Western Hong Kong Island: A Walk Back in Time

78 comments
Asia, Hong Kong
Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences

Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences

History is a subject many people scrutinize with frown on their faces, one that triggers discussions and evoke memories, both good and bad. It also is a terrific means to raise a optimism and bring purpose, particularly in a world where tragedy is what sells on the news.

One Saturday morning James took me to the neighborhoods in Hong Kong Island’s western districts to visit what has become his campus since 2013, and to retrace another chapter in Hong Kong’s history, including one that really tested the island like never before.

Under the grey winter sky, an early 20th century red brick Edwardian-style building stood out in the dense neighborhood at the western part of the island’s Mid-Levels – a terraced upscale residential area perched along Hong Kong Island’s rugged hills. ‘Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences’ the signboard read, hanging above the arched entrance.

Inside, displays of laboratory tools and equipment reminded me of chemistry classes in high school, but instead of witnessing teenagers’ mischief, the ones at the museum saw a much gloomy time when a plague spread in the former British colony, claiming thousands of lives.

Following civil unrest in mainland China during the late 19th century, a massive influx of refugees flocked to the then British-controlled island of Hong Kong, forcing them to live in dense tenements with little to none sanitation system at all, a hotbed for any plague outbreaks. And that was exactly what happened in 1894.

Earlier that year, a bubonic plague broke out in Canton, the Chinese province bordering the British tiny outpost. Months later it reached Hong Kong and infected many residents of Tai Ping Shan, the ground zero of the outbreak where poor Chinese workers lived. Over the period of 1894 – 1901 the plague subsided and reemerged in annual basis, with February to July as the worst months.

British government officials did whatever they could to curb the plague from spreading even further. The entire Tai Ping Shan settlement was eventually torn down and replaced by a new residential compound equipped with proper drainage and ventilation. House to house searches were carried out to detect any infected resident as a preemptive measure, a task proved to be very difficult since families hid anyone having the disease in their houses from officials’ sight.

A section in the museum described how in one house the dead body of a family member was dressed up and seated around the dining table in such way that when government officials entered the house all they saw was a family having dinner together without signs of anyone sick in the house.

In the years that followed better sanitation and medical research led to the eventual disappearance of the disease from the island in the early 20th century, partly thanks to the newly founded Pathological Institute occupying a red brick building in Hong Kong Island’s west – today’s Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences.

A Gem from the British Colonial Era

A Gem from the British Colonial Era

Dr. Sun Yat-sen in Mosaic Tiles

Dr. Sun Yat-sen in Mosaic Tiles

The Stairs of Mid-Levels

The Stairs of Western Mid-Levels

Renovated Tenements of Wing Lee Street

Renovated Tenements of Wing Lee Street

A short walk from the museum, another building formerly used for medical purposes stood on a quiet intersection. The Old Mental Hospital’s grey facade was the only remaining part of the hospital for the rest of the building was rebuilt into a community center following decades of abandonment. The granite exterior and red brick veranda, built in 1892, are now fully restored and provide a unique colonial touch to the otherwise modern neighborhood.

Less than a kilometer from the community center the University of Hong Kong complex sprawled over green hills of the western end of Hong Kong’s Mid-Levels. At the southeastern side within the compound, the Eliot Hall stood graciously with two spiral staircases exuding British colonial ambiance among modern structures across the campus. Dating back to 1911, the university, also known as HKU, is the oldest in Hong Kong, its reputable programs considered among the best in Asia.

Less known to most people was the University Museum and Art Gallery, occupying a small building at the northeastern corner of the complex, facing Bonham Road. Housing a broad selection of some of the best cultural heritage from China including ceramics, sculptures, minority peoples’ traditional outfits and other artifacts, the museum owed its vast collection to a number of art collectors who wished to showcase the wealth of Chinese antiquities to younger generations.

Outside the museum, dozens of small to medium-sized statues adorned the garden, a dog-like creature with fierce look and long canine teeth which was also the mascot of the museum. Information on the character is scarce, its history is barely known to most people. So are many chapters in history, some as palpable as an open book, some shrouded in clouds of mystery, others lost forever.

Preserving old buildings not only does add charm to their surroundings, but also provides the people with a platform to learn from past mistakes, reconnect with their roots, and prevent history from slipping into oblivion. It truly is in everyone’s best interest to conserve them, for the greater good of the society is what can be achieved by doing so.

The Facade of the Old Mental Hospital

The Facade of the Old Mental Hospital

Arched Veranda of the Present-Day Community Center

Arched Veranda of the Present-Day Community Center

Concrete Overgrown by Nature

Concrete Overgrown by Nature

Hap Yat Church amid Hong Kong's Highrises

Hap Yat Church Nestled amid Modern Buildings

Hap Yat Church, Upon A Closer Inspection

Hap Yat Church, A Closer Look

Eliot Hall at the University of Hong Kong

Eliot Hall at the University of Hong Kong

A Building inside the University Complex

A Building inside the University Complex

Bright Colors on A Cloudy Day

Bright Colors on A Cloudy Day

Ornately Decorated Wooden Panel at the University Museum and Art Gallery

Ornately Decorated Wooden Panel at the University Museum and Art Gallery

A Mythical Creature, the Museum's Mascot

A Chinese Mythical Creature, the Museum’s Mascot

Typical Neighborhood at Sai Ying Pun

Typical Neighborhood at Sai Ying Pun

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

78 thoughts on “Western Hong Kong Island: A Walk Back in Time”

    • Merci pour ce bon commentaire, Chloé. Il y a beaucoup de trésors à découvrir dans cette île.

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  1. Cerita yang menarik, Bama. Tapi aku malah terbius oleh gambar-gambar keren yang kamu tangkap lewat kamera. Sebagai pencinta bangunan tua, ini semacam melihat berkotak-kotak harta karun banget bagiku hehehe

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    • Makasih Halim. Kamu pasti suka mengeksplor sisi Hong Kong yang ini. Banyak bangunan tua, gereja tua, dan lingkungannya itu sendiri juga menarik untuk dijelajahi dan dipotret. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “… the dead body of a family member was dressed up and seated around the dining table in such way that when government officials entered the house all they saw was a family having dinner together without signs of anyone sick in the house.” <—- suddenly I remember to Memento Mori or Post Mortem Photography that became trend during the Victorian Era.

    Btw it's good to see how they preserve those colonial buildings, while here we tend to break them down and change them to a-boring-and-average modern-buildings.

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  3. I had no idea about this plague – must have been a terrible time and the people desperate. An interesting introduction to some HK history and architecture.

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    • I, too, only learned about the plague when I visited the museum. How the island overcame the tragedy is a lesson people around the world should know, so they won’t have to face the same ordeal.

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  4. I like the way you describe the importance of conserving/preserving tangible history, “Preserving old buildings not only does add charm to their surroundings, but also provides the people with a platform to learn from past mistakes, reconnect with their roots, and prevent history from slipping into oblivion.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. Some people hate history because they say the future is what really matters. But to me learning history is a way to ensure that we don’t make the same mistakes all over again.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Girl Gone Expat says:

    Lovely photos from a piece of the world I have yet to visit. The influence from the British colony is very clear. I fully agree with your comments on preserving history, both the good and the bad. How else will we learn and understand? 🙂

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    • Thank you, Inger. Asia has a fair share of beautiful colonial buildings, from Hong Kong to Singapore, Myanmar, and the Philippines to name some. I believe we should preserve those buildings not only because they are pretty, but also because we can learn so much about their history.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Amazing pictures! What an interesting trip! As you said, we should definitely preserve the old buildings. History should be preserved as much as possible. Thank you for the virtual tour! It was lovely.

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    • Thank you, Lucy. Glad you enjoyed this post. 🙂
      Preserving history means preserving all the lessons and knowledge from the past, to make our future better.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Another great look at the amazing history of Hong Kong ~ so well written and accompanied by great photos. Nothing quite like taking a look back at history, and the incredible path HK has taken to become the great city it is today.

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    • Wow, thank you for your kind words, Randall. When I was at the museum I couldn’t help to think how this once plague-ridden island is now one of the most modern in Asia. That itself is something to learn from.

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  8. Bama the history of the plague is both fascinating and disturbing. Hard to imagine being in the midst of such distress.

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    • We all surely hope that no one has to go through such difficult time in his/her life. That’s why we need museums like this so people can learn in an interesting way.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I liked your post! I love to walk around modern cities and find arquitectonic gems and wonder about their stories. Sometimes the story is so amazing I would have never guessed!

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    • Thank you, Rebeca. Each old building has its own story that we can learn. Preserving those gems means preserving the lessons and knowledge.

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  10. Bama, thanks for sharing this fascinating and insightful post. The Museum of Medical Sciences is one of my favourite colonial buildings here in Hong Kong – I was a bit disappointed the first time you came when we walked by and found it under scaffolding. Sadly the plague was not the end of Hong Kong’s brushes with large-scale disease. There were cholera outbreaks in the early sixties and of course we were at the epicentre of SARS in 2003. I wouldn’t want to relive those times of fear – Hong Kong felt like a ghost town and my brother didn’t leave the house for three whole weeks.

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    • Well, thank you for taking me there, James! 🙂 I can see why it’s one of your favorite colonial buildings in Hong Kong, it really is a beautiful and well-maintained building. You know, the bubonic plague provided HK with an invaluable lesson about health, hygiene, and sanitation. But as the economy boomed, population grew, and land became scarcer, it’s easy to for the city to slip into similar situation again. It was really chilling to hear your story about how HK became literally a ghost city during the SARS outbreak. Hopefully that will never happen again.

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    • Meskipun Hong Kong kotanya padat, tapi dibandingkan Jakarta sih masih jauh lebih rapi. Thank you Kak Cumi.

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  11. Stunning pictures, as always, I just wish your texts were shorter so I could finish reading them. I’m very short on time these days and as much as I’d love to devour every single word I can’t. 😦

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    • Thank you, and I’m sorry for the long post. It’s really hard to sum up what I felt and learned in fewer words, but I really do appreciate your comment and input.

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      • Don’t be sorry for the long posts, I’m sure the information is very very interesting and I would love to read all your articles! It’s not you, it’s me and my lack of time 😉 I will keep looking at your stunning pictures and one day I’ll have enough time to read everything. Keep the great work up!

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    • Hi Chan. Makasih udah baca.
      Well, understanding a place’s history makes any trip more memorable, at least for me. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • And this is at Mid-Levels, just a short walking distance from Hong Kong’s skyscrapers. It really is a city of contrasts, by all means.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Enjoyed your wonderful photos accompanied by your historical perspective very much Bama. Hong Kong was a colony longer, but still, the state of preservation of its colonial buildings puts the rest of the region to shame. I know awareness is increasing, but not fast enough in India at least. Thanks for another lovely post.

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    • Hope your planning is going well and all is under control. We are nearly back to normal now, although, SIL’s dad didn’t make it sadly.

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      • I’m really sorry for the loss, Madhu. My deepest condolences to you and your son-in-law’s family.

        The planning is pretty much under control despite the recent hiccups.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Even so, James thinks that Singapore has been doing a better job in preserving its colonial heritage than Hong Kong. In Indonesia conservationists are also racing against time to raise people’s awareness towards the benefits of preserving our colonial heritage. Basically we, as bloggers, take part in that effort, don’t we? Thanks for reading, Madhu.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Hi Bama, thank you for walking us back in time in Western HK. I enjoy the architecture and HK landscape that is so unfamiliar to many and the history. I didn’t know that the island was heavily plagued by bubonic disease. I find it interesting to what serious extent the authorities went to curtail the spread of the plague and to what extent the families would hide the sickness within the family. Beautiful photos and narratives.

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    • I think it is one of the chapters in HK’s history many people are unaware of, including myself prior to visiting the museum. Such a terrible ordeal it really was, and we all surely hope that it won’t happen again in the future. Thank you, Marisol.

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  14. Gara says:

    The arched veranda reminds me of Lawang Sewu’s, except this one in Hongkong is far more preserved (and more colorful) than that of Semarang :huhu. even the tree’s roots look preserved, too.
    In short, the places are awesome, and so are the photos :)).

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    • The good thing is today Lawang Sewu has been partially restored to its former glory. It may take a few more years to complete the restoration work, but at least it’s going to the right direction. Thank you, Gara. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Gara says:

        Yes, I hope so, too, Bama :)). I hope we could restore Lawang Sewu’s glory as a historical landmark of this country. You’re welcome!

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