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10 facts about Sai Ying Pun you (probably) didn’t know…

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We all know Sai Ying Pun pretty well, don’t we? This area in Western District boasts a still-fairly-new MTR stop between Sheung Wan and HKU on the Island Line. It’s an old area that’s kept its traditional charm while also becoming home to thousands of people from all corners of the world. It’s slowly becoming a pretty trendy place to live. And it also has some of the best small shops and restaurants in Hong Kong, many which have opened up over the past few years. But did you know the following 10 Sai Ying Pun facts?

1. What’s in a name?
The name Sai Ying Pun [西營盤] literally translates from the Cantonese as ‘west camp’. It dates back to as early as 1841, when the British military set up their first camp here before the actual residential area, which was, back then, as small as 300sq m. For the British military, being close to the harbour, of course, had its perks as it was easier to get to the boats in times of emergency. Pretty soon, campsites were set up across SYP. Queen’s Road was the first main thoroughfare to meander through them.

2. Help the aged
SYP is one of the oldest areas in Hong Kong that’s still surviving. Yes, we know it’s home to a close-knit community filled with honest traders and loyal residents but did you know quite how much this district’s culture and heritage has been under threat over the past century? Some residents say that redevelopment projects have caused rent increases that are ‘ridiculous’ over the years, forcing many to move out and the community, at times, to slowly crumble. But many have also stayed and fought to keep the traditional shops, businesses and buildings in place, making for the eclectic SYP community we know and love today.

3. Ghosts up on high
An old building sits at 2 High Street. The Sai Ying Pun Community Complex is a compelling structure in architectural terms, dating back to 1892. It started life as the nursing quarters for European staff at the Civil Hospital but, following the Second World War, it became a mental hospital. During the war, it’s believed that Japanese soldiers used the building for executions. It was abandoned in the 1970s and was left unoccupied for 20 years. All this grisly history means that ghost stories abound at the complex, giving it the local moniker of the ‘haunted house in High Street’. Sightings include a ghoul in traditional Chinese costume who bursts into flames and headless phantoms who run down the corridors at night. Take a look around… if you dare!

4. Making the grade
Did you know that Western District Community Centre in Western Street is a Grade III historic building? It gained the status in September 2009, making it historically significant in SYP but not yet seen as an actual historic monument. It was originally Tsan Yuk Maternity Hospital, opened by English missionary group the London Missionary Society in October 1922. It became the community centre after the Second World War. It boasts exhibition halls, activity rooms and lecture theatres so that an array of organisations can hold educational activities and courses.

5. Precarious pier
Instagram Pier is a famous landmark right at the far end of Sai Ying Pun. Part of the Western District Public Cargo Working Area, it sits on the harbourfront not far from the westernmost tip of Connaught Road West. It’s become popular over the years not just for dog-walkers and fishermen but also for Instagrammers hoping to get that perfect sunset shot when a ‘mirror of the sky’ effect is created. Sounds beautiful. But what you may not know is that it’s hardly the safest place in town. It’s actually not a public place at all and the Marine Department have posted notices referring to public safety. Due to there being no railings, there’s the danger of people falling into the water and this has reportedly happened a few times in the past. Beware…

6. The art of the matter
We bet you’ve passed it many times but never really looked at it. Next time you’re in Sai Ying Pun MTR station, examine the walls on your way to Exit B. So, you knew there were panels depicting art scenes there? You can’t miss them? Well, true but take a closer look. This entire colourful display is all about the diverse culture of Sai Ying Pun itself. Created by Louise Soloway Chan, ‘Inside, Outside, North, South, East, West’ tells the tales of the area over the years through the artist’s eyes. Soloway Chan says the artwork is designed so that passersby can ‘appreciate the living spirit of one of Hong Kong’s most unique and special places’.

7. Sheung Fung was plagued to death
Between Second and Third streets lies Sheung Fung Lane, a thoroughfare with a tragic past. In 1894, Sai Ying Pun was struck by an epidemic of the bubonic plague, also known as Black Death. It was so bad that nearly all the residents living in Sheung Fung Lane were killed in that year. Records after that for SYP show that there were 115 cases in the area in 1896, 153 in 1898, a whopping 263 in 1899, 98 in 1900, 149 in 1904 and 55 in 1905. The majority of all these cases resulted in death. A tragic time for SYP and, for sure, for Sheung Fung Lane.

8. A crappy wall
Many buses and cars pass by ‘Bird Bridge’ in Queen’s Road West every day but how many people spot the bricked-up windows in the wall next to it? The sloping road got its name because once upon a time this was a sea defence in case of a flood and it was along here that bird hawkers would sell their tweeting wares. The ‘windows’, however, are nothing to do with the beaked bargains. They used to be filled with iron grilles rather than bricks because this spot was once a public toilet. That’s right: feathers and flushes in Sai Ying Pun!

9. Tree-years-old
Some of Hong Kong’s oldest stonewall trees are in Sai Ying Pun. The Chinese banyans clinging to the walls surrounding King George V Memorial Park are more than a century old. Stonewall trees are actually grown from the openings in walls to help stop landslides. Many of these trees across Hong Kong were planted between the 19th century and the Second World War. Hong Kong’s tallest tree stood at 20m high on Bonham Road near Centre Street until it sadly fell in a storm in July 2015.

10. A place for a hook-up
Sai Ying Pun used to be the Island’s ‘red light district’. Fact. Following the end of SYP’s history as a military camp, it became a pretty seedy entertainment hub for the pursuits of the day. This included Cantonese opera, bustling bars and, ahem, all those brothels. In the 1880s, there were plenty of these dens of iniquity in First, Second and Third Street, as well as Sheung Fung Lane and Centre Street. Many were closed down, though, by the government as they weren’t licenced. From 1903, however, some brothels that had been booming in Central were relocated to SYP. This area has enjoyed a colourful past, to say the least.

By Ashley Ho

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