As I continued my quest to Trace China’s Past…
April 12, 2008
Yesterday my translator Zhu Zhu and I returned to Hong Kong Island for another historic walking tour, because my feet just weren’t sore enough yet. This time we walked to the old Central Police Station on Hollywood Road, built in 1919. The building shares a block with the former Central Magistracy and Victoria Prison. Because Hong Kong began its British colonial history as a bustling port of international trade, it attracted many pirates. Hollywood Road was once famous for public executions — beheadings mostly.
Hollywood Road was once famous for public executions — beheadings mostly.
Today on Hollywood Road, a Starbucks sells Americanos and Lattes across from the block of stately but stout monuments to British law-and-order. The old police station is no longer in use. Neither is the magistry next door, where the accused were tried. Victoria Prison didn’t shut down until 2006.
Victoria Prison didn’t shut down until 2006.
The prison was built in 1841, and what I could see of the buildings beyond the high granite walls – topped with broken glass and razor wire – reminded me of a collection of creepy Victorian dollhouses. I imagined quaint brigands doing time in tiny cells behind bars with lace curtains. Most of the brick buildings were damaged by bombing during World War II, but were repaired later.
Victoria prison reminded me of a collection of creepy Victorian dollhouses.
We next made our way back uphill to Robinson Road. But this time we found the Mid-Levels Escalator, the longest escalator in the world. It’s not just one escalator, but a series of twenty, slicing uphill for 2600 feet. From 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m., the escalators go down-only, then they go up-only from 10:00 a.m. until they stop at midnight. To the right is a long stairway, which we walked down on our return. A series of expensive bars and restaurants line the passage, taking advantage of the prime location: some 50,000 people pass every day. But what excited us about this find was simply that we wouldn’t have to endure another long, steep uphill slog from Central to the Mid-Levels.
The Mid-Levels Escalator is the longest in the world.
We still had plenty of walking to do on Robinson Road, one of the longest winding drives in Hong Kong. I was hoping to run into some senior citizen who would remember where Joseph’s Building used to stand. That’s the house where my Great Aunt Virginia says she and her brothers and sisters lived on the eve of World War II.
We found a woman of about 65, who told us that the few remaining old buildings were farther west, and whose eyes added that we’d be crazy to walk that far. We saw no other seniors. Robinson Road is an enclave of young and middle-aged wealth. We passed several non-Chinese people dressed in high fashion. More often we passed working class women walking dogs, carrying children, or bringing home groceries – almost all of them Filipina, the common race of most Hong Kong maids.
After a twenty-minute search for some sign of the place where Saint Joseph’s Building used to stand, we gave up. Back downhill we went, weary footed, to the cosmopolitan restaurant district of SoHo. There, we ate an Italian lunch at Fat Angelo’s. It was just a Hong Kong chain restaurant, but the atmosphere was inviting, the linguini with clam sauce was delicious, and the sign warning us to “Beware of Personal Belongings” made strange sense.
The sign warning us to “Beware of Personal Belongings” made strange sense.
Thus fortified, we tried to figure out how to walk down to Saint Joseph’s College on Kennedy Road, on the off chance it might be the Saint Joseph’s Building my aunt spoke of – despite the fact that it was on the wrong road. The school should have only been a twenty-minute walk away, but because of Hong Kong’s confusing tangle of curving streets and hills, it took 45 minutes. We could see the school, but there was no clear pedestrian path to get to it. Three times we had to backtrack… uphill. My calves were burning by the time we reached the building.
It turned out that our best view of the early 20th century building had been from afar.
It turned out that our best view of the early 20th century building had been from afar. Up close, the white-and-blue confection of Victorian architecture was hidden behind a modern Chinese front shaped like stacked cartons.
It wasn’t a college in the American sense, but a Catholic boys’ high school, established in 1875.
Several people guarded the door. But a woman in the office gave us permission to take a closer look at the inner quadrangle. Saint Joseph’s wasn’t a college in the American sense, but a Catholic boys’ high school, established in 1875. The building consisted of four wings of varying ages, looking inward on a field where boys played soccer. In a courtyard under one wing another group of boys played serious ping pong, while underneath another wing yet more boys played basketball. Teenage boys in white shirts, navy vests, and conservative ties roamed the halls, casting curious glances our way.
In a courtyard under one wing another group of boys played serious ping pong.
This isolated square of old-school in the midst of new-school Hong Kong gave my imagination something to work on. This was not the house Aunt Virginia once lived in. But I recall my Uncle Roy saying his older siblings attended high school and college in Hong Kong. Perhaps the layout was something like this. Likely their schools were segregated by sex, too – and race. Certainly this setting evoked another time.
We walked back down to Central, where skinny, old-fashioned, double-decker trams still trace a wired route below the dome of the capital. Then we entered the maze of bridges that link Hong Kong Central’s major buildings.
Skinny, old-fashioned, double-decker trams still trace a wired route below the dome of the capital.
We left the past behind at a Ben and Jerry’s in the IFC Mall. Zhu Zhu had never eaten Ben and Jerry’s ice cream before, and our enjoyment of that treat so outdid our pleasures in the rest of the foot-throbbing day, I said, “We could have saved ourselves a lot of trouble by skipping the hills and spending the day here.” She giggled and agreed, politely licking her English Toffee while I gobbled Chocolate Therapy.