Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Wanchai and Spring Garden Lane

I had a request over the weekend for more stories about Wanchai, and also about old Hong Kong streets. Today I shall endeavor to satisfy both curiosities. I was reminded of Spring Garden Lane by the excellent exhibition of Chinnery's works currently on display at the Hong Kong Museum of History. Chinnery although already old and sick, spent several months in the brand-new colony of Hong Kong, and captured its topography well from interesting and unusual angles. One of them was of Spring Garden Lane in Wanchai. But what was he doing painting it?

Many people associate Wanchai with Mason's "The World of Suzie Wong", or with being an entertainment district. Yet at the beginning of Hong Kong's colonial history it was not meant to be such at all. In fact, it was meant to be an European residential area, much like Central. The Governors of Hong Kong, in fact lived here until the 1850s, until Government House was completed. It appears from Chinnery's picture to be a lovely little place, with a small stream running nearby - hence the name. Of course, the stream today is gone, and it remains bucolic only in name - on it one can find a waste disposal centre, several cheap clothing stores, a sushi shop (an excellent one in fact) and I believe one snake liquor vendor. What happened?

Urban decay always has a reason, particularly in a city that has, more or less, been on an upward trajectory overall for the past 160 years. The problem, believe it or not, was the military. The military set up their encampment on the hill above Queensway (which ran by the water at that time), and in fact had the temerity to unceremoniously evict Jardine Matheson from their leased property so that the Army could build Flagstaff House (once known as Headquarters House). As you'll see from the link, the British frantically trying to prevent Flagstaff House, the oldest colonial building in Hong Kong, from being turned into a symbol of anti-colonialism, pre-empted any such moves by turning the building into a Museum of Tea Ware. All of the area today known as Pacific Place became the site of the main British barracks.

Combined with that, the Royal Navy later requisitioned all the land between the road known as Queen's Way and the waterline for the Navy Dockyards. I hate to disappoint Gunners fans, by Arsenal Street was not named after the football club Woolwich Arsenal, but rather after the munitions store the Royal Navy maintained near that site.

As a result of these land requisitions, Wanchai became cut off from Central and from Hong Kong's budding business district. Merchants and administrators alike increasingly moved out of Wanchai in favor of Central, preferably as far up the hill as possible. At the same time, having all those servicemen milling about meant that there had to be somewhere for them to go - and over the course of several decades, they increasingly gravitated towards Wanchai. According to the excellent essay by Carl T. Smith entitled Wanchai: In Search of an Identity, though, it was not until the 1930s that Wanchai had established itself firmly as a louche entertainment district.

By that time, Spring Garden Lane had become a street of high-class brothels, with elegant open-air balconies where the ladies would display their wares from an attractive vantage point. So, from Governor's House to merchants homes' to brothels and now to shophouses and restaurants - Spring Garden Lane has seen it all...

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