Thursday, October 27, 2005

Why The Chief Executive's House is in Central

There has been some controversy over the last few months over why the government offices really need to be in Central, and why Donald Tsang needs a million-dollar fish pond for his goldfish (to ward off the evil feng shui from the Bank of China, of course, which was why Tung Chee-Hwa wouldn't move in), among other improvements to Government House. One answer to both questions is of course that the Chief Executive has always had his offices in Central, the heart of the city, and that his house has always been there too.

But how true is that statement? As I have mentioned before, the first residence of the Governor, and from where he transacted some of his business, was actually in Wanchai. Imagine the Donald with his bow-tie in late night work sessions at home with his, er, staff next to Joe Bananas! (that first residence, though, was on Spring Garden Lane, which today hosts a snake shop (for potency), a garbage collection centre and a very good sushi takeout joint).

Also, Governor Richard Graves Macdonnell was the first to build a summer house (Mountain Lodge, 1866) on the Peak, creating a virtual colonial stampede up to its rarefied environs - even though the Tram would not be built until 1888, and the trip required the services of 4 coolies for your sedan chairs. It was on Mount Austin Road, near where the Mount Austin condo development is today, just up the hill from the Peak tram station. Not all the Governors enjoyed their time there though. In the age before dehumidifiers, Governor (later Lord) Lugard thought it horrible that the rolling fog and humidity turned his cigars into sponges. Nevertheless, while they would live up at the Peak in Summer, most of them came down to Central for work. And after World War II, the aging, mostly wooden structure was deemed unsafe and dynamited, leaving only the foundations today.

But there was a time in the 1930s when the Governor's permanent residence almost moved away from Central. Sir William Peel, Governor from 1930 to 1935, created a new 'Governor's Retreat' in Fanling, being a keen golfer (like latter-day Governor Lord Wilson). Peel also mooted moving Government House to Magazine Gap - despite the fact that Hong Kong and the world had entered into a disastrous Depression. His successor, Sir Andrew Caldecott (the subject of yesterday's blog entry) wisely delayed the project, citing the paucity of government funds. His successor, Sir Geoffrey Northcote, revived the idea for the decaying mansion, but made several major changes to the plans. Before he could get started, though, he was forced to retire on grounds of ill-health, and his successor, Sir Mark Young, only had a few months before he became a Japanese POW.

So, it was left to incoming Japanese military Governor Rensuke Isogai to restore the decrepit house. He commissioned a Japanese architect, Seichi Fujimura, to do so, which explains the Japanese roof and tower in the building that remains to this day.

And so it's also thanks to a Japanese military governor that ensured that the Colony's chief executive stayed in Central,perhaps something the Donald may not want to bring up in casual conversation...

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