Hong Kong’s Colonial Heritage, Part X: Maryknoll Convent School

For most Hong Kong schoolchildren, a day in class means sitting in a concrete box that looks like hundreds of others across the city. Not so at Maryknoll Convent School. Since it opened on Waterloo Road in 1937, this girls’ school has been one of Hong Kong’s most unmistakable landmarks, a whimsical brown brick jumble of arches and pointed eaves, with a moody Art Deco tower visible from far in the distance. In the midst of drab surroundings, it looks like a portal into a children’s fantasy book.

“It’s got that dreamy look, almost medieval – a little bit out of this world in the Hong Kong context,” says Amy Ho, supervisor of Maryknoll’s primary section. Calling it “dreamy” is more than a turn of phrase. Ho studied at Maryknoll herself, and after graduating in 1979, she never stopped thinking about the school’s romantic atmosphere: its stone gates, the redbrick tower, the leafy courtyard surrounded by porticoes. “I think anyone who has ever studied at Maryknoll has had the school campus appear again and again in their dreams. I’m serious about this,” she says.

It’s easy to see why. Compared to the utilitarian nature of most Hong Kong schools, Maryknoll is indeed the stuff of dreams. “The staircases wind, the banisters are carved. It’s very human,” says Ho. “There are twists and turns. There will be a staircase that leads up to a small room on the side with nothing else, all by itself. Why build a staircase to a small room all by itself? It tickles the mind. As a child, you can be in that environment and explore. You wonder.”

The story begins with the Maryknoll Sisters, a group of American Catholic nuns who arrived in Hong Kong in 1921. (They are related to the Maryknoll Brothers, who built a rest house that stood in Stanley for nearly nine decades.) As University of Hong Kong historian and Maryknoll alum Cindy Yik-Yi Chu explains in her book, The Maryknoll Sisters in Hong Kong, 1921–1961, the sisters initially planned to use Hong Kong as a springboard for missionary activities in mainland China. But when they arrived here they realised the colony’s girls were in need of education and they established a school on Austin Road in 1925, becoming one of the many Christian organisations that formed the base of Hong Kong’s social and educational system. 

Work began on the current building a decade later. It was part of what architectural historians Thomas Coomans and Puay-peng Ho call the “Catholic cluster of Kowloon Tong.” The northward expansion of Hong Kong’s urban development attracted families from the city’s Catholic communities—especially the Portuguese—and by 1924 the Catholic population of Kowloon had already exceeded that of Hong Kong Island. In response, various Catholic organisations began buying land around Boundary Street, which at the time marked the city’s urban fringe. 

In the first few years of the 1930s, the Catholic diocese built St. Teresa’s Church on Prince Edward Road; the Lasallian Brothers built La Salle College on Boundary Street; the Sisters of Charity of St. Paul laid out plans for a new hospital; and two companies led by French and Italian missionaries built 22 villas and two apartment buildings in the area. 

The Maryknoll Sisters joined the fray in 1933 when they launched the construction of their new school at the corner of Boundary Street and Waterloo Road. Like most of the other Catholic buildings in the area, the school’s architecture was European in inspiration. (St. Teresa’s Church was modelled on St. Mark’s Campanile in Venice; the mostly Portuguese parishioners had rejected an earlier plan to build a Chinese-style building with twin pagodas.) But it was far from an imitation of anything that existed elsewhere, fleeting liberally between styles, from Gothic Revival to Art Deco, by way of Romanesque and Neo-Georgian.

Little, Adams and Wood, a Hong Kong-based architecture firm, was responsible for the design. In terms of style, architect Leslie Lu, principal of the Hong Kong Design Institute, situates it more precisely in Collegiate Gothic, a style popular among schools and universities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Inspired by the medieval Tudor and Gothic architecture of Oxford and Cambridge, it was a way for newer institutions to give themselves a venerable, distinguished air.

“Formally, the essence of the Collegiate Gothic vocabulary focuses on verticality, expressed by elements such as bell towers, elongated windows between flying buttresses, piercing spires to punctuate the sky and traceries to fill in the gaps,” writes Lu in “Architecture of Light and Space,” an article on Maryknoll’s architecture that appeared in a book that commemorated the building’s 70th anniversary. The style was concerned more with eclecticism and visual flourish than with symmetry, which allowed room for creative expression. Lu points to the flying buttresses atop the school’s Boundary Street entrance, which he describes as “a visual pun and a nod to the Gothic style – just in case the audience failed to spot the élan and the wit.”

All of this makes for an imposing presence when seen from Waterloo Road. But step through the heavy iron gates, onto the school grounds, and the feeling is intimate, not intimidating. There are lush gardens filled with hundreds of trees and the uplifting refrain of birdsong. Inside the building, you can appreciate the fine craftsmanship of stained glass windows, bricks arranged in a parquet pattern and heavy wood doors carved in Gothic patterns. And you can feel the connection to history – a real, tangible sense of the past that is ever so unusual in Hong Kong. “The lower form students are sitting in chairs that their grandmothers may have sat on,” says Ho. “These are 70 year old chairs and desks.” 

And then there is the courtyard, the focal point of the original school building, which now houses Maryknoll’s primary section. “On entering the school one is struck by the presence of the courtyard or more precisely its sensation,” writes Lu, who says it gives the building the feeling of transparency. “One can sense the exterior from the interior through overlapping layers of spaces with the courtyard as the mediating middle.” Ho says it gives the campus a serene atmosphere: “It circulates the air so it’s never too hot in the school. There’s ventilation. Sunlight pours in. There is a flow of activity that is enclosed at the same time as it is open. But you are in the safety of an enclosed area.”

These many qualities give Maryknoll exceptional heritage value. “The architectural significance of Maryknoll Convent School is that it is one of the rare examples of Art Deco school buildings in Hong Kong, and the building complex is largely intact in its original form,” says Lee Ho-yin, director of the Architectural Conservation Programme at the University of Hong Kong.

It’s also one of the oldest surviving all-girls schools that has operated continuously in the same historic complex, unlike similarly prestigious academies like the Diocesan Girls’ School, which has redeveloped its Yau Ma Tei campus on several occasions, and Sacred Heart Canossian College, which moved away from its 1860s-era Bonham Road campus in 1981. (The only other girls’ school that has maintained its original historic campus is St. Mary’s Canossian College in Tsim Sha Tsui.) “This means that it is socially significant as a key institution that has contributed to the advancement of Hong Kong women’s education and consequent social status,” says Lee. Its list of alumni is illustrious, with a particularly large number of famous actresses and pop idols, including Michelle Reis, Nancy Kwan and Gigi Leung.

In 2008, in recognition of this value, the original Maryknoll building was declared a historic monument, giving it the only real protection afforded by Hong Kong’s notoriously lax heritage protection laws. “Once a building is declared a monument, it is essentially frozen in place under the current legislation,” says Lee. For a school, that is naturally quite a challenge – one that Amy Ho must now face as she attempts to keep the school relevant in the 21st century. She is currently overseeing plans to move the school library from the original building to a newer wing completed in 1952, and to convert an empty attic into an art room. Each alteration requires the approval of the Antiquities and Monuments Office. “So far they’ve been very friendly and cooperative. But even then, I can see there will need to be some convincing to do,” she says.

But Ho’s interest in keeping Maryknoll up to date without sacrificing any of its heritage is personal. After graduating, she went on to study at HKU and at Northwestern University near Chicago before becoming an investment banker. She stepped away from her career when she received a call from the Maryknoll Sisters, who in 2005 handed over control of the school to a non-profit foundation. “I got a call from the sisters one afternoon at dusk,” says Ho. “They said, ‘Amy, we’re not getting any younger. Come back and help.’ And that was that.” 

Ho says it can be a strange experience running the school she once attended. “It’s become a workplace for me and when I go around the campus my eyes pick out what’s not right so I can correct and improve,” she says. But it still has its magic – that dreamy quality she remembered for so many years after graduating. “There are times when all the teachers are gone at the end of the day and there’s nobody around, and I walk around all by myself and go back to feeling like a little girl. I go around the azaleas and I just stare into them. I think of my childhood. And it’s pure joy.”

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