Hong Kong’s Colonial Heritage, Part XV: The Chinese YMCA’s Chicago Roots

There’s a century-old piece of Chicago in a quiet corner of Hong Kong. Built in 1918, the Chinese YMCA’s Bridges Street Centre is perched on a steep slope, rising six storeys from its base and three storeys above Bridges Street, a narrow thoroughfare with more foot traffic than cars. At first glance, the green ceramic tiles above the entrance and along the roof bring to mind a Chinese temple. But step back and its stolid form and sober brick façade make the building’s Midwestern American influence clear. 

Though its architecture is rooted in Chicago, the building owes its existence to a movement that emerged from the hardscrabble streets of Victorian London. In the 1840s, as the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, a draper named George Williams grew concerned about the fate of the young workers toiling in the city’s factories, workshops and dockyards. Work, pub, brothel – this was the circuit they followed in their daily lives, in the eyes of a devout Christian like Williams, this debauched routine deprived the men of both physical and spiritual health. In 1844, Williams and 11 of his associates launched the Young Men’s Christian Association to improve their “body, mind and spirit” through prayer, athletics, education and charity. 

The YMCA movement soon spread to the United States, where it found a zealous following in cities like Boston and New York. In 1889, the International Committee of the North American YMCA was founded in order to take the organisation overseas, joining the international outreach already being undertaken by the various YMCAs in Britain and continental Europe. It dovetailed with the missionary work that was underway in Asia, especially since some missionaries were also YMCA members. As they travelled around the continent, they sowed the seeds for a new network of Asian YMCAs. 

“The associations formed in Asian countries were a mix of those arising out of American evangelical zeal and those benefiting from British colonial ties,” notes Robbie Goh, provost of the Singapore University of Social Sciences, who has researched the YMCA’s spread through Asia. That was certainly the case in Hong Kong, where a local branch of the YMCA was founded in 1901. Seven years later, it was split along linguistic lines, with the YMCA of Hong Kong serving the English-speaking population and the Chinese YMCA catering to Cantonese speakers.

While the YMCA of Hong Kong was supported by the local British elite, the Chinese YMCA was helped along by Chinese merchants as well as donations from the Chicago YMCA, which took its Hong Kong counterpart under its wing. In 1915, the Chinese YMCA hired a Chicago-based architecture firm, Shattuck and Hussey, to design its new headquarters, which would be built on Bridges Street, just across from a YMCA day camp that had already been operating for a few years. Construction began in 1917—the foundation stone was laid by the Bishop of Victoria—and the building opened the following year. 

It was a foregone conclusion that Shattuck and Hussey would design the Chinese YMCA. After winning a design competition for the YMCA in the early 1900s, they ended up designing dozens of the association’s branches. As historian Paula Lupkin writes in her book Manhood Factories: YMCA Architecture and the Making of Modern Urban Culture, the firm’s architects “became quasi-employees, trusted to produce functional and low-cost buildings. Their understanding of YMCA building principals could be transferred from building to building, reducing risk for local building committees.” 

The YMCAs designed by Shattuck and Hussey in North America shared a similar architectural style informed by the so-called Chicago School, an architectural movement that emerged as the Midwestern boomtown grew by leaps and bounds around the turn of the 20th century. Modern steel and concrete structures were dressed up in masonry cladding with restrained neo-classical details – a plainspoken architectural language that captured the broad perspectives and frank ambition of a prairie metropolis. 

But this formula ran into trouble when Shattuck and Hussey began working on YMCAs in China. In her book, Lupkin details how local administrators of the Shanghai YMCA were dissatisfied with the firm’s designs. “In every building so far erected it has been necessary to make quite radical changes of the plans submitted by Hussey,” one of them complained. “The specifications have in every case had to be entirely rewritten in nearly every building, and in the case of the Shanghai building, changes in every feature of the building, including walls, foundations, footings, etcs., were necessary.”

It’s not entirely clear what the problems were. Founding partner Harry Hussey later blamed shoddy local materials and workmanship, but others accused him of being aloof, incompetent and greedy. It’s also unclear whether the Chinese YMCA in Hong Kong required any similar alterations to its plans. But Hussey and his firm weren’t entirely removed from the Chinese context. In 1911, he took a train, and then a boat, and landed in Hong Kong at the start of what would become a long stay in Asia. 

Hussey was only 29 years old, but he had already led a varied life. Born in a small Ontario town, he left home early to work at a knitting mill in upstate New York, then as a miner in Kentucky and northern Mexico. The mine owners took kindly to him and convinced him to complete his high school education, then encouraged him to study architecture at the Art Institute of Chicago – all on their dime. In Chicago, he met another young architect named Walter Shattuck and they decided to go into business together. 

When he arrived here in 1911, Hussey hadn’t yet been commissioned to work on the local YMCA, so he began a tour of Asia that took him throughout China, Korea and Japan, where a number of other YMCA projects were underway. That trip marked the start of an evolution in Hussey’s architecture, perhaps informed by the vernacular architecture he encountered through his travels. Compared to his earliest designs in Asia, such as a now-demolished YMCA in Seoul that looked like it was plucked from the streets of Cleveland or Minneapolis, the YMCA on Bridges Street incorporates at least a few Chinese elements, notably the ceramic roof tiles. By the time the building had begun construction, Hussey had settled in Beijing, where he bought a siheyuan, or traditional courtyard house, that served as his home base for many years to come.

Beyond its distinctive façade, the interior of the Bridges Street YMCA makes  it clear just how formulaic Shattuck and Hussey’s designs were. It looks like many other YMCAs around the world, with an indoor swimming pool—Hong Kong’s first—a gymnasium with a mezzanine running track, and a variety of conference rooms. There is very little ornamentation, aside from commemorative plaques honouring the YMCA’s donors and directors. It is a utilitarian space for training the body and cleansing the soul. 

All told, Shattuck and Hussey designed nearly a dozen YMCAs across Asia. Few have survived, making the one on Bridges Street a rare specimen. For decades after it opened, it was one of the few places where Chinese Hongkongers—at least the men—could go for indoor exercise. It hosted classes, workshops and lectures, including a talk in 1927 by Lu Hsun, a pillar of the anti-imperialist May Fourth Movement. In 1941, occupying Japanese forces seized control of the building, but they still used it for educational purposes – in this case, German and Japanese language lessons. 

Since 1966, when the Chinese YMCA moved its main operations to a new complex on Waterloo Road in Yau Ma Tei, the Bridges Street facility has been used as a hostel and educational space for intellectually disabled people. For that reason, public access to the facility is limited, and most of the athletic facilities are no longer in use, except for the pool. But a recent visit revealed that the interiors have been remarkably well preserved. Everything is a bit weathered—exactly the way an old building should be—but the original details are intact, including the original wooden running track, well worn by decades of footsteps.

All of this—the Chicago School architecture, the social significance, the well-kept interiors—led the Antiquities Advisory Board (AAB) to give the Chinese YMCA a Grade II listing in 1979. It was upgraded to Grade I in 2009, the highest level of protection before a building becomes a declared monument, with the AAB noting that “the Chicago School influence is very rare in Hong Kong.” There’s no guarantee that the building will survive another century, but for now, at least, Hong Kong’s little piece of Chicago will remain intact.

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