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History of Hong Kong districts

From rich men’s mansions to affluent middle class suburb: Hong Kong’s Mid-Levels

  • Notoriously overdeveloped and at times jammed with traffic, the Mid-Levels is also rich in history and full of hidden gems
  • Once home to the likes of Franklin Roosevelt’s grandfather, Robert Hotung, the Modys and the Chaters, Mid-Levels is today a middle-class bastion
PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 November, 2018, 1:02pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 November, 2018, 5:53pm

In Hong Kong, the value of real estate goes one way – up. Literally. The higher you ascend, the more expensive properties become, from shoebox flats near the harbour to the multibillion-dollar mansions of The Peak. In between, there is a peculiarly Hong Kong kind of middle: the Mid-Levels.

It is one of the best known and most historic places in Hong Kong, and yet its existential state of middleness seems to have left it with a banal reputation as a kind of affluent suburb in the sky. But a walk through the Mid-Levels reveals some of the oldest roads, trees and buildings in Hong Kong, and it says a lot about this city’s ad hoc approach to urban planning.

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The Mid-Levels began to develop soon after the British arrived in Hong Kong. With Central and Sheung Wan increasingly dominated by businesses and migrants from China, and The Peak an arduous journey by sedan chair, the colony’s elite turned their gaze up to the scrubby mountainside just above the city. They were escaping disease exacerbated by overcrowded living conditions, but this being the late 19th century, they were also driven by prejudice towards the Chinese.

“The natural growth and prosperity of the European Community, and the then unchecked invasion of the centre of the city by the Chinese, gradually constrained the few who could afford it to seek quiet and comfort on the higher levels,” reported the Hong Kong Telegraph in 1889.

“Every year saw the select little colony of ‘mansions in the skies’ growing larger, and house property increasing in value.”

A walk up the Central Mid-Levels Escalator and west along Caine Road takes you through the heart of the old Mid-Levels. On the way up the hill, you will pass by the site of one of the earliest buildings in the Mid-Levels was Rose Hill, built near Caine Road and Old Bailey Street in 1849 by Warren Delano, an old-money American, opium smuggler and the grandfather of future US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Delano’s wife, Catherine, recalled her first visit to the mansion in an 1862 diary entry. Arriving by private boat from the United States, Catherine and her daughter Sara were greeted by a “cavalcade” of sedan chairs that hauled them uphill. Catherine describes the experience as “very strange”, recalling how she once again felt like a fan gwei – an epithet similar to gweilo that she remembered from her childhood in Guangzhou.

Other mansions rose along Caine Road. In 1876, Parsee entrepreneur Hormusjee Mody built Buxey Lodge at the corner of Caine Road and Aberdeen Street. With a balustraded roof terrace, rooftop pavilion and cornices painted with elaborate friezes, it was typical of the era’s architecture – a kind of Victorian mash-up of European and Chinese influences.

Just down the street stood Idlewild, built in 1876 by the Murray family, which was later bought by Robert Hotung, an influential Hong Kong businessman and philanthropist. In 1914, Robert’s younger brother Ho Kom-tong built his family a stately manor a few hundred metres away and named it Kom Tong Hall, after himself.

Urban development eventually caught up with the first wave of Mid-Levels residences and their inhabitants sought refuge further up the hill. In 1907, the Mody family built a new home – also called Buxey Lodge – on Conduit Road, and they put up the old Caine Road residence to let. “Suitable for a Boarding House, School, College, or Family Residence, recently painted and renovated throughout,” read a newspaper ad published in May 1909.

“The Mid-Levels is in this awkward in-between space,” says Cole Roskam, an architectural historian at the University of Hong Kong. Peak residents enjoyed the convenience of The Peak Tram, which opened in 1888, but the frontier of Mid-Levels development remained isolated. “It’s difficult to get up there so the residents in the 1910s and ‘20s were still relying on servants to get them up there,” says Roskam.

In some cases, that isolation was the draw. When Armenian-born tycoon Paul Catchick Chater wanted to build a mansion for himself, he chose a particularly craggy spot on Conduit Road that ensured he would not have any neighbours. His home, Marble Hall, opened in 1904 and was particularly sumptuous, built not with local granite but with marble imported from Italy and Greece.

The Mid-Levels also drew many religious and educational institutions. The first Jamia Mosque was built on Shelley Street in 1850; the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception rose on Caine Road in 1888; and the Ohel Leah Synagogue was erected on Robinson Road in 1902.

The boom after the war happened pretty quickly. You had the influx of capital and migrants from China, like wealthy textile magnates from Shanghai, and they began to populate the Mid-Levels
Cole Roskam, an architectural historian at the University of Hong Kong

In 1911, the University of Hong Kong opened on the western edge of the Mid-Levels, thanks to a large donation from Hormusjee Mody, who laid its founding stone and was later knighted for his contribution.

Although the Mid-Levels began to densify in the 1920s and ’30s, with old mansions converted into rooming houses and rows of terrace houses built to accommodate families with less spectacular wealth, it was the years after World War II that brought the most upheaval.

“The boom after the war happened pretty quickly,” says Roskam. “You had the influx of capital and migrants from China, like wealthy textile magnates from Shanghai, and they began to populate the Mid-Levels. There’s also capital flowing in from overseas Chinese communities in places like South America.”

Very quickly, many of the Mid-Level’s original mansions were torn down and replaced by large housing estates like Hong Kong Garden, which was built in 1975 on the site of Idlewild. Its 2,000-square-foot, three-bedroom, three-bathroom flats, each with a spacious balcony and a maid’s quarters, appealed to the city’s burgeoning upper middle class.

The boom had serious consequences. In June 1972, days of torrential rain caused deadly landslides all over Hong Kong, and it loosened the soil in the western Mid-Levels until the mountainside gave way, crushing an entire 13-storey flat tower in a matter of seconds. 67 people were killed in the cascade of mud and rubble.

A week later, the Post described the Mid-Levels as a “ghost town,” with more than 2,000 people evacuated from their homes in case another landslide occurred. A government commission eventually found the landslide had been the result of negligence on the part of destroyed building’s architects and the Public Works Department, but no one faced any criminal consequences.

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And just like that, the Mid-Levels boom continued. The government built highway-style interchanges along Robinson Road, but this simply had the effect of dumping ever more vehicles into narrow roads that hadn’t changed since the 19th century.

By the 1990s, the Post Magazine described a neighbourhood that had reached a crisis point. “The Mid-Levels are under siege,” proclaimed a story by Simon Twiston Davies. Old buildings were quickly disappearing, “pile-drivers boom all day long” and commuters dreaded the daily crawl along potholed streets – “if they aren’t left for up to an hour waiting for a bus.”

Davies described an overloaded sewerage system, a lack of basic services such as a library, and a forest of cheek-by-jowl skyscrapers fuelled by the insatiable demand for property in a neighbourhood that had historically represented success and privilege.

It was a place for people “who have risen so far there is really nowhere else for them to go” – but not far enough to afford places in truly exclusive enclaves like The Peak. In some ways, the situation has not changed.

“Footpaths are narrow and have not been widened to keep up with the enormous density built,” says urban design critic Paul Zimmerman.

Ohel Leah, which you can see by walking along Robinson Road, is a microcosm of the Mid-Level’s changes. Distinguished by its Sephardic-style architecture, its construction was funded by the Sassoon family, who had moved from Baghdad to Hong Kong, via Mumbai, in the 19th century. By the 1980s, however, the synagogue was in disrepair, and it came very close to meeting the wrecking ball.

Instead, its trustees sold its historic garden to Swire Properties, which built a pair of 47-storey flat towers, along with a Jewish community centre and kosher supermarket, that now dominate the site. The synagogue was saved, but it is easy to miss.

Today’s Mid-Levels is a jumble of old and new: historic architecture, towering estates, narrow roads lined by banyan trees growing out of historic stone walls. Some of the area’s original mansions were saved from demolition, often after a public outcry, as in the case of Kom Tong Hall, which the government bought in 2004 and converted into the Dr Sun Yat-sen Museum.

Many of the original religious and educational structures are there, too, including the handsome red-brick King’s College and the striped, 1920s-era Hop Yat Church, both along Bonham Road.

When many of the old mansions were torn down, developers left retaining walls and other historic features in place, such as a guard post outside Marble Hall on Conduit Road. Their nomenclature survives, too: Buxey Lodge is now an 11-storey building; Marble Hall was replaced by Chater Hall Flats, a nod to its original occupant.

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And the social function of the Mid-Levels remains the same as ever, as a wealthy neighbourhood a few notches below the stratosphere of The Peak. As much as the city’s fabric may change, the threads of history still run through it.