Hong Kong’s Colonial Heritage, Part V: The HKU Main Building

For some, paying homage to a cultural idol means taking a snapshot on Abbey Road. For others, it’s a drink at The Ritz, Hemingway’s favourite bar in Paris. For Minnie Wang, it meant going to the University of Hong Kong. 

Wang is a big fan of Eileen Chang, the Shanghai-born novelist who studied English literature at HKU from 1939 to 1941. “I read all her works, novels, short stories and essays published on the mainland in simplified Chinese,” she says. “That’s one of the reasons I chose the HKU Master of Journalism programme in 2008.”

The moment she set foot on campus, a bit more of Chang’s life began to make sense. “Before I came to Hong Kong, it was hard to imagine her life in Hong Kong,” she says. Wang’s journalism classes were held in Eliot Hall, a redbrick building located near the old girl’s dorm that Chang wrote about in her essay “A Return to the Frontier.” Just down the hill, the old Fung Ping Shan Library—now the University Museum and Art Gallery—is where Chang did her research. 

The star attraction was the Main Building, a handsome brick structure that includes Loke Yue Hall, where the students in Chang’s novel Lust, Caution performed drama. (It also featured in Ang Lee’s adaptation of the novel, the internationally acclaimed film of the same name.) Chang took classes in the Main Building, and when it was converted into a hospital during the Japanese occupation, she volunteered there as a nurse.

The Main Building still stands today, its clock tower rising as a beacon above Bonham Road. Step inside and it’s not hard to imagine Chang wandering its open-air, balustraded corridors, which overlook courtyards filled with palm trees and a bubbling fountain; this is one of the rare places in Hong Kong that hasn’t changed much over the past century, even if it is currently shrouded in scaffolding as part of a refurbishment project.

The same isn’t true for HKU as a whole. Since the university was established in 1911, it has grown into a densely packed warren of interconnected buildings that climb the hill above Shek Tong Tsui. But even if the campus is now dominated by modern high-rises, the Main Building still holds pride of place. It was the university’s point of origin – the source of its DNA. This is an open, luminous building that represents the ideals behind Hong Kong’s first university, which was conceived as a relatively accessible place without the racial and class restrictions that dominated Hong Kong at the time.

HKU’s roots go back to the Hong Kong College of Medicine for Chinese, which was founded in 1887 by a doctor and barrister named Kai Ho. (Among its early graduates was revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen.) Two decades later, then-Governor Sir Frederick Lugard proposed expanding the college into a full-fledged university that could compete with the institutions being founded by other Western powers in China, particularly Tongji University, which was set up by German interests in Shanghai in 1907. 

Lugard was also inspired by the civic university movement of England, which established nine universities in growing cities like Manchester and Birmingham. Unlike ancient universities such as Oxford, Cambridge or St. Andrew’s, which had always focused on liberal arts and religious studies, this new generation of academic institutions was dedicated to science and engineering, fields that could be put to good practical use in an industrialised society. 

Hong Kong’s elite did not take kindly to Lugard’s idea. The British Colonial Office called it “Sir Frederick’s pet lamb” and HSBC refused to finance the project; Hong Kong was a commercial hub and it’s possible that the colony’s establishment was not interested in grand civic gestures. But Lugard did find a kindred spirit in financier Sir Hormusjee Naorojee Mody, who agreed to bankroll the new university. It opened on March 30, 1911, and its first edifice was the stately Main Building, designed by a team led by Alfred Bryer, an architect at Leigh and Orange, which had been founded in Hong Kong in 1874.

The architecture of the Main Building was entirely typical of its era. “[It] belongs to a style known as Edwardian Baroque, which was popular during the Edwardian period” that spanned the reign of King Edward VII, explains Lee Ho-yin, director of HKU’s Architectural Conservation Programme. 

Edwardian Baroque was a throwback to the English Baroque era of the late 17th century, and in particular the work of Christopher Wren, the architect responsible for St. Paul’s Cathedral. It was a style that represented an empire at its apex – an empire more concerned with its own historical greatness than with looking forward to the future. Unlike Art Nouveau, the more experimental style that was sweeping across continental Europe at the same time, Edwardian Baroque was full of rough-hued stone, arched pediments, colonnades and frilly towers. Some notable examples include the enormous Port of Liverpool Building, Lancaster House in Manchester, the Central Railway Station in Sydney and George Town City Hall in Penang. 

In the case of the HKU Main Building, Lee says the features that place it amongst its architectural peers include a “monumental composition with giant orders—classical columns that are two-storey or more high—a rusticated base, red-brick wall, a central tower and formal entrance in the central axis of the composition accentuated by a triangular pediment.”

But the fusty Edwardian style was not the only influence behind the Main Building. It also belonged to another subset of structures, namely those of the civic universities, which were nicknamed “red brick universities” because of they were clad in brick rather than stone, which was both more affordable and more outwardly democratic, evoking the more humble building materials of working-class terrace housing. The Main Building makes ample use of fair-faced red brick, which has “a symbolic significance” in the way it references the red brick universities, according to architectural conservationist Fredo Cheung. This was crucial, because Lugard intended HKU to be an accessible way for Chinese Hongkongers to obtain an English-language Western-style education at home, rather than going to the US or the UK. 

“It is open to all races and creeds,” he wrote in 1910, adding that the university would be secular and it would be designed to “promote a good understanding and friendship between British and Chinese.” It was also meant to be affordable, charging less than a quarter of the tuition at an equivalent university overseas, without the added expense of international travel or the disruption of students being uprooted and experiencing “denationalisation and disunion from their parents and people.”

Cheung says the Main Building had another point of influence: American public schools. More specifically, it was the schools designed by St. Louis school commissioner William B. Ittner, who insisted on natural lighting and open spaces to improve the educational experience, as well as basic fire safety measures to avoid the death and injury that had plagued prison-like American schools until then. It’s a philosophy apparent in the design of the Main Building. Its original E-shaped layout (later modified by an expansion after World War II) allowed for ample light in classrooms, and ventilation chimneys were provided in areas that weren’t adequately open to the outside. Quick access to the outdoors was meant to provide escape in case of a fire, while all mechanical services—such as boilers—were discreetly hidden in the basement.

“While these ideas don’t seem like much these days, it was pioneering back in the day as many schools of the day were only served by a single staircase and many classroom did not even have windows,” says Cheung. Despite its ornate Edwardian façade, Cheung thinks the Main Building was well ahead of its time. “The articulation of the external elevation with all the Edwardian architectural trappings of the day did well to mask the quintessentially American planning principles which gave the Main Building its unique form,” he says. “This is a good example of how a world increasingly connected by trade during the turn of the century facilitated exchange of ideas.”

That served as a kind of philosophical keystone as HKU expanded over the years. “You can definitely say that the Main Building is instrumental in giving HKU its distinct visual identity, and traces of this identity is also evident in the newer campus buildings,” says Cheung. Red brick continues to define the campus even if the style is now more modern. 

And it continues to evoke something special. HKU may have been founded with a focus on the sciences, but it eventually grew into Hong Kong’s most prestigious liberal arts institution, which is exactly what drew Eileen Chang to study there in 1939. 

In a roundabout way, it’s what drew Minnie Wang, too. After moving to Hong Kong, she re-read all of Chang’s work in traditional Chinese, as well as her English work and the English translations. She says she has now finished her entire oeuvre. And although she finished her studies at HKU more than a decade ago, she still occasionally finds an excuse to visit the university and wander the halls of the Main Building. “[Its] culture and spirit represent HKU’s heritage,” she says. “I think it’s the most beautiful building on campus.”


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