Hong Kong, also known as ‘the Pearl of the Orient,’ has had a long journey in its making as it made its way into what it is now.  From being a land tormented by vicious pirates to the skyline jaded with shining skyscrapers, the transient political landscape brought upon interesting changes in the Hong Kong architecture and urban expressions. The mentioned transitions below tell a story when the control of Hong Kong changed batons with every passing event of significance.

Origins of Hong Kong as a city | Hong Kong Architecture

Before the power struggles came into the picture, the Hakka and the Punti clan were the original residents of Hong Kong, which predominantly spoke in Cantonese. Most of the population resides upon the bank of the river or on the shore of the sea, their homes stilted upon the water. These stilted homes or Pang uks (as they are called) are a direct architectural representation of their livelihood dependent on fishing for livelihood and at the mercy of typhoons.

The politically inclined architecture of Hong Kong - Sheet1
Pang uk in Tai O, Hong Kong
Picture Courtesy – Doggie82~commons wiki
The politically inclined architecture of Hong Kong - Sheet2
Pang uk in Ma Wan, Hong Kong
Picture Courtesy – Roger Price, Flickr

The Unrest

Simultaneously, China was transitioning from the Ming Dynasty towards the Qing Dynasty rather violently, causing a lot of unrest among the people living in mainland China. Constant attacks from the pirates on the coasts of Guangdong (a district that is open to the South China Sea) affected the livelihood of common peoples’ lives. Recurring flooding and famines made the matters worse. However, it was the civil wars between the Qing Dynasty and the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom in 1850 (also known as the Taiping Rebellion) that saw the emigration of Chinese in large numbers to the Kowloon Peninsula.

Hong Kong was equally susceptible to the attack of the pirates as well; its harsh climatic conditions and huge distance from the administrative control made it perfect for hideouts as well.

With a lesson well learned from their experiences, the response to protect oneself resulted in the formation of ‘walled villages.’ This functioned as a demarcation of an area and served as the fortification with defensive measures like keeping guards and installing cannons. 

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Made in around the 17th century, this 5-meter tall wall was made to defend the inhabitants of the Tang clan village against rival clans, pirates, bandits, and wild tigers. The narrow iron gates (in front of white car, center) were blown open by the British in an attempt to subjugate the rebellious forces against the annexation. In 1924, one half of the iron door was returned by the British upon forced demands by the Tang clan.Kat Hing Wai, Hong KongPicture Courtesy – Chong Fat, Wikimedia Commons
The politically inclined architecture of Hong Kong - Sheet4
The muted colour palette and green shingles (usual in Cantonese style architecture) blend with the earthy, yet bright reds from the Chinese style architecture. Long, narrow entrances usually signify the entrance of a gated community; which is the walled city.Nam Bin Wai, Hong KongPicture Courtesy – Chong Fat, Wikimedia Commons

The Conquest

European trade was growing at a rapid pace during the Qing Dynasty‘s reign, while it managed its internal struggles. During the 19th century, Britain heavily imported tea and silk from China in exchange for silver. With the silver reserves depleting, Britain started selling opium (Made in India under British Raj) to China through racketeering to cover up their trade imbalance. When the Qing Dynasty cracked down upon opium traders and dumped the opium in Pearl river, Great Britain and Qing Dynasty headed for a naval war in 1839. Great Britain won the Opium War in 1842 and annexed Hong Kong Island. Further attempting to save itself from an opium-addicted economy and people, China once again fought the British in 1856, only to lose the Second Opium War by 1860. Two opium wars later, with extension treaties succeeding each war, Britain had annexed many new territories and the Kowloon Peninsula.

Architectural changes under British Hong Kong saw steady growth of imperial buildings, banks, correctional facilities, and other western elements otherwise unknown to the local landscape. However, the shared foreign and vernacular architectural traits are not seemingly that apparent in comparison to architecture in other Commonwealth countries, given the timeframe of their leases. Adding to that, Hong Kong was the most recent annexation against India, which was since the 19th century. The ‘ends justify the means’ narrative shines out through the built environment, given the length of the Britain reign.

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Made in 1864, Central Police Station’s facade is serenaded with Doric and Ionic colonnades. The overall Victorian and monumental appeal asserts the dominance of Britain, only ever insistent on bringing law and order to their new conquest. New blocks added in 1905, 1910 and 1925 show consistency in architectural styles during expansion. Hong Kong Architecture,
Central Police Station, Hong Kong
Picture Courtesy -文子言木
The politically inclined architecture of Hong Kong - Sheet6
Supreme Court of Hong Kong in 1915.Picture Courtesy – Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hkhighestcourt1915.jpg
The politically inclined architecture of Hong Kong - Sheet7
A Streamline Moderne style of architecture made its mark in the Queen’s Road East. Initially a wet market, Wan Chai market building is now converted to a shopping complex and is now marked as a Grade III Historic Building.
Wan Chai Market, Hong Kong Island
Picture Courtesy – WiNG, Wikimedia Commons

During the Chinese Communist Revolution (1949), the massive influx of Chinese brought upon a lot of stress into Hong Kong. The height limit upon mixed-use residential buildings (also known as Tong Laus) was removed to accommodate the refugees. Tung Laos was originally characterised as a 2-4 storied Chinese building, with the ground floor open for activities. They served as a mirror to the architectural trends throughout the time.

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The difference between the Chinese Tong Laus (foreground) and European style Tong Laus (background) is striking, depicting wealth and status in one frame.
Tong Lau in Tai Ping Shan, Hong Kong, 19th Century
Picture Courtesy – Album of Hongkong Canton Macao Amoy Foochow

Original Tong Lau.jpg

20th Century European Style Tong Lau in Kaiping, Hong Kong
Picture Courtesy – Earthengine, Wikimedia Commons

It was during this time Public Housing Estates were made in around the late 1950s; they were cramped spaces with no bathroom or kitchens in them, an equivalent to chawls in Mumbai. This notoriety has carried on well into future Hong Kong, along with the steep real estate rates and shoebox apartments.

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Relatively new.
Hu Feng Public Housing Estate, Hong Kong
Picture Courtesy – Chong Fat, Wikimedia Commons

With their 99-year lease from Second Peking Convention expiring on 1 July 1997, China and Britain both started vying for their control on the land of Pearl river. Through multiple meetings, China intended to gain Hong Kong, relying upon inequality prevailed in all their previous treaties with Britain. During the lease period (starting from 1 July 1898), the urban fabric changed from a manufacturing hub to a service-based industry, introducing mass-housing complexes, towering skyscrapers. The scale of development was keeping up its pace with the world since Hong Kong was under Britain’s wing. 

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A busy port city during the decade of peak crisis.
Victoria Harbour in the 1950s.
Picture Courtesy – Pitersongm

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Ar. I. M. Pei’s Bank of China Tower was being constructed around that time.
Victoria Harbour in 1989.
Picture Courtesy – John Ho / Benjwong

 Among all the mentions, Kowloon Walled City was a specimen of wonderment in the urban context. Originally, it was a mere outpost of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) to control the trade of salt. To put it in context of its life, it went through all the key events of Chinese history mentioned in this article above. That was until April 1994, when this massive organic settlement of 2.6 hectares was demolished under the reign of British Hong Kong. Numerous documentation and anecdotes recount abhorring living conditions, high crime rates, gang-related incidents, and it’s surprising viral growth despite the events.

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One year before the demolition, tenements, and shops lit brightly against the dingy atmosphere. In a sense, this was a walled city that metamorphosed into overly tall tong laus.
Picture Courtesy – Ian Lambot. City of Darkness, Life in Kowloon Walled City

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The site of the walled city is now converted into a park, which houses various architectural elements of its previous establishment. They have also retained the administration building from the Qing Dynasty’s time, the South Gate, and many such relics.
Kowloon Walled City Park
Picture Courtesy – CP Joseph, Wikimedia Commons

Hong Kong is currently a Special Administrative Region, under the Sino-British Declaration, signed on 19 December 1984. To summarise the treaty, Hong Kong will not follow the socialist system of the Chinese Government and the existing capitalist system shall remain unchanged till 2047 (i.e. 50 years since the end of Second Peking Convention). The skyscraper-studded Victoria Harbour is a testament to tremendous urban growth in Hong Kong under the protection of the said declaration.

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The Tower of China Bank shines proudly upon Victoria Harbour.
Victoria Harbour, present.
Picture Courtesy – Mk2010

Hong Kong currently is on two straits, where the existing political landscape challenges the ideals and beliefs of their parent country. With the current protests gaining momentum, a new revolution in waiting may change the future of the people forever. And with that, the surroundings change as well.


N. R. K. S. Teja is an architect, who loves minimalist works, survives on spicy food and an internet junkie, absorbing all kinds of information related to interior design and architecture. He believes if drawings speak more, words articulate better.