In Hong Kong, a building is lucky to survive one generation. The Former French Mission Building has lived through many. Perched on a granite wall above Queen’s Road Central, the three-storey, red brick structure is hard to miss, its presence quiet yet commanding.
The building stands on one of the oldest continually occupied patches of land in Hong Kong, first developed in 1842, a year after the British first landed on the island. Since then, it has been home to colonial governors, plutocrats, Russian and French diplomats, government bureaucrats and white-wigged judges – each one emblematic of some part of the city’s history.
A governor’s mansion – and a crime wave
The Former French Mission Building came into life as a mansion called Johnston House, built for Sir Henry Pottinger, Hong Kong’s first British governor. Pottinger came from old colonial stock, his English ancestors having settled Ireland at the start of its colonial domination. Born in 1789, he made his first journey overseas in 1804, when he was sent by the British Army to disguise himself as a Muslim trader and see what was happening in the lands now known as Pakistan and Afghanistan. He stayed in South Asia until 1839, when he returned to the United Kingdom, but his move back home was short-lived: in 1841, he accepted a post as Britain’s envoy to China. He was sent back abroad with specific instructions to “examine with care the natural capacities of Hong Kong,” which the British had occupied as a staging ground for the First Opium War.
Pottinger soon found himself in northern China, where he led negotiations for the Treaty of Nanking, which ceded Hong Kong Island to the British in perpetuity. Many members of the British establishment were sceptical about Hong Kong’s usefulness as an acquisition, but Pottinger was adamant that it would be a vital asset to British interests. “Every single hour I have passed in this superb country has convinced me of the necessity and desirability of our possessing such a settlement as an emporium for our trade and a place from which Her Majesty’s subjects in China may be alike protected and controlled,” he wrote to Britain’s foreign secretary when he forwarded him the treaty.
When Pottinger was named as Hong Kong’s first governor in 1843, he had grand plans to transform the colony into a commercial capital. He laid the groundwork for the city’s political structure by establishing the Legislative Council and Executive Council, but his tenure as governor was plagued by squabbles with the military and British merchants. To make matters worse, Hong Kong descended into chaos as its population exploded. Disease was rampant. So was crime. The situation was so bad that a local newspaper advised people to “nail their boxes to the floor, lock them and sleep with a good pair of loaded pistols under their pillows, for as soon as the moon got into her first or last quarters, the robberies began.”
Even Pottinger was a victim of theft. In her book Watching Over Hong Kong: Private Policing 1841-1941, historian Sheilah Hamilton notes that Johnston House was burgled on the night of April 26, 1843. Pottinger left Hong Kong in 1844.
A home for opium traders
Early Hong Kong merchants had all kinds of interests, especially tea, taxes from which accounted for 10 percent of the colonial government’s income. But the plain truth is that Hong Kong’s early fortunes were not built on crates of dried leaves – they came from opium. And so it was for the Former French Mission Building’s third and fourth occupants, Indian-born Jewish trader Emanuel Raphael Belilios and the taipan of American trading house Augustine Heard & Co. Belilios apparently owned Johnston House for a brief period before selling it to the company, which renovated the building, adding a third storey and a corner tower.
Hong Kong wouldn’t exist as a city today without opium – after all, it was one the spoils in a war fought so that Britain and other European powers could continue to flood the Chinese market with the powerful narcotic. Hong Kong had no shortage of opium dens. In 1925, American pulp fiction writer Harry Hervey described the scene in the opium dens of Shek Tong Tsui, which was then a seedy red-light district. “In each was an altar dedicated to the god of pleasure, and the air was rich with the mingled odours of incense and opium, alive with coiling drifts of blue smoke,” he wrote. “The girls, some with spots of scarlet on their eyelids, wore the usual brocaded jackets and trousers. (…) Their duties consisted, among other things, of singing and playing to patrons and filling their opium pipes.”
Even the opium trade had its vagaries, however. The global depression of the 1870s took its toll on a number of prominent traders, including Augustine Heard & Co., which went bust in 1875, leaving ownership of Johnston House to another generation.
Enter the missionaries
When the opium traders left, the foreign emissaries came in. First it was the Russians, who used Johnston House as a consulate, and then the Société des Missions étrangères de Paris, an independent Catholic missionary organisation that believed in spreading the word of Jesus by adapting to local customs and promoting native clergy. This is where the building gets its name, not because the mission was its longest occupant, but because it completely reshaped Johnston House. In 1915, the entire structure was radically revamped by architects Robert Leigh and James Orange, who added neoclassical flourishes such as balustraded verandahs and a cupola. They also reclad the building in red brick.
Leigh and Orange were two of the most influential architects in early Hong Kong (and a rival to Palmer and Turner, Hong Kong’s other big design house). Their firm was responsible for, among other landmarks, the Main Hall of the University of Hong Kong, St. Andrew’s Church, the Dairy Farm Depot now home to the Fringe Club, the Ohel Leah Synagogue and the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.
The French Foreign Mission was similarly influential. Though the Anglican Church enjoyed special status as the British state religion—St. John’s Cathedral, which faces the Former French Mission Building, occupies the only freehold parcel of land in Hong Kong—the Catholic Church established a strong foothold through missionary work and schools. Today, there are just under 400,000 Catholics in Hong Kong, according to the local diocese.
Rule of law
It’s not clear what the Japanese did with the Former French Mission Building during their occupation of Hong Kong, which lasted from 1941 to 1945. But after the war, the government began using it as a provisional headquarters, then as a temporary home for the Supreme Court, whose own building had been converted into a headquarters for the Kenpeitai, Japan’s fearsome military police.
In 1952, the government purchased the building from the French Foreign Mission and began using it for various departments of the civil service. In 1968, it was converted into a courthouse, used first by the Victoria District Court, then the Supreme Court, which became the Court of Final Appeal after the handover in 1997. Now that the court has moved back to its original home, which had been used for the Legislative Council since 1985, the building is vacant.
Its involvement with the law looks set to continue. In 2010, as the government prepared to move to its new Tamar headquarters, it proposed redeveloping part of Government Hill, which includes Battery Path, St. John’s Cathedral, the old Central Government Offices and the Former French Mission Building. Heritage activists fought back, arguing that any alteration to the hill’s built environment would destroy its historical integrity.
In response, the government scrapped the redevelopment plans and decided to turn Government Hill into a hub for the legal sector. The Justice Department now occupies the old Central Government Offices, while the Former French Mission Building will soon be dedicated to NGOs serving the legal sector.
There’s still more to come. The building was declared an historic monument in 1989, giving it rare legal protection against demolition. In Hong Kong, that’s the only way to ensure a building has a future – and the only way to be sure it will be a stage for future stories to be told.