Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Tai Po Market development between 1892 and 1964

Although living in Kowloon for the past couple of years, I spent the first six (or so) years of my time here residing in Tai Po. I still love the place and feel it's a great balance between being able to conveniently reach the city and countryside. Okay, neither is a 5 minute walk away but Tai Po strikes a good balance and its much quicker to get into HK Island than most people realise. It was wandering around Tai Po that inspired the original form of this blog and as a result of my explorations and inquisitiveness I've developed a fairly good knowledge of the place.

However, it wasn't until I accidentally came across an old photo of my father-in-law's (taken probably around 1953 when he was a fresh immigrant from the Mainland) that I started to develop an interest in the history of the place. The photo itself brought the attention of a local historian, Dr Patrick Hase, who had been asked to write a history of the Catholic Church in Taipo for its 150th anniversary year, and he asked if it could be included in the book.

Actually, Dr Hase's rather clever publishing people managed to do a much better and seamless merge of these photographs although, sadly, the version in the book is a tad on the small side. No matter, because you can see larger versions of each section over at my FLICKR account.

Anyway, the book was released a few years ago and I was given a copy (you can get a copy as well, it is available free from the Catholic Church, all you have to do is ask). It's called: 150 Years of Evangelisation in Tai Po. The most interesting bit of the book for me (as a heathen atheist :-) ) is the detailed description of how the market town has grown over the years, so I thought it would be nice to share some of that information.

Okay, but first we need a little bit of background history. Taipo town can basically be separated into two main areas: Taipo Market and Taipo Centre. Taipo Market is basically the older area around the East Rail line. Taipo Centre on the other side of the Lam Tsuen River and consists of space that didn't exist before the 1980's - it's all on reclaimed land and as such exhibits a more planned (read less organic and a bit boring) nature. This little bit of history I am about to go through ends in 1964, which was about 20 years prior to Taipo being turned into a New Town and undergoing all that expansion.

Taipo Market is the older area and has grown/radiated out from a central market street: Fu Shin Street. Now, this wasn't the first market in Taipo. That title is awarded to the 'old market' which was run by the local Tang clan on the other side of the river - around the Tang dominated village of Tai Po Tau. The Tang's operated sole ownership of the 'old' market and abused their monopoly position in many ways: charging high rents for stall holders, demanding first choice on items for sale (and a discount to purchase them) as well as controlling access to the market from across the river by a ferry boat that charged fees.

In 1892 - 7 years before the British Govt took over a lease on the New territories - a group of villages (seven in total) banded together into an alliance known as a Yeuk (the Tsat Yeuk or Alliance of 7), and successfully installed a new market on the south side of the river. A rather wealthy merchant (Man Tsam-chuen) from the Tai Hang area of Taipo put up most of the money for the new market: building shops (about 20 in total) and an administration centre (the Man Mo Temple), sinking a well and constructing a bridge (the Kwong Fuk Bridge) so that people from across the river could come to the market without having to pay the Tangs' ferry fees.

Suffice to say the new market (which was confusingly named Tai Wo market, despite the fact that the present day Tai Wo estate is actually near the site where the Tang's 'old' market used to stand) was a great success and it led to the rather swift downfall of the old market and the power of the Tang's. So, the Tai Wo 'new' market was established on Fu Shin Street and, although it doesn't quite bustle like it used to, the street market there is still very popular with locals. Incidentally, the well, temple and bridge (or at least a modern version of it) are still around.

So what did the area look like in 1892? Well, unfortunately the best I can do is provide a Googl;e Earth aerial view with some (very) rudimentary coastline drawn in. So here it is below:

Taipo coastal limits in 1892

What you can see is the Tai Po Market as it is today, demarcated by the Lam Tsuen River (formerly known as the Kwun Yam River) to the north and the railway line running along the south. The old coastline in red traces the original path of the Kwun Yam river from the west just as it arrived in the bay (Tolo Harbour) next to the original Kwong Fuk Bridge, beyond which (to the right) was open harbour/mud flats. So basically everything above the red line beyond the bridge was water. The coast kinks a bit on the right because there is a hillock there which contains the Tai Po Bungalow (the old Police Bungalow now N.I.S Kindergarten) which still stands today.

Fu Shin Street Market

So, as mentioned already, Fu Shin Street was the market's central drag and the town that now surrounds it had yet to develop - it really was just a single street and barren land everywhere else, as I have tried to recreate above. By 1898/1899 when the Brits came to stake their claims on the NT, this was pretty much all that Taipo consisted of. It may have been small but the market was still significant enough to make the Brits want to use Tai Po as their administration centre for the whole of the northern NT.

Moving on to a post-lease NT and the Colonial administration, the next parcel of land to be developed was to the immediate west of the market area. It was done for two reasons: from a political point of view the developed land was to help extend the market to create new shops and space for more vendors and stallholders, but actually the main reason was to provide some solid ground between the market and the newly laid KCR railway line. The British had already built some structures on the hillocks at the eastern end of town (below the red kink I mentioned) but these were purely for their own administrative use: a police station and district administration office.

The train system had actually started operating circa 1906, but Tai Po Market didn’t get a proper stop until 1912 and even then the ornate station building (which still stands and is now used as part of the small but excellent Hong Kong Railway Museum) was completed until 1913. Previous to this anyone wanting to catch a train (north or south) had to hotfoot it down to Tai Po Kau about a mile to the south (probably taking the quickest route – walking down the track!). So in 1907, with the completion of the land redevelopment and eight years after the Brits took over, Tai Po Market now looked like this:

Taipo Market circa 1907

Still small but growing. The building of the train station on that land – right next to the market – was, essentially, the Colonial authorities affirmation of the importance of the market to the area. That, and the proximity of the Tai Po Road (which I’ll talk about in a bit) was the nail in the coffin for any hope the Tang’s may have had of resurrecting their former flourishing old market and I suspect it may have miffed them a bit!

Moving on and the next plot of land to be developed was on the other side of the tracks. I’m not sure why this area was developed before the rest of town but I suspect it was for residential purposes – or perhaps some spillover from the market? Either way it was completed in 1914.

Taipo Market circa 1914

Incidentally, please note the subtle crossing of the red line – this 1914 development was the first that reclaimed some of the river and started to change the shape of the local coastline. So, we now have 3 large parcels of developed land in Tai Po. The market and its immediate vicinity were all sitting on what was previously some very soggy land thanks to the proximity of both the river and sea. This explains why these parcels of land were done piecemeal – it involved a lot of work to make the land safe for heavy construction. However, this semi-reclamation wasn’t always successful as we shall see next area which was completed in 1916.

Taipo development circa 1916

This block of land, to the immediate right of the market, included everything up to what is now On Fu Road as well as incorporating what is now the triangular street garden next to Tung Yuen St. It's an odd place to have a garden but there is a historical (and geo-technical) reason for this: the authorities wanted to turn the whole block over to expand the market but it was the location of a rather large fish pond that had grown stagnant due to nearby construction of Tai Po Road (now Kwong Fuk Road). The pond, once thriving and full of fish, had its main drainage route blocked by the road's causeway and this made the run off from the market back up and pollute the pond. It became fetid and stinky and quite deep in town effluent.

The upper, shallower portion of the pond was reclaimed for development without much issue but the deeper (northern) end closest to the road was too deep to fill and remained unstable due to lack of drainage. So, instead of buildings, a big open space was left and this eventually became the triangular garden that still sits there today. So now you know.

Triangular Garden on On Fu Road

Incidentally, On Fu Road was also created at this juncture to allow vehicular traffic to reach the railway station. It still points to the old entrance to the station even though its no longer used for that purpose (its a one-way street with traffic flow away from the station these days)

The local electricity supplier (in the NT all the electricity is supplied by the Kadoorie monolith that goes by the name of China Light and Power aka CLP) decided that this area’s small sub station should be adorned with Chinese style wall and roof tiles as seen below.

Moving on and let’s get back to that roadwork I was talking about earlier because that was the next area to be finished. The Tai Po Road was actually started in 1899 – as soon as the Colonial administration had taken over the area. Initially covered in granite chips, it was tarmac’d (in sections) in 1906. The initial phase of the road ran all the way from Nathan Road in Kowloon, right through the intermediate area (pretty much the same route it still does today) all the way up to the market’s 1892-built foot bridge. 1919 saw this part of the town filled in properly to remove the causeway and make better use of the land next to the road. However the footbridge had been replaced by a larger concrete version in 1910 to allow for vehicular traffic. The Govt also took the opportunity to claw back some more of the river bank too. Anyway, here’s how the town was looking by 1919.

Taipo circa 1919 with Tai Po Road reclamation

The next section of land to be developed was the large rectangular block encompassing the several roads that lead from On Fu Road over to the current Po Heung Street (although Po Heung Street was not created at this time).

These days the rectangular block is separated into three parts by three streets that run to On Fu road, and even today a couple of these roads still have some examples of the older style shophouse buildings on them such as these ones hidden along Wai Yan St. Perhaps not quite 1919 vintage but quite possibly pre-war.

Whilst this rectangular development was going on, another smaller plot of land was also being developed at the other (eastern) end of town. Now, I’m not sure why this was but I shall guess that the small plot I am about to discuss came about due to property speculation in the early 1920′s. At this time Tai Po Market was considered to be booming which led to a large influx of people – including wealthy foreigners (Chinese and non-Chinese) who wanted to buy or rent country villas. As such, speculative land purchases ensued and large impressive villas were built on them. The following area (outlined in blue) is possibly a result of this speculation and was developed between 1920 to 1933.

It was also at this time that some fairly impressive mansions were erected on the lower slopes of Flagstaff Hill (south of the dark blue area) on land that didn't need reclamation. Some of the terraces that used to support these rather splendid houses still exist although the houses themselves have long been replaced by various churches, and old people's home and the Heung To College of Professional Studies.

The dark blue area still has an old (ish) house on it now called Man Sze Cheung Yuen, a sort of Shanghai-style curved mansion built in 1955, but before this was constructed the area around there also served as the local fish market where the local fishermen went to sell their daily catch. The area was known as Ap Mo Liu and was also housed the rented premises of the local Catholic Church. You can see some of the older buildings that stand in this area below.

Man Sze Chung Yuen

There was a big pause in any further development in Tai Po Market at this stage. In fact the town stayed this way until the 1960′s – confirmed by my deceased father-in-law’s picture (or at least the right hand side of it) which shows a big large space that occupied the land immediately to the right (east) of the large rectangular block we spoke about previously. Note the various mansions on the hillside at the back.

Moving on to the 1960′s and it became a pressing urgency to alleviate the territory’s water shortages. As such, the creation of Plover Cove Reservoir to the north of the town, led to a dire need for some extra land in town to rehouse the villagers who would be displaced by the reservoir's rising water. And so, the next block of reclamation was done specifically to house these displaced people. Six villages were to be submerged by the rising freshwater and their inhabitants were rehoused in the Plover Cover Resettlement estate built alongside Kwong Fuk Road. The redevelopment was completed in 1963 and here is where it was (outlined in white).

Several of the names of thoroughfares around this reclaimed area relate to the dam project: Luk Heung Lane (Luk Heung means "six rural villages" in Cantonese), Plover Cove Road, Plover Cove market and Plover Cove Garden (the latter is an apartment complex above the market/mall) all recall the history of this phase of development. Here is a picture of the estate when completed, note the work-in-progress in the background.

Source: HK Govt Archive

The aforementioned work-in-progress was the area's last major phase of development and was completed the following year in 1964. It included the current four-lane square development as well as encompassing Wan Tau Street to the east, Heung See Wui Street to the south and Po Heung Street to the west – the latter linking up the previous developed blocks around the market area.

Leaving the largest 'til last

So, there you have it, all the stages of development for Tai Po Market up to and including the final stage in 1964. Of course, since then Tai Po has become the huge bustling New Town we all know and love. The scale of development in the following decades completely dwarfs the bit I've just discussed, but ultimately the success of the town over the last century or so can all be traced back to that one little street created in 1892.

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