Book excerpt: The Heritage Hiker’s Guide to Hong Kong

I’m very pleased to note that The Heritage Hiker’s Guide to Hong Kong has been revised and reprinted in a new edition; and even more pleased that it has been named Susan Blumberg-Kason’s book of the week!

Following is an excerpt. The book is not just walking directions; it’s very visual, with lots of photographs — some modern and some historical — and colour maps for each walk. I’ve included a few random spreads among the text below; click them to view at full size. Happy hiking!

Route 12: Pok Fu Lam

The green western slopes of Hong Kong Island have long been used as a retreat from the city – first by missionaries and dairy farmers, and today by students and wealthier residents. Starting at the Peak and ending atop Mount Davis, this walk will exercise your knees and give you advance views of the heritage sites along the way.

Victoria Gap, where the Peak Tower stands, is a crossroads from which trails lead in half a dozen directions. The entrance to Pok Fu Lam Country Park is easily found directly opposite the bus station, and a car-free road leads straight down into peaceful forest. Old banyans clinging to the stone walls shade your descent into the valley.

These steep hillsides were saved from development by the need to protect Hong Kong’s water sources. This valley was dammed as early as 1863 and a reservoir – the colony’s first – was built down below to supply water to the city. An aqueduct ran around from Pok Fu Lam to Central, giving Conduit Road its name. Major tree planting took place at the same time to prevent soil erosion. Before then, most of Hong Kong Island’s uplands were bare, partly thanks to the grass cutters who scoured the hills to collect kindling. The forest suffered during the war years, when much of it was chopped down for firewood; but it has recovered well and you’re now able to walk through mature woodland.

Camellia and eagle’s claw flowers provide colour beside the path, and birdsong fills the air. In fact, it was the ‘pok fu’ bird which gave Pok Fu Lam its name – lam meaning ‘forest’ – although the original Chinese characters have changed. It’s often pronounced ‘Pock Fulham’ by expats more familiar with the London football club.

At the only fork in the road, turn right to carry on downhill, passing some bricked-up bunkers built by the British Army. The path now skirts the reservoir. Beside the dam, there’s an attractive old building now used by the country parks staff, and facing it an information board with old photos of the area. One picture shows a strange white castle which seems very out of place on the bare hillside. In fact this building is still there: now known as University Hall, it’s hidden from view by trees. As you pass the riding school on your left, the mansion stands above the other side of the road. You can go up the steps and through the low gateway for a closer look.

Douglas Castle, as it was originally called, was built in the 1860s by Scottish taipan Douglas Lapraik to serve as his country home. It looked rather different then: an octagonal penthouse surrounded by battlements commanded all-round sea views, four crenellated corner towers had mock arrow slits, and outhouses were built in identical Victorian Gothic style. The building has undergone many changes over the years and is now used as halls of residence for Hong Kong University students.

Lapraik arrived on the China coast as a young man, travelling to Macau in 1839 to become apprentice to an English watchmaker. Upon the founding of Hong Kong a few years later, he moved to the new colony and quickly became successful in the property and shipping trades. He built a dock at Aberdeen to service Royal Navy vessels, ran a line of steamships up the coast to Amoy and Foochow (modern Xiamen and Fuzhou) and helped establish the Hong Kong Chamber of Commerce. He was one of the investors in the Chinese junk Keying which made history by sailing to London and New York in 1846 – the boat amazed the crowds there, including Queen Victoria, who had never seen such a thing before. Perhaps his most notable legacy was the founding in 1863 of the Hongkong & Whampoa Dock Company. This was the first limited company in Hong Kong – prompting the government to start writing a Companies Ordinance – and its ultimate successor, Cheung Kong, still bears stock code 0001 at the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. The Douglas Steamship Company remained in existence until the 1980s.

After an outstanding career, Lapraik retired to Britain, and Douglas Castle was sold to the French Mission in 1894. The priests renamed it Nazareth House, added a chapel, and installed a printing press which produced religious texts in dozens of Asian languages. A prominent feature added at this time was the cast-iron spiral staircase which connects three floors. In 1954 the building passed into its current ownership; the chapel was converted into a dining hall and the crypt into a common room, and as University Hall it continues to house undergraduate students. Despite the building’s change of name, alumni are known as Castlers.

Béthanie stands on the other side of Pok Fu Lam Road. Built in 1873 by the same French Mission, it was designed as a peaceful retreat and sanatorium for priests returning from missionary work in China and elsewhere in the Far East. The Missions Etrangères de Paris departed in the 1970s, and for many years the building deteriorated while being used as a storehouse by Hong Kong University Press. Since 2003 it has been occupied by the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, who have renovated it in innovative style: in particular, the original pitched roof, which was removed at some point in the past, has been reinstated using glass panels instead of tiles. The project won the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Award in 2008.

There’s a French Mission museum in the former wine cellar which is open every day until 6:00pm, and guided tours of the building are also conducted. The Bauhinia blakeana, Hong Kong’s official floral emblem, was discovered growing in the gardens of Béthanie by French priests in the 1880s.

On the far side of the building, two octagonal cowsheds have survived from the earliest days of Hong Kong’s milk industry – they gave rise to the company which became Dairy Farm. It was a Scottish pioneer of tropical medicine, Dr Patrick Manson, who came up with the idea of establishing a farm to supply hygienic fresh milk to the European population of Hong Kong. Eighty cows were imported and the Dairy Farm company began operations in 1886. The company later diversified into running supermarkets, in a joint venture with the Lane Crawford department store, until it bought the Wellcome retail chain and became part of the Jardines group.

The Pok Fu Lam farm was closed in 1983, and the two cattle sheds have now been converted into a performance space – one as a tiny theatre and the other as a foyer, which also has a small photo exhibition of the site’s history. Down the hill from these, another of the old Dairy Farm buildings is now used by the Chinese Cuisine Training Institute.

Across the road, Pok Fu Lam Village may look like a shanty town but it is in fact one of the few indigenous settlements remaining on Hong Kong Island. A lot of villagers were formerly employed on the dairy farm. Today, some of them grow crops on land which must be worth billions. Besides a large earth god shrine, the village has an unusual brick tower called the Lee Ling Immortal Pagoda which dates from about 1910.

Take a bus now a few stops north, passing the Queen Mary Hospital, to alight at the Chinese Christian Cemetery. The site has excellent fung shui, with wooded hills behind it and an unencumbered view out to sea. A stairway leads straight down through the terraces to the Pavilion of Eternity – ‘Erected by Wing Lock Tong, May 1951’ – and then to Victoria Road. Bear right and then take the steps down into a ramshackle stonemasons’ village. At the foot of the hill you’ll find the gates to the Tung Wah Coffin Home, a complex of buildings reminiscent of old Macau.

From the late 19th century onwards, tens of thousands of mainland Chinese people passed through Hong Kong on their way to Southeast Asia, North America, Australia and other places where fortunes in tin, gold or plain labour could be made. When they died, their wish was to be buried in their ancestral lands, and so their bodies were sent back the way they came. There was a need for temporary storage of their remains until transport could be found back to China, particularly in times of strife on the mainland, and so the trustees of the Man Mo temple on Hollywood Road founded the first coffin home in Kennedy Town in 1875. This was moved to the present site in 1899, and the Tung Wah Hospital took over its management. It is still in use; good burial plots can be hard to find in crowded Hong Kong, and caskets and urns can be kept here until one becomes available.

The site was nicely restored in 2004, winning praise from the Hong Kong Heritage Awards, but it’s private and you may not be allowed into the compound.

Further west along Victoria Road, Felix Villas is an elegant terrace of houses built in the 1920s and now used as quarters for university staff. Beyond it, a foundation stone for Victoria Road is set into its junction with Mount Davis Road. This was laid in 1897 to mark Queen Victoria’s 60th year on the throne; construction of the road commenced at the same time and was named in her honour. It was moved to its present site in 1977, coincidentally also a royal jubilee year, and a plate notes this fact.

On the coastal side of the road further on from here, a compound of white buildings behind a high wall has no sign, nor any official name on maps; not even a street number. Since the handover in 1997, it has been slowly crumbling into the surrounding greenery. Originally the mess of the Royal Engineers, the compound was transferred to the police force in the 1950s for use as a secret prison for Taiwanese spies – the colonial government was keen to avoid Hong Kong being used as a proxy battleground for Chinese Nationalist and Communist forces, and Special Branch detained anyone suspected of engaging in espionage.

But it was in 1967 that things really heated up. That summer, Hong Kong was rocked by riots inspired by the chaos of the Cultural Revolution over the border. Home-made bombs were planted in the streets. Leftists called strikes which paralysed public transport. Unionist demonstrators clashed with police, pro-Beijing crowds waving Mao’s red book picketed Government House, and a radio journalist who opposed the violence was murdered. At the border town of Sha Tau Kok, Chinese militia shot and killed a group of Hong Kong police officers. Fearing a possible invasion, the government decided to take radical action: pro-communist schools and newspapers were closed down, and the police were granted special powers to arrest leftist leaders. This involved the world’s first helicopter raids on multi-storey buildings. The political prisoners were brought to Pok Fu Lam and held in solitary confinement until the disturbances were over.

This hard-line response was generally supported by the Hong Kong public – the leftists’ violence having turned public opinion against them – and in appreciation of its steadfastness, the Hong Kong Police Force was later given the prefix ‘Royal’, which it kept until 1997. In Macau, by contrast, the Portuguese authorities failed to maintain order during the unrest, and control of the enclave was effectively handed over to China thirty years early.

The ‘white house’ compound may last have been used in 1989, when democratic activists smuggled away from the massacre in Tiananmen Square were debriefed here before being sent abroad. The Beijing crackdown prompted Hong Kong people of all political stripes to assist an emergency ‘underground railroad’ operation. Led by the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, which still organizes the annual commemoration in Victoria Park, Operation Yellow Bird helped hundreds of students and intellectuals escape from the mainland. One such person involved was Lo Hoi-sing; formerly Hong Kong’s top man in China as head of the Trade Development Council’s Beijing office, his involvement in the rescue missions landed him in a mainland jail, and his career never recovered. Most of the details of the risky operation remain a secret.

Special Branch was disbanded as 1997 approached – some local detectives were given British passports to protect them from any post-handover retaliation – and the buildings have been empty since then.

The final stretch of this route involves a hike up quiet Mount Davis Path. A flight of 365 steps leads up to an isolated youth hostel, from which backpackers can enjoy 270-degree views of Victoria Harbour. To save their legs, a shuttle bus service links it to Sheung Wan.

Past the hostel, and up a steep slope built to haul giant 9.2-inch guns to the summit of this coastal peak, you’ll find the ruins of an extensive system of fortifications. Mount Davis is well positioned to guard the western approaches to the harbour, and five gun emplacements were built here in the early years of the 20th century to ward off potential French or Russian fleets. More cannons were installed at Jubilee Battery, at the foot of the peak. They were of little use against a land-based army, however, so were unable to defend Hong Kong during the Japanese invasion from the mainland in 1941. They came under heavy aircraft attack during the assault – and the damage can still be seen – but the last defenders held out right until the surrender on Christmas Day.

As well as exploring the bunkers, tunnels and command posts, you can end your walk the same way it was started: with panoramic views of sea and islands.

4 thoughts on “Book excerpt: The Heritage Hiker’s Guide to Hong Kong”

  1. Thanks so much for the blog mention! I was just talking about your book today with some friends who had lived at Pok Fu Lam and are back in the US now. I think I’ve only been to Pok Fu Lam once, and that was to meet a student I taught English to on the weekend. Now with your book, I have a ton of new places to see in Hong Kong!

  2. In 1957 I arrived in Hong Kong on the SS President Wilson – I clearly recall peering through a porthole and watching a large chinese junk with a beautiful red sail glide by. I was at the time 18 months old and this became my very first memory. I also remember the spanking I received for leaning too close to that same porthole.

    My parents had traveled through and to Hong Kong many times from the late 1940’s and throughout the 50’s. Our house growing up was filled with Chinese and Japanese and indonesian and Phillipine art and artifacts. Today I have a Dong Kingman of Kowloon in my living room that was my fathers.

    My point being of course that Hong Kong looms large in my life and has caused me to return once a decade approximately.

    Today, in my 60’s, I walk about 6-10 miles a day – therefore my next visit will be to do the entire heritage track. I look forward to planning the adventure. Thank you!

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