Stair Culture: Digging Into the Past and Present of Hong Kong’s Ladder Streets

Pottinger street - 1946 - Hedda MorrisonTank Lane in Sheung Wan - Photograph by Christopher DeWolfEster Poon YarnbombingShin Hing Street in Sheung Wan - Photograph by Christopher Dewolf

There are 238 steps on Pound Lane and it takes about 100 of them to reach Mana, a café nestled against a mossy granite retaining wall. That’s where Melissa Cate Christ is having coffee on a bright, humid afternoon. “I’m wearing my stair dress,” she says, gesturing at the building block staircase pattern on her cheerful spring attire.

It’s more than a whimsical sartorial choice. Cate Christ runs Stair Culture, an effort to document the hundreds of stairways and so-called “ladder streets” that climb Hong Kong’s steep hills. More than just a catalogue, the project is an investigation into the history, culture and significance of the stairs. “The intent is not to be didactic, it’s to show the stairs as living heritage,” she says.

Mapping of "ladder streets" - Courtesy of Stair Cutlure

Mapping of “ladder streets” – Courtesy of Stair Cutlure

Hong Kong is a hilly city, so naturally enough, there are thousands of staircases all over the territory. In the oldest neighbourhoods, they serve double duty as streets and major pedestrian thoroughfares, lined by apartment buildings, shops and schools. Pound Lane is a perfect example, serving as a link between Sheung Wan and the Mid-Levels. All day and all night, the surrounding buildings echo not with car horns and engines, but with the tip-tap of footsteps. At the corner of Pound Lane and Po Hing Fong, some of the neighbourhood’s grandmothers have sawed down the legs of dining room chairs to create a resting place that balances perfectly on the steps.

Strangely, though, none of these ladder streets officially exist, at least not in a way that is different to any other street or footpath. Hong Kong’s government does not have any special category for stairways and ladder streets, which means there is nobody looking into their special needs and circumstances, like accessible handrails or their use as public spaces.

Nobody, that is, except Cate Christ, her students and the neighbourhood advocates they work with. Cate Christ and her team have begun producing detailed isometric drawings of major ladder streets and they are trying to build up a record of when and why each stairway was built. Until that work is finished, there isn’t much hard information about most of the city’s staircases.

Pottinger street Central in 1946 - Photograph by Hedda Morrison (restored)

Pottinger Street Central in 1946 – Photograph by Hedda Morrison (restored)

What is known is that the stairs were essential to Hong Kong’s development as a city. When the British landed in 1841, they built their centre of administration on the shores of present-day Central. There was no flat land — at the time, the waters of Victoria Harbour lapped against what is now Queen’s Road — so early town planners built space-efficient staircases to avoid the need for meandering hillside roads. Granite quarried from Quarry Bay and Shek Tong Tsui was used to build the steps. “If you see pink, sparkly granite, that’s local,” says Cate Christ.

The staircases allowed the city to expand up the slopes of Victoria Peak. For years, they were the only hard-paved streets in Hong Kong. “It was dirt tracks connected by stairs,” says Cate Christ. “They allowed more democratic access to areas that were previously inaccessible.”

Many of the first staircases were planned under the guidance of Henry Pottinger, Hong Kong’s first British governor, whose brief four-year term laid the groundwork for the colony’s future development. The first recorded staircase was built from Queen’s Road to Gough Street in 1845, though there is hardly any trace of this history today, as the original granite steps have been replaced by concrete.

Shin Hing Street in Sheung Wan - Photograph by Christopher Dewolf

Shin Hing Street in Sheung Wan – Photograph by Christopher DeWolf

Many other historic staircases have met a similar fate. Although they are among the oldest surviving structures in Hong Kong, staircases are vulnerable to abuse, because there is no law protecting their original features from alteration. The Duddell Street steps are a rare exception. Built between 1875 and 1889 as a showcase for the Hong Kong and China Gas Company, which erected a pair of gas lamps on each end of the staircase, the steps are a declared historic monument.

“The Duddell Street steps were meant as a grand gesture, but almost all of the other stairs were meant as a way to get from A to B,” says Cate Christ. In theory, construction crews doing work on the stairs must restore them to their original condition, but poor oversight means this isn’t always the case. Pound Lane’s staircase, built around 1870, is threatened by a proposal to replace it with an escalator system similar to the Central-Mid Levels Escalator, which supporters say would make life easier for the neighbourhood’s elderly people. Opponents argue the plan would destroy dozens of trees and century-old granite structures. Nearby Ladder Street was one of the original candidates for the escalator, but it was considered inappropriate for the street’s Grade I historic status

Cate Christ has been involved in the campaign against the escalator, as well as other efforts to highlight Hong Kong’s stair culture. In 2013, she staged Step Up!, an exhibition of performances, art and architectural installations on stairs around Central and Sheung Wan. “Part of the idea was to test what we could do on the stairs,” she says. In one instance, a Japanese artist was invited to do a live painting exercise on the 54 steps between Wyndham Street and Ice House Street, but security guards from the adjacent Foreign Correspondents’ Club called police as soon as he mounted his canvas. By contrast, events that took place on Pound Lane went undisturbed. “It depends on the relationship the surrounding community has with the space,” says Cate Christ.

Dai pai dong on a stairway in Central - Photograph by Christopher Dewolf

Dai pai dong on a stairway in Central – Photograph by Christopher DeWolf

That relationship varies from street to street. Many stairways are dank concrete passages, but others are lively gathering places, like the 82 steps connecting Wyndham Street with Arbuthnot Road, which are lined by The Cascade, a bright orange public seating installation built in 2013. Pottinger Street is lined by hawker selling seasonal costumes; its broad granite steps have earned it the nickname daam3 baan2 gaai1 (石板街): “Stone Slab Street.” (Ladder Street’s name is similarly descriptive, in both English and Chinese.) Wedding photographers and amateur models flock to any of the picturesque ladder streets around Sheung Wan, including Ladder Street itself, which was built in the late 1840s. In recent years, handrails on many stairways have been yarnbombed by artist Esther Poon.

Cate Christ hopes that by understanding each of these stairways, their value can be made clear – and their future assured. Researching the stairs isn’t easy. Many of Hong Kong’s historic records are kept in London and Cate Christ still needs to pour over the handwritten 19th century log books that recorded each and every public project undertaken by the British colonial government.

“We have a lot of work to do,” says Cate Christ. She finishes her coffee, packs up her bag and leaves Mana, walking down Pound Lane, Hollywood Road and Cochrane Street to Central MTR: 319 steps.

Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.

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