Wednesday, 23 April 2014

St Christopher’s Home and a Missing Plaque, Tai Po

Here’s a good example of how you should never take HK’s landscape for granted – something I am guilty of all the time despite knowing better. It's also a good example of some of the more useful/helpful things the old blog achieved - helping someone solve a bit of a small mystery. Back in 2010, a nice fellow called Sean Olson posted some old pics on Gwulo.com in an attempt to wind up some remaining loose ends concerning his family history. It is the culmination of a decade-long research project – the result of which can be found on Sean’s website: The Hong Kong Legacy. Sean had several old photographs taken in some difficult to locate places and was having some difficulty identifying where they may have been taken. Anyone familiar with both of my blogs should know by now that this is something I find enjoyable and sometimes challenging, and of course the regular posters over at Gwulo are also very handy at this kind of thing.

The photos that piqued my own interest were related to an area not far from where I used to live in Tai Po and was quite familiar with (or so I thought). It’s the area now occupied by a Cheong Kong development called Deerhill Bay, but before the development was built (in 1998) the land was the site of a children’s home/orphanage called The St. Christopher’s Home, run by the Anglican Church.

Near to the 'Home' (as I shall refer to it) was a plot of land owned by Sean’s not-so-distant forebears. The Olson clan had obtained the land back in 1921 when John Olson bought the plot from his business partner Charles Warren for the princely sum of $1000 (I’m assuming HK$ and have no idea how much this would be worth in today’s money but I suspect it would run into the hundreds and millions, if not more).

Well, like all land in the New Territories the lease on the land was due to expire fairly soon (large tracts of NT land had leases dating from 1st July 1898 – the first official day of cessation to the British Crown – for a period of 75 years, so the Olson lease was due to expire in 1973) and the Olson heirs (Hugh and William) decided it would be a good idea to donate the land to the nearby Home in the memory of their mother. I have no idea what would happen to the land on expiry of the lease (there was an optional 24 year renewal which would take the lease up to 1997) but it seems as though the donation was accepted, and a ceremony arranged to celebrate the donation and unveil a commemorative stone plaque. And so we get onto the photos in question – which Sean has very kindly agreed to me posting on this blog (all copyrights remain his alone).


In the first photo we see the Anglican Bishop no less (on the left) performing the unveiling ceremony of the engraved plaque. The small engraved plaque was planted in the ground t what looks to be the edge of the plot because you can see there is a nice view of Tolo Harbour with Ma Shi Chau, Centre Island and the Whitehead Point headland in the background (you’ll just have to take my word, I guess, but these 3 island landmarks helped give a pretty good idea of the location).


This second snap shows, obviously, the detail of the plaque itself and the final picture below shows the participants supposedly walking back to the Home from the land after the ceremony.


Sean really wanted to know two things: first, where exactly was the land located and secondly, what happened to the commemorative plaque seen in the picture above? Is the land still there with the plaque on it or has it just become another high-end shopping mall packed out with Mainlanders at the weekends...?

So, first off, how about a rough attempt at the location. Well, the original attempts over on Gwulo.com were done without the benefit of knowing the lot number of the site, but I'm pleased to say that the approximate area of the initial guesses were pretty good - if a little misguided, but there's a reason for that which I will get to. However, on corresponding with Sean behind the scenes, it became apparent that he had already been doing some extensive research and had managed to find out the lot number. However, knowing this lot number was more of a spanner in the works rather than the all-revealing piece of information I was expecting because it highlighted some inconsistencies between what was known and the information inferred from the available photos.

Original location guess before Lot number was known

The Olson land was (and still is) known as DD34 Taxlord Lot T77 on the Land Registry documents. This seems like a rather convoluted name but punch these into a land search at the mapping department and you will get a plot of land in this area. Here is the plot of land today courtesy of the Land Dept Geoinfo Map service.


Yes, the broken red line indicates the current demarcation of the land lot. Assuming readers don't have local knowledge, the plot is sandwiched between the Japanese International School (to the top left of the box) and the turnoff for Deerhill Bay (the road at the bottom right). This plot of land lies about 500 metres SW of where my initial guess had been. Fair enough I thought, it’s close enough but the position of this piece of land is nowhere near the sea and the geography is all wrong – even taking Deerhill Bay into consideration. The land just didn’t look right when compared to Sean’s three old photographs.

Here’s a Streetview grab showing the T77 lot as it is today.


T77 lies dead ahead, behind the central clump of trees. You can see the shotcreted slope to the left which shows the extent of how high the land rises there – not very much and certainly not enough to give unfettered views of the harbour, buildings not withstanding. At the back of the plot (at left) is the Japanese International School and to the right is the Po Leung Kuk Tin Ka Ling Millennium Primary School.

To complicate the issue further, the Home (yes, it still operates from another location) had told Sean that the land had been the subject of a compulsory grab by the Govt (or maybe the lease just expired?) who needed it to enable a re-routing of the Tai Po Road. You see the Home used to sit on a particularly hazardous bit of the road that involved a rather tight corner and the Govt felt it was necessary to take some of the sting out of the bend by moving the road westwards, making the curve much shallower. The problem was that the Olson land lay right in the middle of where they need to put the new road! If this was true, it meant that in the B&W photos above, the Tai Po Road lies beyond the people in the frame i.e. between the people and the sea – but how could this be when it appears that there seems to be nothing to indicate this on the photographs?

It was at this point when I started to wonder if there was a possibility of the Home fobbing Sean off with a bit of a face-saving tall tale because he was asking probing questions about a sensitive area. This thinking was, in part, fueled by a timely piece of news concerning the Home, Cheong Kong Holdings and the Inland Revenue office. To cut a long story short, when the Home sold their land to Cheong Kong (to build Deerhill Bay) the deal involved not only monetary compensation but also the transfer of some of the completed units. It just so happens that at the time the units went on sale it was the most expensive piece of real estate in the NT and the Home (or more specifically, the Anglican Church) made a lot of money. The wiki page has a good outline with more detail (scroll down to “Criticisms’ if the link doesn’t take you there).

Anyway, suspicions aside, it took several more months before I managed to obtain an aerial photo from the mapping office. Although unable to get a picture from 1969 (the year of the land donation), I did get one from 1973 – close enough. Here it is (north to the top):

The information at the bottom of the picture tells us it was taken on the 14th Dec 1973 at a height of 2000 ft. It shows the 1973-version of the Tai Po Road with its rather large bend swinging out to the right and then back in again. The Home was located on the right hand side of that bend around the apex, an area that now incorporates some of the Deerhill Bay grounds. My initial guess at the location (before the Lot was known) would be placed somewhere towards the end of the rectangular parcel of land diagonally off the top of the bend’s apex. Looking at this snap for 1974 you can see that my initial guess just isn’t right because Sean’s photos show undeveloped land. So maybe the Home wasn’t telling porkies after all?

Here is a modern day comparison. The road isn’t too clear but basically the modern day Tai Po Road cuts out the big loop and moves in fairly straight line to the left of the T77 marker.


Here is a version that marks the old and new road routes more clearly. The old road route is marked in red, the new route is blue and the yellow shaded area is the parcel of land that was affected by the works. Yes, as you can see from the earlier picture the T77 plot lies on this yellow shaded area. Up until I obtained the aerial snaps I had no idea of the extent of the work that had been done. The reason is that in that area today there is nothing to suggest such a huge chunk of land was leveled (in fact look closely at the 1973 picture and you’ll see what looks to be the start of the leveling work at the tip of the bend – the work had commenced in 1973?)


As you go along the road, the embankment that now sits on the left hand side rises up to quite a height – maybe forty or fifty feet, albeit in a gentle sloping manner – and the only hint that this slope is newer than other parts is that the tree cover is much less mature and dense here and there is some evidence of scraped/excavated rock.

This is when it dawned on me that the whole bit of land leveled for the works was probably the Olson land in its entirety and the current T77 as we know it is the sole remaining parcel of land from a much larger plot. So actually the Home had been truthful  to Sean after all.

What sealed it was when Sean sent some more pictures of the same ceremony and one in particular gave the game away and it was this photo here.


The snap shows the ceremony procession walking to the Olson land before the ceremony commences. Look carefully and you will see part of a road top left followed by a roughly hewn (or worn down) pavement followed by the stone steps up the hillside. Looking closely at the 1973 aerial snap and there is one location that bears a striking resemblance and I have circled it in the following picture edit. Sorry, you’ll have to click on the picture to find the grey oval circling the area in question – it’s just on the initial right hand curve of the bend. You can see the pavement near the road and the faint line of a path or trail.

In fact, the circle I have put in above just happens to coincide with the current remaining portion of T77. However, of course the modern plot has been leveled somewhat along with the rest of the area so looks nothing like it used to.

So, I believe what we are seeing in Sean’s photos is the Olson plot of land occupying all or at least a large part of the piece of land that was leveled for the road works. The photos depict the ceremony and plaque very close to the edge of the land (where it dropped down to the old road) and of course the steps up to the land were situated back along the land which is why the people are seen walking away from the tip of the land back to wards the steps. The Home can’t be seen, not because it is behind the camera position but actually because the ceremony is taking place at a point above both the road and the Home.

Giving it a modern day context I’ve marked the various positions on another GoogleEarth grab.


The black smudge marks the Home’s former location (now Deerhill Bay), the red line of course marks the old road route, the yellow dot marks the likely position of the plaque and the yellow line marks the route the people would have had to walk between the plaque/ceremony and the Home. Of course this now makes the current T77 plot (still with the marker above) fairly close to where the camera would have been to take the shot of the people walking back ‘towards’ the Home. Okay, so I was still about 350 metres out with my first guess :-)

Anyway, of course I have no definitive proof of any of the above but this is about the best we can do given the resources on hand and Sean is quite satisfied that his query has been answered. The plot of land taken back by the Govt was leveled and three new school were built on it in the past few years: the Japanese International School, the PLK Tin Ka Ping Millennium Primary School and the Hong Kong & Kowloon Women’s Kaifong Association Sun Fong Chung College (a secondary school). It’s this latter one that now occupies the space (if not the actual land) that I believe the plaque had been placed.

Actually, as an aside if you look at the roads on GoogleEarth you can see that the service road that leads to the latter school follows the exact same line that the old Tai Po Road used to take, so I guess there are still some elements from the past on display if you pay close enough attention.

So what happened to the plaque?

Well, this one looks set to remain a mystery for a while. The Home basically discharged all responsibility of the plaque in their correspondence with Sean, telling him the Govt took over responsibility for the land and the plaque went missing during the road works i.e. it’s now either at the bottom of a landfill or is held by the Govt somewhere. However on another email, this time from the Church, someone told Sean that the plaque had been in storage (i.e. was saved before the roadworks commenced) but has been subsequently lost.

This one might never be solved because no one seems to know or wishes to admit anything. The worst scenario is that the plaque was destroyed when the roadworks commenced (broken up and shipped away with rubble) and will never be found, but there is a small chance that it was saved and it is now languishing in storage in some forgotten facility somewhere.

I did hear back from the Highways Dept who told me the works to reroute the road started in 2000, but quite obviously this is incorrect and is about what I would expect in terms of a Govt dept being helpful, in general they are pretty useless. The Home still retains responsibility for the tree and foliage management on the remaining part of T77 (why? I have no idea!) and have sent photos of the top of the plot and it shows no sign of the plaque – I’m not sure it would have anyway given that the existing plot doesn't look to be the same area that had the plaque installed on it. Anyway, if there is anyone out there reading this who has any information about the plaque, please feel free to leave a comment or send me an email. It would be great to locate or determine the fate this small bit of Tai Po history.

6 comments:

  1. Great story, and well located! I put together a quick back-and-forth animation overlapping the road as closely as I could:

    http://imgur.com/E7tFcBf

    Feel free to add it to the piece if you like.

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    1. thanks gweilo8888. Actually, this little montage has made me realise they also straightened the road out a bit further up and stuck a petrol station in the reclaimed bit of land. Cheers, Phil

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    2. Glad to help. Yes, I noticed that too -- looks like the footpath around the back of the petrol station roughly follows the old Tai Po Rd. route.

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    3. Yes, it is a footpath. I've used it afew times without realising what it was.

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    4. someone I know, might remember the plaque. They are living in Canada currently. Their name is William and Alice Lau. They were older and worked at the St, Christopher Home. I do not have an email address, but I have their home address. if you are interested I will get their permission to give it to you, so you can get in touch with them,

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    5. Hi anon - do you mean they know what happened to it after the land was sold? If so, then that would be a nice finish to the story, but if you mean they just remember it when it was still in-situ then perhaps it's better not to disturb them. Many thanks, Phil

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