STAIRWAYS TO HISTORY – A Change of View on Hong Kong Island

I’ve been busy working on my digital story project for the Biennial of the Americas, with Lighthouse Writers Workshop and PlatteForum. But I haven’t forgotten my promise to tell you about my two research trips to China in search of family history. So, let’s see, where was I…

Hong Kong, China
April 10, 2008

Yesterday afternoon, Fiona Zhu and I went on a brief walking tour, to find the Hong Kong Island of British Colonial times, and the Hong Kong Island where my Uncle Roy witnessed the fiery arrival of World War II.

As we stepped off the Star Ferry, we consulted our “Central and Western Heritage Trail Guide Map” and commenced to follow the blue tour, along city streets not nearly as uncomplicated as the map suggested. Much of Hong Kong’s Central District is linked by overhead footbridges of steel, concrete, and plastic, and we had to zigzag to maintain our course. Several times, English-speaking locals of various hues and accents took pity on our confused faces and stopped to ask if they could help us find something. Without them, we would have found very little.

Luis Vuitton dominates one corner of Pedder Street with modern panache.

We first stopped at Pedder Street, “the oldest street in Hong Kong,” as a helpful passerby informed us. Pedder Street is now a very short block, nearly lost in the center of a forest of high rises with a teeming undergrowth of people, cars, and busses. Luis Vuitton dominates one corner with modern panache. But we sought the old Pedder Building, a narrow, gray stone structure built in 1924.

The Pedder Building has the arches and columns typical of Hong Kong’s old British edifices.

The Pedder Building had the arches and columns typical of Hong Kong’s old British edifices, but its rectangular windows and art deco embellishments added a playful allure to what might otherwise have been a stern building. At about six stories, it was tall for its time, but now it seemed squeezed and dwarfed by the surrounding buildings. I later found out that my Uncle Roy worked in the Pedder Building as a boy, running errands for a Japanese businessman during the Japanese Occupation.

My Uncle Roy worked in the Pedder Building as a boy, running errands for a Japanese businessman during the Japanese Occupation.

We then walked to narrow Duddell Street, where we hit a dead-end and arrived in 1875. That was when its two flights of granite steps, old-fashioned balustrades, and gas lamps were erected. The four gas lamps are the only such lamps of that period that are still lit each night in Hong Kong. The steps below them became a portal that carried us up to more buildings from the 1800s.

The four gas lamps are the only such lamps of that period that are still lit each night in Hong Kong.

We continued steeply uphill until we spied the Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, built in 1883. The church sat tucked in a cul de sac just downhill from Robinson Road. My Uncle Roy Mar and his family lived on Robinson Road on the eve of the Japanese Invasion. Excited, I turned to Zhu Zhu and said, “I know this must be the Catholic Church where my uncle went when he lived up here as a boy!”

“I know this must be the Catholic Church where my uncle went when he lived up here as a boy!”

The cathedral was as grand as many I’ve seen in other large cities, built in a cruciform shape, with a tower at its intersection. The exterior was white with blue trim, while the interior was yellow and white, with gothic arches, gothic stained glass windows, and a vaulted ceiling. The interior so impressed Zhu Zhu it was difficult to coax her to leave. This young Chinese woman had never before been inside a Catholic cathedral. We each lit a votive candle; they were electric, so it wasn’t exactly a moving moment, but it did amuse me to plug mine in to turn on the flame.

The interior so impressed Zhu Zhu it was difficult to coax her to leave.

We then asked a woman who was standing outside which way we should go to reach Robinson Road. She pointed us to the nearby stairway that rose uphill from the church in a narrow, jagged line, until it vanished between the buildings above. As I looked up, history traced a shivery line up my arm. Uncle Roy had told me about the day a priest ran up the stairs from the church, to the terrace where Roy and his family lived, to tell all the neighbors that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. Word on the radio was that Japanese planes were heading toward Hong Kong next.

There was nothing they could do but wait.

A priest ran up the stairs from the church to tell all the neighbors that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.

I followed the footsteps of the long-dead priest up some half-dozen steep, long flights of stairs, to emerge, breathless, from a narrow gap between the buildings of Robinson Road. From the street, the nook of the stairway was almost invisible, wedged between the towers that now rose from the upscale neighborhood.

One old building remained – probably the only holdout from my uncle’s childhood, on an otherwise modern street.

We marveled at the imposing towers that lined the curving road. The view my uncle once saw from the veranda of his family’s home was now impossible to see unless you paid a premium to live in one of the apartments overhead. My mouth dropped at the sight of a shiny white Rolls Royce pulling out from one of the garages. One old building remained, built of gray granite, wood-bordered windows, and the characteristic columns of colonial Hong Kong – probably the only holdout from my uncle’s childhood, on an otherwise modern street.

There used to be more greenery and fewer buildings, the day the Mar family and their neighbors waited for the Japanese bombers to arrive.

We walked until I saw a lush, green, wooded hill through a gap between two high-rises. “I’ll bet it used to be beautiful here,” I said. There used to be more greenery and fewer buildings, the day the Mar family and their neighbors waited for the Japanese bombers to arrive. Roy remembers standing on this hill and watching Kowloon burn across the harbor below. He said he could hear faraway screams. So I guess it used to be ugly here, too. It seems the past is always both.

10 thoughts on “STAIRWAYS TO HISTORY – A Change of View on Hong Kong Island

  1. saint

    I like how you mix the experience with memories of your uncle.

    And electric votive candles?! That’s some sort of sacrilege! And extremely hilarious.

    Reply
  2. Cara Lopez Lee

    That’s what makes research trips great: I love trying to pierce the veil of the present to visualize someone’s story in the past. Thanks for noticing, Shawn.

    haha. I like electricity as much as the next person. But how are prayers supposed to reach heaven via a low-watt bulb? Faith is mysterious, and mystery needs fire!

    Reply
  3. Helen Smith

    It’s lovely to see these photos – I have spent a lot of time in Hong Kong. You’ve really brought out what’s interesting about it – the crazy mix of old and new, and different cultures.

    I, too, liked to hear your Uncle’s reminiscences. Thanks.

    Reply
  4. Cara Lopez Lee Post author

    Thanks, Helen. Hong Kong is, indeed, an interesting blend of old and new, but it’s becoming harder to find the old. It has taken them a long time to start paying attention to preserving their heritage sites.

    My uncle’s stories really brought Hong Kong’s past to life for me. What has taken you there so often?

    Reply
  5. Abby

    I loved all of these pictures, but the one of the cathedral took my breath away, even though I grew up Catholic. I loved the angle, and how you captured the old stone and new paint and shining white marble floors. I could almost feel the coolness of the floor and the echoing quiet. No wonder it was hard to get her to leave!

    That said.. electric votives? That’s a first for me, and agree, not exactly as moving as lighting a real candle. But it’s safer, overall. Which I guess makes sense if you are trying to preserve the building. Burning it down isn’t exactly conductive to that! (Still, electric?)

    Reply
  6. Tam

    That church gives me goose bumps. I was raised as a Lutheran and the large churches still make me want to kneel, then stand, then kneel. 🙂

    Can you put a link button or something at the top of your blog so new readers can go directly to the start of your China reposting? I think everyone would enjoy. Just a thought. 😛

    Reply
  7. Cara Lopez Lee Post author

    Though I never became a full-fledged Catholic, I still genuflect when I walk into a church. I can’t help myself. Due to a shortage of knee cartilage, I find I can resist the urge to kneel however. 🙂

    Thanks for reminding me to put up a link to the start of the series, Tammy. Oops, that was an oversight.

    Reply
  8. Zee

    Such a lot of different elements all juxtaposed. You never really know what’s going to be around the next corner. I can’t get over how inviting that little forest looks from between the concrete masses.

    Reply
  9. Cara Lopez Lee

    Finding the history under the modern jumble of Hong Kong was quite a labyrinthine task, Zee. I was trying to find the Hong Kong my Uncle Roy knew. Back then, there was a lot more of that inviting little forest. I thought it was kind of sad that only small glimpses of it were left.

    Reply
  10. Cara Lopez Lee Post author

    Thanks so much for the kind comment about the cathedral photo, Abby. I’ll admit, I rarely like the photos I take inside churches, because the lighting is usually dim and flash just ruins the shots. So, it’s nice to know this one worked for someone.

    Yes, electric candles… safer, but not much sense of spiritual mystery, huh?

    Reply

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