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Farms, factories and the future: Wong Chuk Hang to change again with MTR opening

Before Wong Chuk Hang Estate was demolished in 2007 to make way for an MTR station, residential tower blocks and a shopping centre, architect Sarah Mui Sze-wa returned to take photos of the place she once called home. She wistfully recalls the close-knit community that once lived there.

“The 10 blocks of the estate were all connected. As kids, we used to run from block one all the way down to block 10 along overground walkways. My grandparents ran a grocery shop on the estate that my mother managed, and I was there every day,” she says.

Mui also remembers the estate’s many ground-floor shops, including a hardware store and one selling stationery. “I could just go into the stationery shop and take stuff, and the owner would ask my grandfather for the money later.”

Residents would to hang out at the nearby Tai Wong Ye Temple, by a ditch where golden bamboo grew on the banks. Yellow bamboo ditch, in Cantonese, is Wong Chuk Hang.

The estate, the first phase of which was completed in 1969, was the area’s only public housing. It was built to accommodate workers employed in the low-density industrial buildings that line Wong Chuk Hang Road. Separated from the hustle and bustle of Causeway Bay by the Aberdeen Tunnel, it has always been a relatively quiet and low-key working-class area – in stark contrast to the neighbouring millionaires’ enclaves of Shouson Hill and Repulse Bay.

“It’s the most backward district of Hong Kong Island,” says Lau Chi-pang, an associate professor of history at Lingnan University, who published a book about Wong Chuk Hang last year.

The factories probably blighted its chances of becoming too flashy. Yet industrial activity in Wong Chuk Hang never quite gained the intensity of manufacturing hubs in places such as Kwun Tong or Hung Hom. There was little sign of street life, too, because of a dearth of shops and places to eat amid the factories. Wong Chuk Hang was off the map, largely due to its poor public transport infrastructure, Lau says.

Before Nam Fung Road opened in 1973, forging a more direct route to the busier northern parts of Hong Kong Island, the only road link was to Aberdeen – of which Wong Chuk Hang is technically a part.

Lau says historical records show settlements in Wong Chuk Hang dating to the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). “Wong Chuk Hang had more arable land than anywhere else on Hong Kong Island. Farmers used to exchange their produce with fisherfolk from Aberdeen. Farming communities remained in the area up until the 1960s, because the British were more interested in developing the northern part of the island.”

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Lau says the area therefore became popular for its “leisure farms”, which townsfolk visited to see livestock, and to pick and pay for their own vegetables. The entrance of Ocean Park is located on land that was once a leisure farm, and the spirit of the area’s easy-going country life lives on through facilities such as the theme park itself and the Hong Kong Country Club, he says.

When Hong Kong factories began moving to China in the 1980s, many of those in Wong Chuk Hang became vacant, and it was to be almost 30 years before new life was breathed into the area. As plans were being hatched for the South Island MTR line, with a station in Wong Chuk Hang, a transformation of the dreary, deserted factories began, with art galleries, fashion showrooms, cafes, swanky offices and hotels opening.

Three years ago, an arts collective outlined a “South Island Cultural District”, and began organising annual art walks for visitors. In September, 14 art galleries in Wong Chuk Hang participated in the event, together with others in Tin Wan and Aberdeen town.

Genesis, a 22-storey factory turned into a commercial building with spaces offered at a discount for arts events, was touted by the government as an example of its success in revitalising old factories when it opened last year.

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Tsui Yuen-wa, a Southern District Council member since 2008, has witnessed the transformation.

“Construction and rerouting of transport networks is happening everywhere,” he says. “There are more people in Wong Chuk Hang these days and it is livelier.”

People living there welcome the changes, albeit with a tinge of sadness, “because Wong Chuk Hang is certain to become another Festival Walk with no character”, Tsui says, referring to the MTR Corp’s massive Kowloon Tong shopping centre.

The site on which Wong Chuk Hang Estate once stood is now a fenced-off, deserted patch of land adjacent to the elevated South Island railway line. Soon after the MTR station opening – scheduled for the end of this year – cranes and construction workers will move in to transform the site into “another Taikoo Shing”, as the MTR Corp puts it. Besides a shopping mall, there will be thousands of private residential flats built as part of a new community with the train station at its heart.

Residents generally welcome the convenience the MTR will bring – it will connect commuters to the wider railway network through a six-minute journey to Admiralty. However, there are also inevitable concerns about gentrification and rising rents.

The Town Planning Board ruled on a height restriction of about 140 metres for the area to accommodate the MTR Corp’s residential development plans, and Tsui has already seen opportunistic property developers sniffing around.

“One developer wanted to collaborate with a home for the elderly to redevelop the centre into luxury apartments, while retaining some hostel places for the elderly. But the plan was rejected by the district council,” he says.

Aberdeen Marina Club – which occupies a seven-storey waterside property in Wong Chuk Hang – submitted a redevelopment proposal to planners which would see a 30-storey building go up on the site.

Tsui says he has personally suffered as a result of the changes since the MTR Corp stamped its footprint on the neighbourhood.

“My old office was on Welfare Road. The monthly rent used to be about HK$7,000 and I was there for six years,” he says. “A luxury property project, Marinella, was under construction at the time [2008-12]. Before the project went on sale, the developer helped owners of the adjoining Jumbo Court – formerly a hostel for workers at the Jumbo Floating Restaurant, also on Welfare Road – retrofit their exterior for free. They did it so buyers of the luxury project didn’t appear to be living next to poor neighbours. “Within a few years, the monthly rent of my ground-floor office jumped from HK$7,000 to HK$100,000.”

Centaline Property Agency and Midland Realty had entered a bidding war for his office, Tsui says, and the rent rise far exceeded his financial capacity.

“They didn’t mind the high rents because the sale of just a few apartments in Marinella would have been enough to cover it. So the landlord didn’t renew my contract and I stayed in Ap Lei Chau for a year before finding my current office [in Yip Hing Street], which is in a remote part Wong Chuk Hang and is much smaller than my previous office.”

In the past few years the area has seen an influx of construction workers building the new MTR Corp project, and the next horde descending on the once-quiet district will probably be curious day trippers.

“The entrance of Ocean Park is not exactly in Wong Chuk Hang, so we don’t get many visitors. But Ocean Park is building a water park with an entrance here. So there will be a lot of tourists when it opens in a few years’ time,” Tsui says.

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For Sarah Mui, the loss of connections with neighbours she grew up with on Wong Chuk Hang Estate can never be replaced by glitzy shopping malls and trendy cafes.

“Many residents of Wong Chuk Hang Estate were from fisher families in Ap Lei Chau and Aberdeen. They enjoyed the close relationships and still go back to Aberdeen to celebrate festivals after moving out of the district.

“Tai Wong Ye Temple next to the Nam Long Shan Road Cooked Food Market used to be a regular hang-out for the neighbourhood’s residents. My grandfather used to go there to play mahjong, and I ate in the food market,” she says.

“When the estate was demolished, my grandparents moved to North Point. Their health has declined since because they have lost their connections with their old neighbours. Now they can only go to the park to take a stroll by themselves.”