MTR station takes Hong Kong commuters back in time
HONG KONG — Hundreds of railway aficionados rushed through the entrance of Sung Wong Toi Station, located in Kowloon district, at around 5 am local time on June 27 in a bid to be among the first to ride the new, long-awaited Tuen Ma Line.
While it is a symbol of speed and modernity, there is a nod to the local history of the centuries-old community the new station serves, with an exhibition of archaeological finds along with Chinese calligraphy in ink and brush.
The exhibition named Treasures from Sacred Hill at Sung Wong Toi Station, Hong Kong’s first exhibition at a subway station, displays numerous relics, including ceramic vases, incense burners and even pottery dice excavated during the station’s construction.
“The findings are so rare. It is the first time such an event has been held in Hong Kong with such a scale of archaeological items,” says Ray Ma, curator of Archaeology at Hong Kong’s Antiquities and Monument Office, adding that the findings unveil a picture of Kowloon city and Hong Kong from hundreds of years ago.
The exhibition welcomes an average of about 6,000 to 8,000 visitors per day, according to the Antiquities and Monument Office of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government’s Development Bureau.
Susanna Siu, executive secretary at the Antiquities and Monument Office, says the exhibition is about “introducing people to history in an accessible place and a way that can interest them”.
Historical literature states that a young emperor, in the final years of China’s Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279), stayed in what is now Kowloon city for a few months while fleeing the Mongol onslaught. The name Sung Wong, meaning Song (960-1279) emperor in Chinese, inspired the name of the station.
The archaeological discoveries in Hong Kong are similar in origin to many found on the Chinese mainland, despite the area where they were discovered not always being center stage in China’s ancient history, Ma says.
While a significant amount of relics unearthed are from China’s Song and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties, the name of Sung Wong Toi Station is written in running script known as Xingshu by MTR’s retired architect Abe Au Kit Tong, to echo the calligraphy style that was popular during the Song Dynasty.
“Chinese calligraphy has become a signature for Hong Kong’s subway platforms,” says the 71-year-old Au, who now spends his retirement teaching Chinese calligraphy in Canada.
His Chinese ink-and-brush writing, featuring strong visual effects, along with the mosaic tiles in distinctive colors, was applied to the Hong Kong subway’s decor since the opening of the Hong Kong Island Line in the 1980s to help passengers distinguish between different stations.
Chinese calligraphy, like architecture, is also about drawing lines and achieving balance with the ratio of different elements, Au says, while his displayed works at Hong Kong’s MTR stations are more about finding a rhythm that suits the characteristics of each location.
The newly opened Tuen Ma Line, where Au’s artworks are showcased, is Hong Kong’s longest railway line that stretches 56 kilometers with 27 stations.
Putting aside the challenging task of protecting historical sites during construction, building stations is hard in Hong Kong’s well-developed and densely populated communities, says Wincy Chow, senior architectural manager of the Tuen Ma Line.
The construction needs to be carried out without obstructing transportation on the ground and plans needed to be adjusted to accommodate the five ancient wells found at the site, according to Chow.
MTR, the public transit system that transports millions of passengers during normal weekdays, is also a messenger from the past to the future.
“With the development of the economy, calls by the people for better conservation of historic monuments are growing louder,” commissioner for heritage, Ivanhoe Chang, says. The Antiquities and Monument Office was founded in 1976 to protect and preserve Hong Kong’s historic treasures.
However, challenges remain with today’s rapid modernization.
“About 30 years ago, there was no Chinese calligraphy class taught in my son’s middle school,” MTR’s calligrapher Au recalls.
The number of people practicing this traditional art in Hong Kong has been decreasing, he says, and his calligraphy works, with their distinguishing styles that are inherited from different dynasties, were sometimes taken as incorrectly written characters. “Chinese calligraphy and printed characters are not the same thing,” he says.
“I hope my work, if possible, reminds people in the future of such a thing called Chinese calligraphy,” Au says.
In Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui area, the former Kowloon-Canton Railway Clock Tower, standing beside Victoria Harbor, used to be an iconic landmark and a key link between Hong Kong and mainland cities, including Guangzhou and Beijing. The modern high-speed railway at West Kowloon came into operation in 2018.
“Demolition and redevelopment happens all the time,” Chang says. “By taking into account the history, while looking into the future, we need to strike a balance between development and conservation in order to achieve a sustainable model.”