From Mei Ho House to the World

27 comments
Asia, Hong Kong
Mei Ho House Public Housing Museum

Mei Ho House Public Housing Museum

China, 1946. The World War II ended just a few months earlier, ending the brutal Japanese occupation on China. For decades the armed forces of the Republic of China and the Chinese Communist Party fought against a common enemy. But as soon as the Japanese were defeated, skirmishes between the nationalist Kuomintang and the communist forces engulfed China for years that followed.

Eventually the People’s Liberation Army successfully gained control of much of China, forcing the Kuomintang-led nationalist forces to flee to the island of Taiwan.

In October 1946 a baby was born in Guangzhou amid the dire civil war that was spread throughout mainland China. As the communist forces gained more grounds, the new Chinese leader, Mao Zedong, imposed strict limitations toward bourgeois families as well as religious groups, such an unfortunate turn of event for the baby as he was born into a Christian family. Then at the age of five he and the rest of the family sought refuge in the British colony of Hong Kong, escaping persecution they would have faced back home.

In the shantytown of Shek Kip Mei in Kowloon they later settled down together with thousands of Chinese immigrants escaping from the communist regime. However life in their new land turned out to be very challenging as resources were scarce, and the baby was not exempted from the hardship.

As if their lives hadn’t been miserable enough, on Christmas 1953 a huge fire destroyed much of the settlement, leaving 40 people dead and more than 50,000 homeless. Soon after the catastrophe, the then Hong Kong governor Alexander Grantham commissioned the construction of residential buildings on the grounds of the burned makeshift huts.

Eight blocks of new multi-storeyed buildings were completed and the immigrants soon moved to their new and more decent houses. Mei Ho House, or Block 41 as it used to be called, was where the two parents and their young son started a new chapter in life.

As the young man grew up he found his new interest and passion in musical films, and when he was 23 years old he started his career in the film industry as a script supervisor. Years afterward his career went anywhere but down. Becoming an assistant director two years after he started working in the industry and a director three years later, he gradually established himself as one of the finest and most promising directors in Hong Kong.

In 1993 the Asian director moved to the United States to seek better fortune and greater exposure to Hollywood. After struggling with some of his first movies since he moved to his new country, in 1997 finally he made a breakthrough with the blockbuster film Face/Off, starring John Travolta and Nicholas Cage.

As though he was following where the money went, in 2008 he moved back to Asia in the time where China was undergoing stellar economic growth and hosted its first Olympic Games. Soon he proved his prowess through his first film after leaving the US: Red Cliff. Portraying the events which occurred at the end of the Han Dynasty, the epic film became a box office hit not only in China but also in Asia.

Life started very challenging for him, but with perseverance he managed to become who he is today. And the man’s name is John Woo.

The Once Public Housing

The Sole Survivor

A Model of It Looked Like in Its Heyday

A Model of Mei Ho House in Its Early Years

Decades later seven of eight Shek Kip Mei residential buildings were torn down to make way for new housing developments, leaving Mei Ho House as the last one standing due to its historical values. Nevertheless the sole survivor was in the state of neglect until 2011 when renovation works were started to turn the derelict old building into a youth hostel and a museum.

Today the bright and clean building houses a museum that is modest in size but rich in information on the history of Hong Kong’s first public housing project. The first two floors are dedicated for showcasing relics from Shek Kip Mei’s past with artifacts collected from around the building and donated by former residents.

Different types of housing units, each fitted with tools and equipment from the 1950s, alongside with grocery shops filled with fake yet realistic models of food and goods people consumed back in the days give a glimpse of how the Chinese immigrants lived in their new land.

The preservation of such building not only gives its former residents a means to jog their nostalgic memories, but also provides others a window to look back to the past and learn. Because preserving history is invaluable.

A Typical Bedroom

A Typical Cramped Bedroom

Kerosene Stoves

Old-Style Kerosene Stoves

Luxury was Nonexistent

Luxury was Nonexistent

A Grocery Store Packed with Items Needed in Daily Basis

A Grocery Store Packed with Basic Needs

Different Types of Rice

Different Types of Rice

Dried Noodles

Dried Noodles

A Better Residential Unit

A More ‘Spacious’ Residential Unit

Vestiges of the Past

Vestiges of the Past

Mahjong Blocks

Mahjong Blocks

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

27 thoughts on “From Mei Ho House to the World”

  1. A fascinating rags to riches story Bama! I would never have guessed from its facade that the Mei Ho house was once a derelict public housing project! It is great that its historical value has been recognised. Are these kind of tenements uncommon in Hong Kong now? I know they are prevalent across India.

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    • I was, too, fascinated by the story, Madhu. It’s always inspiring to read the stories of people who managed to achieve big things in their lives despite their humble beginnings. That kind of public housing building was the first of its kind in Hong Kong, many have been torn down and replaced with newer buildings, so only a handful of such tenement remain intact.

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  2. Fascinating revisitation of a past era, although I gather from the displays that they have been sanitized somewhat. I guess actual conditions were much rougher.

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    • I’m sure they were, like how artifacts in museum are usually displayed. Life must have been tougher back then.

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  3. A very insightful post, Bama. I’m so glad we had the time to visit Mei Ho House when you were in Hong Kong; it was an eye-opener for me too.

    The story of how John Woo’s family ended up in Hong Kong is just one of many thousands – and those oral histories still feed into the distrust of the Communist Party even today. Reading this, I couldn’t help thinking of my own grandparents: they also came from Christian backgrounds and were forced to flee Shanghai after the Communists took over. I could easily write a long post about the things they went through…

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    • Thank you, James. If it was not because of you, I would have been completely unaware of this place and missed out John Woo’s story altogether. Actually when I was writing this post I remembered the story of your grandparents as they escaped China for the same reason. And both ended up very successfully in their new lands. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Sue. I’m glad the government decided to keep Mei Ho House as it provides a nice alternative for those who want to learn more about Hong Kong history beyond the usual places.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Nandito! If you love exploring big cities beyond their usual attractions, then don’t miss Mei Ho House when you’re in HK.

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      • Yeahh city explorer and beach love so much. Still hunt low cost ticket :D. Btw, have u been visit fiji island? What a wonderful island?

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      • I was lucky because when I went to HK earlier this year Tigerair Mandala still flew there. I have yet to visit Fiji, but I really would love to. Indonesian travelers need to transit in Australia though.

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      • I currently work in a small bank, so my days off are kind of limited at the moment.

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    • Thank you, Diane. A visit to Mei Ho House reminds me that even the most unassuming places have interesting stories if we dig deep enough.

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  4. Wonderful post Bama ~ demonstrating the great hardships and incredible spirit of those who made HK was it is today. The story of John Woo was a great touch ~ and the photos, as always, telling such an interesting story with your perspective & touch. Cheers!

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    • Thank you, Randall. Last night I read an interesting story of a second generation Chinese immigrant whose father came to HK and had to endure the archetypal hardship many 20th century immigrants faced. Both John Woo and that man’s stories are truly inspiring. Thank you again for such kind words! Cheers!

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  5. Hi Bama, once again you have exhibited your beautiful skill as a writer in this piece – you successfully engaged my attention in your story about John Woo.You have creatively woven his story to put an interesting twist to the narrative about Mei Ho House and its residents. Back to Woo, his story is remarkable indeed. It’s grea that they preserved part of the house and turned it into museum. I think its important for generation of today what the older ones had gone through and hopefully it will give them more appreciate of their lives today,.

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    • Wow Marisol, you really made my day! Thank you for your kind words, as always. 🙂 It really is important for young people to learn about the importance of perseverance to achieve their dreams, because today a lot of them are more used to getting quick results and ignoring the process.

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  6. Pingback: Mei Ho House | bluebalu: Living in Hong Kong

  7. I stayed here when i was visiting HK 2 years ago. I didn’t know this building also an exhibit of HK old era. The era that i’ve watched from Cantonese movie ala Wong Kar Wai. I’ll definitely back and stay in this hostel next year.

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    • There is a museum at one side of the building. So now you know what to see and explore the next time you stay there. 🙂

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