A leafy en­clave of carp ponds and pavil­ions, Hol­ly­wood Road Park oc­cu­pies a sto­ried patch of Hong Kong Is­land—the very spot, in fact, where the Bri­tish first raised their flag


Con­tem­plat­ing the rich his­tory of the site now oc­cu­pied by Hong Kong Is­land’s Hol­ly­wood Road Park.

On Hol­ly­wood Road, 20 strides up from Queens Road West in She­ung Wan, a Chi­nese gar­den is en­closed be­hind a white wall topped with glazed green tiles. Drab, gray apart­ment build­ings sur­round the gar­den on all sides. Tall and thin, they pro­trude like domi­nos in the typ­i­cal Hong Kong style. Faded T-shirts and un­der­pants dan­gle on coat hang­ers hooked to im­pro­vised wash­ing lines—lengths of bam­boo bal­anced be­tween drip­ping air con­di­tion­ers.

Four thick, red col­umns are the legs of the gar­den’s en­trance gate. Just be­low the roof, HELIHUO DAO GONGYUAN is in­scribed in styl­ized char­ac­ters. To the left, a plaque on the wall trans­lates the name in English: HOL­LY­WOOD ROAD PARK. In­side the walls, curved paths wind around pavil­ions and a lo­tus pond, where fat carp loi­ter near the sur­face, wait­ing for a feed. They never wait long. Over­head, crested my­nas, great tits, and tiny spar­rows join forces to com­pete with the din of traf­fic. Mostly, they hold their own. Then an am­bu­lance screams past, head­ing west to Queen Mary Hospi­tal.

In a small pavil­ion by the pond, at four in the af­ter­noon, a cau­cus of sil­ver-haired gen­tle­men with corn-yel­low teeth holds ses­sion. This is the hehua ting— the lo­tus pavil­ion, tra­di­tion­ally de­signed for people to sit and en­joy the flow­ers’ aroma. On its bench the old­sters have placed neat squares of news­pa­per, each folded care­fully to bot­tom-size. One man gazes off to the north, un­per­turbed by build­ings block­ing what would once have been a har­bor view; now and again, he drops hand­fuls of stale bread to the rav­en­ous fish. An­other paces from one side of the pavil­ion to the other and back again, ges­tic­u­lat­ing as he goes. At five o’clock, a helper shuf­fles up in plas­tic slip­pers to col­lect a man parked in his wheel­chair. She ex­e­cutes a tight three-point turn and rolls him down­the pavil­ion’s zigzag path, past the play­ground and to­ward the exit. Din­ner­time.

My daily rou­tine takes me down Hol­ly­wood Road, past this park. Rarely do I stop. A reg­u­lar cast of lo­cals visit daily too. But do any of us pause to con­sider that to­day’s Hong Kong started here? From the fall­out of the Opium War, through a plague and as a civic cen­ter, this

piece of land—just half the size of an ath­let­ics track—has seen events that helped shape both Hong Kong’s Bri­tish and Chi­nese com­mu­ni­ties.

JAN­UARY 26,1841: Bri­tish ships blazed down the Pearl River, bran­dish­ing a freshly inked agree­ment ne­go­ti­ated af­ter China’s de­feat in the bat­tle of Chuanbi. It was the be­gin­ning of Bri­tain’s vic­tory in the First Opium War, and the blue­print for the Hong Kong we now know. The vic­tors strode ashore right where Hol­ly­wood Road Park now sits.

Bri­tain and China had been fight­ing for al­most two years. A lot was rid­ing on this war, for both sides. The Bri­tish were de­ter­mined to end the Can­ton Sys­tem, a re­stric­tive set of rules that forced all for­eign trade through the port of Guangzhou. The Qing em­peror’s tight con­trol on trade in­fu­ri­ated the Bri­tish, and limited their prof­its. The Chi­nese, for their part, were des­per­ate put a stop to Bri­tish opium im­ports—and the ru­inous ad­dic­tions that at­tended them—once and for all.

In June 1839, the im­pe­rial com­mis­sioner Lin Zexu seized and de­stroyed thou­sands of ki­los of the drug. In the most scathing let­ter ever ad­dressed to a Bri­tish monarch, he told Queen Vic­to­ria that her mer­chant sub­jects were cal­lous, profit-seek­ing bar­bar­ians: “Let us ask, where is your con­science? I have heard that the smok­ing of opium is very strictly for-

In 1897, a 40-year cur­few on Tai Ping Shan was lifted. Sit­ting at the navel of Hong Kong’s un­der­belly, Tai Tat Tei flour­ished as a night mar­ket. called the “poor man’s Night­club” by the bri­tish, It was the place to go for hot food, hot fun, and hot sex

bid­den by your coun­try; that is be­cause the harm caused by opium is clearly un­der­stood. Since it is not per­mit­ted to do harm to your own coun­try, then even less should you let it be passed on to the harm of other coun­tries —how much less to China!” The let­ter was ig­nored and in Novem­ber 1839 the First Opium War be­gan.

In the first week of Jan­uary1841, Com­modore James Bre­mer led Bri­tish forces to vic­tory in a bat­tle around the is­lands of Chuanbi, in the Pearl River Delta, south of Guangzhou. The cease­fire agree­ment pro­vided for the ces­sion of Hong Kong Is­land to the Bri­tish govern­ment, as well as a hefty 1.4-mil­lion­pound pay­ment for the opium Lin Zexu had de­stroyed. Bre­mer and his squadron then sailed into Hong Kong’s har­bor and pitched the Union Jack in what is now Hol­ly­wood Road Park. “Un­der a feu de joie from the marines, and a royal salute from the ships of war,” Hong Kong was for­mally in Bri­tain’s pos­ses­sion.

To­day, the only re­main­ing ev­i­dence of this fan­fare is Pos­ses­sion Street. Short and steep, it runs along the east side of the park from Queens Road, which skirted the wa­ter­front be­fore a 1859 land recla­ma­tion project pushed the shore back by half a kilo­me­ter. At dusk, tired of­fice work­ers trudge up it, head­ing to­ward trendy apart­ments on Hol­ly­wood Road. Some es­cape the havoc of the streets by de­tour­ing through a tiny al­ley that leads to the park’s back en­trance. In­side, it is cooler, calmer. There is space. But, like me, they do not slow down. This is their daily rou­tine and they’ve got some­where to be.

HOL­LY­WOOD ROAD WAS ONE of the first streets built in Hong Kong; con­struc­tion started in 1844. Its path—from the for­mer wa­ter­front at Queens Road, con­tin­u­ing as Wyn­d­ham and Lower Al­bert Road to the Vic­to­ria Bar­racks—was cho­sen to fa­cil­i­tate the move­ment of troops. Along it were built three- to four-story build­ings, many of which are still stand­ing, al­beit in re­vamped form; in pho­to­graphs from the time, bedrag­gled sheets and shirts hang on Euro­pean-style bal­conies adorned with or­nate Chi­nese balustrades. At street level, open-fronted bar­ber­shops, for­tune-tellers, pawn deal­ers, and cof­fin shops spilled out onto the pave­ment.

When the Bri­tish ad­min­is­tra­tion got or­ga­nized, they flat­tened the bar­ren hill where Bre­mer and his crew drank a toast un­der the flag, and set aside the land as an open space. Tai Tat Tei (lit­er­ally “big piece of land”) was dec­o­rated with man­i­cured trees and small gaze­bos. Sir Henry Pot­tinger, Hong Kong’s first gover­nor, des­ig­nated the sur­round­ing area as a Chi­nese-only res­i­den­tial zone. He laid out a grid of 12 nar­row streets and di­vided them into minis­cule lots to ac­com­mo­date the many and un­ex­pected num­bers of Chi­nese ar­riv­ing from the main­land. With great op­ti­mism, he named the precinct Tai Ping Shan— “hill of peace and safety.” It was any­thing but. The area gained a rep­u­ta­tion for seed­i­ness, de­bauch­ery, and squalor. The Bri­tish avoided it, but the plague did not. In 1894, an out­break fes­tered in the city, thriv­ing in Tai Ping Shan, which was as packed and funky as a can of sar­dines. More than 200,000 people were stuffed into an area the size of seven foot­ball fields with no drainage. Tai Ping Shan suf­fered the most plague ca­su­al­ties in all of Hong Kong; a plaque in nearby Blake Gar­den now com­mem­o­rates the dead. The fol­low­ing year, the Bri­tish govern­ment razed and re­built the en­tire district in an at­tempt to im­prove san­i­ta­tion.

In 1897, a 40-year cur­few on Tai Ping Shan was lifted. Sit­ting at the navel of Hong Kong’s un­der­belly, Tai Tat Tei flour­ished as a night mar­ket. It was the place to go for hot food, hot fun, and hot sex. The Bri­tish would come to

re­ferred to it as the “poor man’s night­club,” and most of them were too scared to set foot near it. But they were miss­ing out. Hong Kong’s work­ing class feasted on cheap food in the warm light of dan­gling globes rigged up to hawker stalls and food carts. A packet of pre­served olives cost just a few cents. Steam­ing bowls of chap sui—“mixed bits”—was an in­ex­pen­sive fa­vorite among lo­cals, who came for din­ner and stayed for the en­ter­tain­ment. Sooth­say­ers read the fu­ture to young sin­gles hop­ing for love. Sto­ry­tellers, ma­gi­cians, and ac­ro­bats com­peted for the at­ten­tion of au­di­ences. Can­tonese chanteuse Lee Yin-Ping sung “Pretty boy, pretty boy, you make my thoughts wan­der in joy” to gig­gling girls.

Crazed fans watched kung fu masters’ kicks and con­tor­tions. A depart­ment store– range of wares was of­fered on ped­dlers’ makeshift ta­bles. Mah-jongg tiles clinked long into the night. The later the hour, the more fun there was to be had. Around the cor­ner on Queens Road, the Ko Shing Theatre showed Can­tonese opera and Chi­nese films to packed au­di­ences crammed into stiff seats. In later years, Amer­i­can troops on break from Viet­nam be­came reg­u­lars at the Tai Tat Tei, but not for long. The govern­ment re­pos­sessed the land in 1972, clear­ing it out by 1978. In 1992, the site was con­verted into a Chi­nese gar­den and named Hol­ly­wood Road Park. The Tai Tat Tei’s reg­u­lars keep com­ing, though—the ma­jor­ity of viv­i­tors are people of that gen­er­a­tion. But the place has changed. To­day, when dark falls, the park emp­ties out.

IT’S LATE AT NIGHT NOW; qui­eter, calmer. The park feels still, as if at rest. The roar of traf­fic is re­duced to a gen­tle back­ground hum and the small foun­tain’s flow is clearly au­di­ble. In the wa­ter, the carp swim slower, deeper, weighed down by the day’s fill. The play­ground is bathed in light, but all the chil­dren are in bed. And the old men, too: their pavil­ion is brightly lit, but empty.

Now and then, a run­ner pants in through the front en­trance and out the back. A mid­dleaged man is deep in dis­cus­sion on his mo­bile phone. As he talks, he cir­cum­am­bu­lates the park, car­ry­ing his con­ver­sa­tion to its far­thest cor­ners on a well-worn cir­cuit that takes him five min­utes flat. In one cor­ner, five young men dressed in black and white have taken over an open space near the lo­tus pavil­ion. They are un­der the spot­light of blaz­ing lamps, break­danc­ing in front of an au­di­ence of back­packs on a long bench. A small boom box is their sound­track, vol­ume down low. Ten hulk­ing bi­ceps push at ten T-shirt sleeves. Head­stands and hand­stands pull their T-shirts down, re­veal­ing the toned trunk hold­ing them upside-down for three, four, five sec­onds. Each tum­ble, twist, and con­tor­tion is pow­ered by stored en­ergy pushed from the ground. But this is not the per­for­mance, just a re­hearsal. Each man in­hab­its his own world of move­ment. From time to time one stops to watch an­other; from time to time they rest. When they leave the park they will pass a signpost that en­cap­su­lates the area’s rich his­tory. South to Tai Ping Shan, east to Pos­ses­sion Street, and west to Queens Road.


pavil­ion at Hol­ly­wood Road Park.

THAT WAS THEN Left: Tai Tat Tei, the fu­ture site of Hol­ly­wood Road Park, as it looked circa 1930.

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