One word that occurs far too frequently these days is “colonial”. Overused by cliché-prone travel and architecture writers attempting to describe settings better termed “retro” or “recherché”, stereotypical “colonial style” is epitomised by window shutters, ceiling fans, rattan furniture and potted palms.
The colonies needed a metropolitan area to copy, but early Hong Kong’s building styles were not modelled upon anywhere in Britain. Parts of Hong Kong, such as The Peak, eventually developed a subtropical, homesick-Scottish-Highlands architectural pastiche. Tartly described as stockbroker’s baronial, much as its half-timbered, mock-gabled, English suburban equivalent became derided as stockbroker’s Tudor, both styles were widely replicated everywhere from Nairobi to Melbourne.
Hong Kong is firmly anchored in the subtropics, and some architectural exemplars had to be found elsewhere within those zones that had been proven to keep buildings as cool as possible during the humid, typhoon-drenched summer months, as well as warm in the short period when the colony gets cold. The solutions were found in two places: Macau and Calcutta. On roughly the same latitude, both experienced similar climatic conditions to the new British colony.
Calcutta was the Canton delta’s major external trading partner for more than a century; for the merchants and traders of various ethnicities who made their homes and lives on the China coast for nearly three centuries before the establishment of Hong Kong and the treaty ports, the Portuguese territory of Macau was their home-away-from-home. It was to these two cities, and their practical building styles that Hong Kong’s early European residents looked for guidance, inspiration and a comforting sense of the familiar in a new and untested place.
In both Calcutta and Macau, deep balconies and verandas helped create shade and shadow. Walls not in direct sunlight remained cooler, as did the interiors they enclosed. Judiciously planted shade trees – many, such as the early bauhinia varieties, were imported from Calcutta – along with vines trained on pergolas, trellises or wires, were vital; greenery efficiently absorbs heat from sunlight. Window shutters allowed light and breezes to enter, yet kept out glare, and afforded some privacy from the world outside.
To the modern eye, fireplaces are of little point beyond a nostalgic nod to “the Old Country”, yet for nine months of the year, chimneys performed a cooling function; their open jaw provided a hypocaust – known from Roman and Persian times – which allowed still, hot air from the room to rise through the chimney and disperse above the roof. Altering the flue allowed prevailing breezes to be directed downwards, creating a pleasantly welcome draught in rooms below on hot summer days.
Pastel colours added brightness to interior and exterior walls, and these pigments were intended for preservation as well as decoration. Indigo mixed with whitewash added a potent insecticide to the primary mould-inhibiting function of lime wash. Sulphur added to the same base ingredients (also to repel insect pests) created the delicate lemon yellows commonplace in Macau and the richer ochre shades seen across Indochina. Sulphur/whitewash proportions varied with the volume of wood to be protected. Pinks and reds were usually derived from iron-rich ox blood.
Decorative features, such as fanlights, were also borrowed. Carved plasterwork and other ornamental designs were made from lime plaster, with skills transplanted by Indian craftsmen, and techniques originally acquired in Goa and Cochin, gradually migrated to Macau by way of Malacca.
All of these features were colonial adaptations to existing metropolitan building styles. Each lent something different to early Hong Kong, which in time evolved its own vernacular architectural styles.