Postal services were established in Hong Kong in August 1841, less than nine months after the British flag was first raised. Initially operated by the military, procedures were eventually civilianised and a postmaster general was appointed in 1860. The first Hong Kong stamps were issued in 1862. Until the 1997 handover, the British garrison maintained its own postal address, British Forces Post Office (BFPO 1). Mail sent to Britain through it was charged at the standard British inland rate.
The old General Post Office in Central, where World-Wide House is now located, was built on reclaimed land in 1911 and eventually demolished in the 1970s, after the site was sold for redevelopment. Parts of the building survive. Timberwork and panelling were scavenged and subsequently used on a house on The Peak. The distinctive local granite pillars from the entrance were also salvaged and can now be seen - if you know where to look - halfway up the hillside at Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden, in the New Territories.
In this age of e-mail and other forms of immediate - and sometimes over-immediate - electronic contact with all corners of the world, many forget the enjoyment of letters and written communication. The pleasures of a holiday postcard sent to friends at home, and the effort and thought involved in such a simple gesture, are underrated. A motto salvaged from the old General Post Office can be seen in the current building in Connaught Place. On a teakwood arch, painted words taken from the biblical book of Proverbs note the old truth: "As cold waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country." This plaque was relocated and unveiled at the opening of the new building in 1976.
While sea mail to Europe took at least a month to six weeks, turnaround for non-urgent, surface-carried news could easily be several months. Telegrams existed from the 1870s, when submarine cables reached Hong Kong, but the costs were exorbitant and even up until their demise, most people used telegrams only in cases of death and dire emergency. It was the same with international telephone calls - these had to be booked in advance and cost a small fortune and, more often than not, voices crackled incomprehensibly down the line.
The old Wan Chai Post Office on Queen's Road East - one of the earliest buildings gazetted as a monument in Hong Kong - has been preserved for its heritage value. Attractive enough in a utilitarian kind of way, the building is now dwarfed by rampant development all around. As with police stations, waterworks, prisons and old barrack buildings, declaring a post office a heritage site is an easy way to mollify public demand for conservation. At the same time, such designations minimise the need to compensate private owners for their loss of development opportunities. A cynical assessment, perhaps, but one nevertheless firmly anchored in local political and economic realities.
It will be interesting to note the level of public outcry that ensues when - before long - the current General Post Office in Central is put up for redevelopment tender. No doubt there will be those - there always are - who loudly proclaim the building's unmistakable heritage value and striking architectural importance, and insist that it must be preserved as part of Hong Kong's precious collective memory at all possible costs.