Monday, 6 October 2014

Down in "The Tong"

I don't live in Kowloon Tong but I do go through it almost everyday because it's my nearest MTR station and despite popping in on the odd occasion over the years, it wasn't until we moved to Kowloon that I found the time and energy I needed to explore a bit more. You'd be surprised about how much there is to find here. However, it wasn't until recently that my interest in the original Kowloon Tong Estate was piqued because of some old photos posted up on that showed some of the original Kowloon Tong houses.

Let's be specific. When I talk about Kowloon Tong in this context, I am referring to the original garden estate that was built between the KCR railtrack (to the west) and Waterloo Road (to the east). Kowloon Tong itself seems to refer to a much larger area these days - encompassing Yau Yat Chuen and Kowloon City if you believe the real estate agents - but these places weren't developed until long after the Kowloon Tong Estate was built in the 1920's and 30's.

Believe it or not, but after a quick look at the picture(s) on, it became apparent that many of these original mansion houses still exist! That's right - houses that are now approaching 80 - 90 years old (which means they are almost pre-Big Bang in HK terms) are still going strong in the "Tong". Of course only a small fraction are still used as private residences. The vast majority have already been turned into a variety of Love Motels and Kindergartens (I'm sure it won't be long before sky-rocketing rents mean one will be turned into a Love Motel/Kindergarten combination...!) but thankfully still retain enough of their original features for us to identify their heritage.

Given the age of the estate (officially one of the first developments in the so-called "New Territories"), it surprises me (or perhaps it doesn't) that despite all these near century old houses, only three seem to have made it onto the Govt’s heritage radar. These are some of the longest standing structures on this side of the harbour (ancient temples aside) and yet the Govt has only given a few of them a very poor Grade 3 listing - meaning that they're not protected from redevelopment in any way.

Anyway, rant over. The history of the estate starts proper in 1922 when it commenced construction under the auspices of a chap called Charles Montague Ede. Ede was a shipping insurance Taipan turned property developer who saw a potential for money making by building a middle class residential area in the New Territories (remember, officially everything north of Boundary Street is part of the New Territories). Ede’s contribution to the estate is remembered in two ways – first by a foundation stone on the corner of Essex Crescent and Cumberland Road (see below) and second by a road (up near Beacon Hill) named after him at a later date.

Sadly, almost before the project got anywhere it went awry in 1925 when Ede’s death coincided with the general strike. The building project stalled through lack of funds and was eventually rescued by the Govt with a little help from Sir Robert Ho Tung (Ho Tung also has a nearby road named after him next to the nearby Maryknoll School).

The original extent of the Kowloon Tong Estate

The project was eventually completed in the 1930's and the finished product was a garden estate with European-style balconied mansions with some extensive garden area (extensive for HK at least), and lucky for us we can now take a look at some of the original buildings. For starters, here is a Kindergarten on Cumberland Road that should be proud of the fact that they operate out of what looks to be a totally unmodified house.

I also suspect the front wall is also the original, although I can't confirm. Here is another good example that now operates as a Love Hotel (I think?)…

Okay, I believe this one has been modified slightly by having the upper front balcony enclosed – a perfect example of what the Govt now considers to be illegal – but what a beautiful building it is and check out the downstairs windows. Also notice the original curve in the front of the upper floor – remember this because some of the more modified houses still have them.

The next is also being used as a (rather over the top) Kindergarten. In fact if you look carefully at the second photo you will see that both houses still have their original chimney.

All they need to do is give it a sensible paint job and it would actually be nice to look at, as it is we can make out the curved front and a roof that has been replaced but is true to the original shape it was given. Look closely and you can also see the curved arches on the ground floor.

Moving on…

Above is another Love Hotel, but under the concrete you can still see the original shape more or less. It's not a bad job considering, but still not as nice as the original design. Shame about the roof though, the original sloped roof looks to have been replaced by a flat one. Below though is another one that has kept the original roof.

It seems that one of the most common modification to these old buildings is to increase a bit of internal space by closing off the front balcony. Some of these buildings are owned by some seriously rich people and still operate as private homes. A house like this would probably sell for several hundred million HK dollars in the current climate.

Here are a few that I believe are original (with a few small modifications) but which I couldn’t really get a good snap of without risking the wrath of guard dogs or big men with big turbans.

This one is actually used by a junior school.

Well hidden, but look carefully and you’ll see some original features.

The one above, #2 Devon Road, is definitely an original but the owners have had a go at removing the old central chimney and all that is left is a small bump on the roof. I haven’t seen inside any of the buildings but by the position of the chimney I’m assuming it was one central flue that connected to several fireplaces inside the main rooms.

In the picture above you can just about make out the arches on the ground floor and the upper storey columns that once formed the balcony.

The jury is out on this one above. It contains elements of the original style (ground floor arches) but has been changed quite a bit. I think the curve on the front perhaps hides the original one?

I found one of the best preserved original houses on Google’s Streetview. Here is a picture of # 4 Dorset Crescent courtesy of Streetview.

Gorgeous, right? What a fantastically well maintained original Kowloon Tong Estate mansion house. I was so excited about this that I went down there just to grab a snap of this baby. Now, bear in mind, this post is two years old so the following snap is one I took back in 2012/2013. Here’s what I found.

A picture speaks a thousand words, right? There are no words that can describe this (okay, maybe just one: empty!), so I’ll just leave it here for you to see how HK looks after its old buildings. Grrr! I walk past this plot on a regular basis, and I can tell you that since this place was knocked down in 2011/2012 nothing else has been done. Nothing. What a waste.

In an ironic and illogical twist that only seems to happen in HK, the following house is one of the ones that has gained a Grade 3 listing. Apparently it’s owned by a family called the Tai’s and they have lived here for several generations. The age is estimated to be early 1930’s but you’ll notice that – although impressive – it’s not one of the original houses.

It’s a great looking art deco building (with complementary-styled perimeter wall) but is still not as old as some of the ones I’ve already shown. So, the Govt has given this a grading and ignored a whole bunch of other older ones.


  1. Thanks very much for this focus on Kowloon Tong - timely for me, because I have just moved into this area recently.

    1. Hi Liz - thanks for stopping by and welcome to the deep dark bowels of Kowloon...

  2. Hi Phil, I've marked up a copy of the 1934 map of Kowloon Tong from the Mapping HK book with the old houses that still exist (or did last year, when I was there last). Is there any chance I can email it to you for your thoughts/feedback before I consider posting it over on Gwulo, please? Thanks, Liz.

    1. Hi Liz, I reckon you must be the expert by now, but feel free to contact me directly on philipedwardkenny 'at' gmail 'dot' com. I'm overseas at the moment but will be back in HK next week, so I apologise in advance if there is a delay getting back to you. Cheers, Phil

    2. thanks, Phil. I'll email it to you over the next day or so. Liz