The History of Hong Kong Construction (Part 2)
The history of the construction industry in Hong Kong can best be seen in the broader context of the wider world in terms of successive economic booms (and consequent slumps), the wider circumstances of international and conflicts and periodic civil disturbances in China.
Hong Kong Construction in the 1840s
The first major Hong Kong construction boom took place from the 1840s, following Hong Kong Island’s acquisition by Britain, and some evidence for this can still be seen today in the form of remnant stone quarries on hillsides around east Kowloon and Shau Kei Wan. Stone cutting was a key industry at this time included the timber industry as well as the stone and quarrying industries where Hong Kong’s skilled craftsmen added value to imported materials prior to their re-export overseas.
Hong Kong Construction 1870-1905
During this period some profound changes to the landscape of Hong Kong were made. During the 1890s major land reclamation works took on both sides of Victoria Harbour. These works created the land where Statue Square and Harbour City (among other popular landmarks) now stands. The landfill for some of these works projects came from the Kennedy Town area, where large amounts of soil and rock were removed. This in creating a changed urban environment for the construction of what would, today, be regarded as a ‘New Town’ there for the accommodation of white collar and other workers. Many additional reclamation works have since been completed on both sides of the harbour and the best way to get a feel for where the seafront used to be on the Island side is to understand that the tramline along Hong Kong Island’s northern foreshore used to in fact run along what was the seafront; the street sign in Kennedy Town along which the tram runs betraying this with the word ‘Praya’, which is a (now largely-disused) loan-word originally taken from the Portuguese word. While Hong Kong in the interwar years was influenced by the broader world-wide economic boom throughout the “Roaring Twenties”, overwhelmingly, the physical shape of the city created in the 1890s remained recognizable from Edwardian times until the 1950s.
Hong Kong from the late 1940s
Following the end of Chinese Civil War in the late 1940s, another boom in the construction industry started on the back of the return of business confidence, flight-capital inflows and the need for a massive amount of new housing to accommodate a mostly refugee population which trebled in number within 15 years. Extensive construction took place in the following decades, in both the public and private sectors, to create homes for displaced squatter settlement dwellers. In addition, prime city locations were successively redeveloped.
The Hong Kong Construction Boom 2010-Ongoing:
The current construction boom now underway in Hong Kong is unprecedented even by the exceptional standards above. There are 5 major MTR rail lines under construction simultaneously, a massive midfield airport terminal under construction, bridges to both the mainland and to Macao and a massive school and hospital building programme. (Please read full details about these projects in our other blogs on the Maxim website.)
Demolition, Renovation & Conservation of Buildings in Hong Kong
Finally, it seems worth remarking on the recent widespread changes in public awareness about what should be demolished and what should be conserved in Hong Kong. With land at a premium in prime central areas and the commercial incentive present for high rise building, there is clearly a tension about what should be retained and what should be replaced. Hong Kong has only recently discovered a broader value inherent in the preservation of built heritage, and this debate remains ongoing.
From around the 1890s, buildings constructed in Hong Kong were only intended to last 2 or 3 generations. A great example of this can be found in the Lo Pan Temple in Kennedy Town, Hong Kong, built in 1884 as a place for construction tradespeople – carpenters, stonemasons, contractors and others, to gather together, socialise and pray. The roof of this building was built of wood beams and upon the end of the roof’s lifespan it was expected – as with other Chinese buildings of its type - that the structure would be substantially demolished in due course and a more modern building would replace it. Lo Pan temple was declared a Grade 1 Listed Building in 2006 and will now be preserved in its current form. There are of course many other buildings such as the Central Police Station, Victoria Prison and Western Market that have now been preserved and although the Central Police Station will eventually be converted for leisure entertainment use, its key features will be carefully protected. The broader history of Hong Kong, it cannot be over-emphasised, is closely interlinked to the more specific history of Hong Kong construction.
This concludes a brief review of some aspects of the history of Hong Kong construction, however readers interested in further details of broader historical perspectives in Hong Kong are welcome to visit my website for details of the historical walks and lectures I conduct in Hong Kong and further afield.