Hong Kong’s famed architecture is way more than just the high-rise buildings that make for a postcard-worthy urban landscape. Have you ever wondered why some of Hong Kong’s old buildings have curved corners? As it turns out, their stories are a nuanced one for the books.
Walking around Hong Kong, it’s easy to be captivated by its architectural beauty which is much unlike any other metropolitan city in the world. We’re not talking about skyscrapers here—many of us are familiar with the high-rise towers that populate major cities from Dubai to New York; we’re talking about the kind of authentic charm born out of the corner houses adorning Hong Kong’s aged neighbourhoods with curved edges and cantilevered terraces.
With the oldest corner house in Hong Kong dating back a century ago, while even the youngest ones have stood for over six decades, corner houses are more than just photogenic, they also come with distinctive architectural styles which have unique reasoning and backstory.
Back at the beginning of British Hong Kong, when developers first started building on government land, they were allowed to add balconies above the pavement that would exempt them from paying more land premium, as long as those balconies could provide covers for pedestrians, sheltering them from the subtropical rains as well as the unforgiving sun.
In true Hong Kong fashion of seizing business opportunities as they appear, seeing the benefit in building these cantilevered terraces, the property developers made the most of the corner area by following the exact shape of the pavement to minimise cost and maximise saleable area and profit. Of course, with the government’s amendments of policies over the decades, we can often see parts of pavements not covered by these balconies. Located at the junction of two or three roads, the rounded corners of these old buildings became a testament to the many changes in Hong Kong’s history.
The first batch of corner houses appeared before World War II, at a time when a “tong lau” (Chinese shophouse) was limited to four storeys and came with verandah and its supports. Though they once defined Hong Kong’s urban landscape, many of those buildings have since been demolished for newer, larger, and taller buildings. One of the very few that remains is Lui Seng Chun in Tai Kok Tsui, which was designed by architect W. H. Bourne and completed in 1931.
Designated a Grade I historic building by the Antiquities Advisory Board in 2000, Lui Seng Chun is one of the most iconic representations of prewar corner houses, reflecting a mix of Chinese and European Neo-Classical architectural elements, as popularised in the early 20th century. Despite its stunning, nostalgic features of square-shaped frames, urn-shaped decorative balustrades, and deep verandahs, it became abandoned and eventually out of maintenance since the 1980s, due to the inevitable turning of the wheel of fortune over the decades.
Luckily, the government included the landmark-worthy building in the first batch of Revitalising Historic Buildings Through Partnership Scheme in 2008. After a bidding process, a local university was selected to conserve the building and convert it into a Chinese medicine clinic, now known as the Hong Kong Baptist University School of Chinese Medicine – Lui Seng Chun, which commenced operations in April 2012.
Unlike Lui Seng Chun, commissioned by the rich and designed by a named architect, most of Hong Kong’s beautiful corner houses are built by your everyday locals back in the days of struggle during Hong Kong’s postwar recovery and the subsequent blood-and-sweat as the city grew in an unprecedented pace. Situated all over Kowloon and Hong Kong Island, these less-famous buildings may not have the same attractive features that embellish the likes of Lui Seng Chun, but they are nonetheless charming in their own right.
As our population grows, more and more of these unnamed corner houses may face the fate of demolition in order to make way for new and bigger developments, but it is important that we celebrate them now while we can, as their quirky colours, shapes, and sizes have stood the test of time as an irreplaceable component of Hong Kong’s history, witnessing our city’s bloom from a small British colony to an internationally renowned financial and business hub.