David Bellis, creator of Hong Kong history website Gwulo, takes us through our district’s colourful past
Over the years, Sai Ying Pun and Kennedy Town have dramatically morphed from merely being the lands at the far edge of Victoria Harbour to becoming Hong Kong’s most eagerly redeveloped areas. As a city, we’re telling a new narrative about what this area in Western District means: chic restaurants, luxury developments, lucrative sea views and, of course, ridiculously convenient MTR stations. But this story is just beginning. A diametrically different and oft-neglected history precedes it – and not by much.
We speak with David Bellis, casual Hong Kong historian, creator of online history community gwulo.com and Kennedy Town stalwart, who describes the historic far side of Western District as once being ‘The End’ – literally and figuratively. Under British rule, Kennedy Town was a crucial strategic point, Bellis tells us, being the Western end of the harbour, and was for a long time heavily guarded by colonial military batteries aiming impressively long-range firearms towards any oncoming naval threats.
But once you direct your gaze towards the shore, it’s easy to see how the Western District, particularly Kennedy Town, was commonly understood as the ‘grim-reaper’ of all the Hong Kong districts. “If you want to bury people? Off to Kennedy Town,” describes Bellis bluntly. “If you want to set up an infectious diseases hospital? Put it in Kennedy Town. All the noise and the smelly, dirty stuff all got pushed to Kennedy Town.”
So it’s not difficult to imagine why for a long time Kennedy Town was known as ‘lap sap wan‘ or ‘Garbage Bay’. Imagine walking down Smithfield or Forbes Street, which is now abound with restaurants and done-up bars, and seeing (or worse, smelling and hearing) bloody abattoirs, fuming chimneys, morbid mortuaries and massive incinerators. Walk further towards Shek Tong Tsui, you’d find the seedy red light district and witness women and their ‘clients’ milling about the massive Gas Works facility (also the site of a deadly explosion in 1934), where the community complex stands now. Further down to Sai Ying Pun? You’d find hospital after hospital – and the odd insane asylum.
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Amid the dark and grim, industry dominated and thrived due to the opportune proximity to the sea, establishing the district’s commercial foundation. ‘Godowns’ (a peculiar colonial term meaning ‘warehouses’, Bellis informs us, was imported from British-India, much like the words ‘shroff’ or ‘nullah’) lined the old Praya. Rock Hill Street and Belcher’s Street were littered with manufacturing factories that produced for export and the rest of the city. While these businesses are long obsolete, the proliferation of factory buildings in the area still attest to the productivity of the past.
Today, Sai Ying Pun and Kennedy Town boast a rather fashionable and apparently seamless merging of local historic Hong Kong with foreign influence and, let’s face it, increasing gentrification. So when did that happen? Bellis, having lived in the area continuously since 1992, is the perfect person to ask. He witnessed the ‘very short time’, he describes, it took for the dramatic transformation to transpire.
Bellis recalls first setting foot in Kennedy Town in 1989, where he was surprised to even see another ‘Western person’. “I smiled and nodded to him,” Bellis recalls with a chuckle. “It was so rare back then.” Later, moving permanently to the area in 1992, he remembers the first Western bar to open on Catchick Street about 10 years ago. Then very slowly there were more, the next being a British style pub named The Limestone Arms, which closed down two years before the MTR’s opening. And then, you guessed it, after the MTR’s arrival, the area positively exploded with development.
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Today, if you look closely among the new and familiar, residual artefacts and mysterious historical markers still exist in strong numbers, rendering the area a real treasure trove for the keen-eyed history-sleuth. After we wrap up our interview, Bellis takes us through Hill Road and points out some curious irregularities and patches of cement and brick in the adjacent hill. They are, astonishingly, the entrances of wartime air-raid shelters burrowing quietly below, tunnelling and snaking through the hill unbeknownst, leading ultimately to the bottom just behind Woo Hop Street. The alley we end up in is equally unassuming and when we enter two cooks enjoy lunch on their break. Between them, the concrete outline of the tunnel’s threshold is stark behind the fence, albeit filled with cement.
When asked whether or not he feels sorry that sites of historical interest are gradually dwindling, Bellis answers: “That’s what’s saddest, that people often only regret not taking more photos or asking questions until after it’s too late.” But the community that Bellis unintentionally created on gwulo.com remains an elaborate and painstaking stronghold for memories of old Hong Kong. Clocking 160,000 unique views every year, contributors range from old-timers and academics to young people trying to trace family roots. Speaking of these contributors, Bellis reflects: “I think you have to have a curious nature, perhaps be a little obsessive. And then you have to be willing to share with others.”
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Bellis urges people to ask questions and learn about the places we live and work in. “Curiosity is what makes human beings different from everything else,” he says. “If you spot the curious person, they’re the one who’s going to make change.” After all, it was a keen curiosity that drove pioneers westward. Here, Hong Kong’s far edge of the Western District is as full with history as it is with people. We ought to take a look.
By Grace Fung
Visit gwulo.com for more details. And watch this space for theDesk’s special Saturday morning heritage walks and workshops in Sai Ying Pun and Kennedy Town that begin in May.