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A historic four-storey verandah-type shophouse in Tsim Sha Tsui. Photo: SCMP

Hong Kong advocates call for better protection of pre-war building once used for spying against Japanese during World War II

  • Sons of original owner of four-storey veranda-type shophouse carried out underground intelligence work during Japanese occupation, according to report
  • Advocates pushing for preservation of building say structure is city’s only pre-World War II European-style building in Tsim Sha Tsui

A historic building set to be demolished in Hong Kong was used to carry out underground intelligence work against the Japanese by the sons of the original owner during the second world war, according to a group of advocates calling for its preservation.

The team, formed by experts in tourism, urban studies, architecture and history, said in a research report released on Sunday that the grade three structure in Tsim Sha Tsui, built before 1937, was the city’s only building directly related to intelligence work carried out during World War II, and among a few private buildings requisitioned by Japanese forces during the occupation between 1941 and 1945.

Located on the southeast corner of Austin Road and Nathan Road, the four-storey veranda-type shophouse is also the only pre-war European-style building of its type in Tsim Sha Tsui and one of only about 20 remaining pre-war European-style structures and tenement buildings on a street corner on Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, according to the report.

Advocates call for the preservation of a historic building located in Tsim Sha Tsui. Photo: Jonathan Wong

“It is not just a European-style building in Tsim Sha Tsui. It has significant historical interest to Hong Kong,” said Paul Chan Chi-yuen, a member of the group who also co-founded local tourist company Walk In Hong Kong.

“We are calling for the Antiquities Advisory Board to reassess it, and classify it as a grade one historical building for better preservation.”

In 2018, the structure was classified as a grade three building under the city’s three-tier grading system for historical buildings, meaning it has some merit but did not qualify to be considered as a possible monument. Only those with grade one accreditation are considered as buildings with outstanding merit and warranting every effort to preserve them.

The property is owned by Tai Sang Land Development and is used for commercial purposes. But plans to demolish the structure were approved last year, prompting the group as well as others to call for its preservation.

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During their research, Chan and his team spoke to third- and fourth-generation descendants of the building’s original owner, Lau Tsung-tai, and found that the family relocated from the United States to Hong Kong in 1929 and built it between 1932 and 1937.

The neighbourhood was once a gathering place among Japanese officials and soldiers during the occupation, and the family’s Western-style restaurant called Cafe Evergreen on the ground floor of the building was requisitioned by the Japanese.

According to the group, Lau’s two sons Henry Chan and William Chan, who were both educated in the US, used the place to observe Japanese ships and report intelligence to the British Army Aid Group. They were both caught and later died.

History teacher Rusty Tsoi Yiu-lun, a member of the group, said the place was closely connected to not only the history of overseas Chinese returning to Hong Kong but also a dark period in the city’s past amid the Japanese occupation.

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“If we look at the place in Hong Kong’s history and the history of the Chinese, as well as the history of the second world war, its historical value is higher than the previous assessment,” he said.

Alfred Ho Shahng-herng, founder and director of the Urban Studies Institute, said the building also showed significant architectural merit and authenticity.

“The place underwent the second world war and the city’s development over the past decades, but has still been well maintained. It is worth preserving,” he said.

Chan said the group planned to submit the report to the Antiquities Advisory Board on Monday, and urged the board to reassess the structure and make it a grade one building.

The Post has contacted the board as well as the Tai Sang Land Development for comment.