Hong Kong’s Colonial Heritage, Part IX: Kom Tong Hall, the Sun Yat-sen Museum

The Dr. Sun Yat-sen Museum is housed in Kom Tong Hall, a grand Edwardian mansion in the Mid-Levels. Inside, you will find a wax figure of Sun and exhibits relating to the revolutionary leader’s life. What you won’t find is an explanation of his connection to this particular building – because there isn’t one. Sun never set foot in Kom Tong Hall. 

But the building’s history is fascinating in many other ways. It was once a mansion among many, nearly all of which have been demolished. And it speaks to a history of cultural crosscurrents, racial hierarchies and an anti-imperial Chinese revolution that was funded in part by support from within a British colony. 

Kom Tong Hall opened on Castle Road in 1914. It was built by Ho Kom-tong, who was born in 1866 into a sprawling clan whose descendants include gambling tycoon Stanley Ho, film star Josie Ho and martial arts legend Bruce Lee. Through his mother, Sze Tai, Ho was the half brother of Sir Robert Ho Tung, a prominent Eurasian businessman and philanthropist, and their lives were closely intertwined. 

Ho was educated at the Central Government School, later renamed Queen’s College, where he shared classes with Sun Yat-sen. After his studies, he became a comprador for trading conglomerate Jardine Matheson, a position once held by Robert Ho Tung and Ho Fook, another one of Ho’s half brothers. That launched a very lucrative career in business that saw Ho establish commercial interests across Southeast Asia while building up his influence at home.

Like a number of other wealthy businessmen in the early 20th century, Ho considered himself a community leader, and he devoted much of his time and money to philanthropy. He funded the Kau U Fong Public Dispensary to improve the health of the local Chinese population after recurring outbreaks of the bubonic plague. When a typhoon caused enormous damage in 1906, Ho raised HK$1.8 million—a very large amount at the time—for relief work, as well as for the construction of the Yau Ma Tei Typhoon Shelter. He served on the board of the Tung Wah Hospital, co-founded the Kwong Wah Hospital in Kowloon, and single-handedly funded the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade for more than a decade. He also worked with Sir Ellis Kadoorie to raise funds for the Helena May Institute for Women, which still operates today in its original location on Garden Road. 

Ho was just as prolific in his personal life. True to his roots in a vast, complicated family, Ho had a dizzying array of relations, including 12 wives and concubines and at least 30 children. One of his daughters, Grace, went on to marry Cantonese opera star Lee Hoi-chuen, and together they had a son: Bruce Lee. (Grace was Eurasian, and her origins remain somewhat mysterious. Many sources suggest that she was adopted by Ho and his Eurasian mistress, Cheung King-sin, but some argue that she was in fact their biological daughter.) 

Such a big brood needed a big house. It was something demanded by Ho’s social stature, too. His peers amidst Hong Kong’s ascendant merchant class were busy building grand palaces up the slopes of Victoria Peak. Sir Catchick Paul Chater’s extravagant Marble Hall was completed on Conduit Road in 1904; Mok Kon-sang, grandson of Swire’s first comprador, built a mansion called The Fairview not far away in 1911. Ho secured a plot of land at the corner of Castle Road and Caine Road, opposite Buxey Lodge, the villa that Sir Mormusjee Mody—business partner of Paul Chater and a founder of the University of Hong Kong—had built in 1876. 

There were plenty of other grand homes being built higher up the mountain, but non-European settlement was banned on the Peak in 1904, partly as a result of the growing wealth of people like Ho. Life in early colonial Hong Kong was defined by a racial hierarchy, with white Europeans at the top, mixed-race Eurasians, Portuguese and Indians a rung below, and Chinese at the bottom. In fact, the whites-only restriction initially extended as far down the hill as Caine Road, but Ho lobbied to have the rules eased, and the racial exclusion was lifted from the Mid-Levels in 1906. Ho was rich and influential enough to change government policy – but even then, there were certain places a man like him was expected to avoid.

Kom Tong Hall made up for its lack of geographic elevation with architectural grandeur. Ho hired two well-known English architects to design the house: Aston Webb and Ingress Bell, who had previously designed the eastern façade of Buckingham Palace and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, as well as the Signal Tower in Tsim Sha Tsui and the Hong Kong Supreme Court, now the Court of Final Appeals. Their plans for Kom Tong Hall called for a four-storey, 2,500-square-metre house that was typically Edwardian in style, with a mix of rusticated stonework, red brick and stucco, not unlike the Main Building of the University of Hong Kong. Deep verandahs built into a curved stone façade looked out over Victoria Harbour, giving the house a distinguished and imposing appearance – more like a civic structure than a private residence.

Inside, the hallways and staircases were fitted out with carved wooden columns and mosaic tile floors; the main rooms featured mouldings painted in gold leaf. There were stained glass windows with playful Art Nouveau patterns. And underneath all of that ornamentation were perhaps the most remarkable features: a reinforced concrete frame and hidden electrical wiring, two innovations that were still very unusual in Hong Kong at the time, especially for a private house.

The Ho family lived in Kom Tong Hall for nearly half a century after it was completed in 1914. During the Japanese occupation, Ho and his immediate family fled to Macau, but they allowed more than 300 members of their extended clan to take shelter in the mansion. They returned after the war. Ho died in 1950, but his family remained for another decade before selling the property to the Cheng family.

Just one year later, the Chengs sold Kom Tong Hall to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints—popularly known as the Mormons—which used it as a chapel and educational centre. They kept it in good condition, making few alterations to the interior. But in 2002, the church applied for a permit to demolish and redevelop the structure. That prompted a backlash from heritage conservations and the general public, including a plea to save the building from Ho’s great-grandson, Andrew Tse. The government intervened and negotiated a deal to buy the house from the church for HK$53 million.

As soon as the transaction was completed, work began to convert the former residence into a museum dedicated to Sun Yat-sen. Sun’s connection to the house was tangential—he was classmates with Ho and Robert Ho Tung had given financial support to his revolutionary activities—but it was conveniently located near many of the places Sun had frequented during his time in Hong Kong, which formed the basis of the Sun Yat-sen Heritage Trail that was designated in 2006, the year the museum opened. 

Today, the museum contains a few informative plaques and some historic artefacts. But the real attraction is the house itself: a remarkably well-preserved window into the early days of Hong Kong, when an ascendant class of merchants were beginning to change the face of a British colony.

Kom Tong Hall is located at 7 Castle Road. Please consult the Dr. Sun Yat-sen Museum’s website for information about opening hours and exhibitions.

Note: This article was updated on March 29, 2021 to clarify the use of Kom Tong Hall by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. 

Go back to top button