shelley Street, where the Central Mid-Levels Escalator now stands – but its large families were struggling to make room in the increasingly packed neighbourhood.

Ede proposed building a new suburb for the Portuguese on the south side of Hong Kong Island, but when this plan was scuttled by the government, he turned his attention to the craggy land north of Boundary Street instead. Just a couple of decades earlier, an English writer named Ebenezer Howard had published Garden Cities of Tomorrow, which proposed a new type of settlement that would allow city dwellers to enjoy a higher quality of life. Howard called his vision a “garden city”; something between urban and rural, a place with lush private gardens and richly appointed public parks, where self-sustaining communities could thrive away from the miasmas of densely packed cities.

Howard’s concept helped inspire the low-density suburbs that now sprawl around many of the world’s cities. It also served as fodder to Ede, who in 1921 established the Kowloon Tong and New Territories Development Company. His goal was to build Hong Kong’s very own version of a garden city on 100 acres (40 hectares) of land just east of the Kowloon-Canton Railway tracks.

Development took more than 10 years, outlasting Ede, who died in 1925. But it eventually produced a distinctive neighbourhood of 250 detached houses on wide streets named after English counties, including Devon, Kent and Cumberland.

There were four types of houses, ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 square feet (465 to 930 square metres) in size. Each was designed with verandas, arched windows and a pitched roof, similar to the Portuguese-influenced villas built by Chinese merchants in Phuket, Thailand.

According to architectural historian Cecilia Chu, the most popular type of house was two storeys, “with a living room, dining room, kitchen and servant quarters on the ground floor, and one large bedroom and two small bedrooms on the upper floor.” Each house had electricity and flush toilets, and the efficiency of mass production meant they could be sold between HK$6,500 and HK$12,500 – expensive to most Hongkongers, but affordable to the emerging middle class.

Hong Kong’s 1927 list of eligible jurors sheds some light onto who the early residents of Kowloon Tong were. There was Chan Kwai-ping, a book-keeper for the company that had developed Kowloon Tong; Menino Fernandez, a stockbroker; Ricardo Crescencio da Silva, an assistant at the HMH Nemazee trading house; and Bernhard Soltau, who worked for Carl Bodiker, another trading firm. These were middle-manager types, people who could not afford to live in the Central Mid-Levels or on The Peak, but who still enjoyed the privilege of space and servants in a city where many lived in squalor.

It was a quiet area most of the time. Gardens were large with great ‘flame of the forest’ trees which bloomed in the early summer
Frederic Silva, Kowloon Tong resident

They were also people who were in-between in another sense. “Typical chap-chai – mixed heritage,” is how Paul Seth described it in a 1990 profile in the Post. Seth bought one of the original Kowloon Tong houses on York Road and redeveloped it into Lieville, a modern villa that was completed in 1953. He was born in Singapore to parents of Armenian heritage; his wife, Alfreda, was from a Hong Kong Portuguese family, but was raised by a devoutly Catholic Anglo-Burmese uncle, who built a grotto in Lieville’s backyard. For decades, Kowloon Tong was a kind of haven for Eurasian people like them.

Kowloon Tong’s garden city model proved influential. East of Waterloo Road, around elite schools like Maryknoll and La Salle College, Kowloon Tsai was developed in a similar fashion to Kowloon Tong. After the second world war, a businessman named Yu Tat-chi bought land west of the railway tracks and developed his own garden city, where 100 single-family houses lined streets named after flowers. He called the area Yau Yat Chuen – “Another Village” – after a line in an old Chinese poem. From the beginning, he intended it to serve as Chinese counterpart to the more European or Eurasian character of Kowloon Tong.

Life was comfortable, whether you were on one side of the tracks or the other. “It was a quiet area most of the time,” recalls Frederic Silva, who shared his memories of living at 15 Kent Road on the history website Gwulo. “Gardens were large with great ‘flame of the forest’ trees which bloomed in the early summer.” The biggest downsides were mosquitoes and the incessant noise of aircraft descending into nearby Kai Tak Airport.

And yet these cosseted enclaves of middle-class tranquillity were surrounded on almost all sides by shanty towns. Yau Yat Chuen’s stylish villas overlooked the shacks of Tai Hang Tung; to the east, a squatter camp in Kowloon Tsai was described as “intolerable” by British Labour Party MPs who visited in 1969. Shanty towns were prone to fire and both Kowloon Tsai and Tai Hang Tung eventually burned to the ground, their residents given shelter in resettlement estates. Other squatter areas survived into the 1990s, such as one to the north of Yau Yat Chuen, which was replaced by the upscale Parc Oasis estate in 1993.

Around the same time, many of the villas in Yau Yat Chuen were being replaced by low-rise apartment buildings whose price per square foot was higher than those in Mid-Levels. Something similar was happening in Kowloon Tsai, but in Kowloon Tong itself, development restrictions helped preserve many of the older villas. Some families sold their properties to investors who leased them out to businesses. It created a strange mix. One house might be inhabited by a well-to-do family or celebrity – Bruce Lee famously lived in Kowloon Tong – but next door there might be a Buddhist temple, kindergarten or love hotel.

The love hotels represent one of the stranger twists in the history of Kowloon Tong. The neighbourhood’s central location and proximity to public transport – the Kowloon Tong MTR station opened in 1979 – made it a convenient place for a tryst, and its villas, hidden behind high walls, were well-suited to become discreet hourly hotels. Many still exist today, catering to young couples who live with their families and married people having affairs. On the love hotel review site GoOpenRoom.com, anonymous users rate the facilities. “After I left the room, I saw someone waiting,” writes one guest at Viva Villa on Rutland Quadrant. “They must have heard my fierce screams.”

In recent years, many of the love hotels have shut down – not because Hongkongers are having fewer affairs, but because the investors that own them are finally selling them off.

Despite pressure from landowners, the government has maintained restrictions on Kowloon Tong’s development; the area’s most recent Outline Zoning Plan, approved in 2015, reserves 75 hectares for “low- to medium-rise, low-density residential developments”. But there is still plenty of money to be made.

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In recent years, developers have knocked down old villas and bulldozed their gardens to build high-priced town houses. Just a handful of the original 1920s-era houses remain; none enjoy a spot on the government’s list of graded historic buildings. Bit by bit, the garden city is losing its gardens – so catch a train to Kowloon Tong and see them while you can.