Hong Kong’s Colonial Heritage, Part XIII: Pun Chun Yuen, a Buddhist Oasis

Fate is an odd thing. When a man named Wong Sing-hui began producing herbal liqueurs in his Guangdong hometown of Namhoi in 1876, there’s no way he could have known that, a century and a half later, his legacy would include an unusual Buddhist compound in Hong Kong. 

That compound is called Pun Chun Yuen (bun3 ceon1 jyun4 半春園)—literally Half-Spring Garden, but with the implied meaning of Half-Day Garden—and it occupies a hilly 18 hectares in Tai Po. Today, you can catch a glimpse of its gold-roofed buildings as you speed down the Tolo Highway at 100 kilometres per hour, but when it first opened in the early 1930s, getting there would have been a long journey on the steam-powered Kowloon-Canton Railway, followed by a trek up steep and winding roads.

As for Wong Sin-hui, he was the founder of Wing Lee Wai, a distillery that makes famous herbal wines such as Ng Ka Py and Mui Kwe Lu. After first launching his business in Namhoi (today known as Nanhai), Wong moved to Hong Kong in 1905 and set up shop in Sheung Wan, where it still operates today. As York Lo notes in an article for The Industrial History of Hong Kong Group, Wing Lee Wai became prized across China thanks to its use of high-quality ingredients like rose petals from Sichuan, sorghum from Taiwan and cassia from Vietnam. It was a staple at banquet dinners, and its popularity was helped by a catchy rhyming slogan: bun3 bin1 gai1 jat1 wu4 wing5 lei6 wai1 (半邊雞一壺永利威): “A half chicken and a bottle of Wing Lee Wai.”

Not long after moving the business to Hong Kong, Wong was succeeded by his eighth son, Wong Se-wai. It was thanks to Se-wai’s business acumen that Wing Lee Wai became so popular throughout China – and around the world, too, with shops selling its elixirs anywhere a Chinese community could be found. Se-wai was also a devout Buddhist who helped finance the Wong Tai Sin Temple. In 1928, he founded the Tata Buddhist Association, and a few years after that, he began work on Pun Chun Yuen.

The estate featured a residence, an ancestral hall and a building known as the Glass House. It was as much a religious compound as it was a weekend getaway for the Wong family. Wong Se-wai would often travel there with colleagues or friends to study Buddhist scripture for several hours before returning to town – hence the garden’s name. In the 1950s, more Buddhist halls were built, along with a swimming pool and landscaped gardens. Wong died in 1956, and 11 years later, his widow donated the entire estate to another Buddhist group, the Lotus Association, which maintains it to this day. 

The public is welcome to visit, although Covid-19 restrictions mean access has been limited over the past year and a half. “You can feel the change of seasons there,” says architect Annette Chu. “They grow papaya and they have [osmanthus], which have a nice scent. There are also tea trees. You could go there, have lunch and enjoy the park. You can really relate to this whole concept of spending half a day away from the city, thinking about something else, whether it’s Buddhism or just life in general.”

Chu is the co-founder of Eureka Architects, which was launched in 2011 when she returned to Hong Kong after working in Europe. Shortly before her return, her father—also an architect—introduced her to Lee Man-ban, an accountant who was involved in the Lotus Association. He was looking for someone to help revamp some of the old buildings on site. “It was like, wow – back to my home city and there’s this exciting project,” says Chu. The first time she met Lee, he showed her a book of works by the famed Japanese architect Tadao Ando, who is known for designing ethereal spaces rooted in their surroundings. “That was his vision,” she says.

Like a number of other mid-century estates in Hong Kong, including Dragon Garden and King Yin Lei, Pun Chun Yuen’s buildings were designed in a style known as Chinese Renaissance. “They tried to use new concrete technology while still having Chinese motifs,” says Chu. Her first project in the garden was to renovate the main ancestral hall, turning it into a columbarium where families who worshipped at Pun Chun Yuen could keep their loved one’s ashes. Aside from Wong Se-wai’s main residence, none of the buildings in the garden had heritage grading, which gave Chu some flexibility in terms of her approach. 

And the approach she took was radical. Rather than restoring the ancestral hall, she redesigned and rebuilt it using pine slats. “It’s a lush green setting which is why we wanted to use timber, something more transparent, so that the ancestors could be part of the park,” she says. “And the main way to retain the existing building was simply to keep [its] proportions, and to keep the golden ceramic roof tiles, so we tried to find pine wood that resembled the same colour.”

Other buildings were treated to a more restrained approach, with vintage features like terrazzo staircases being restored. But the ancestral hall adds something new: an eye-catching centrepiece to the garden that doesn’t look like anything else in Hong Kong. The pine slats are at once earthy and airy, and a new first-floor balcony that wraps around the hall serves to balance the flying eaves of the gold roof. 

A change in government policy meant the hall was never able to be used as a columbarium. Instead, the Lotus Association uses it to host visiting monks, and to host the occasional lecture. Like many other privately-run heritage sites in Hong Kong, finding enough money to keep up with maintenance has been a challenge. “I wish there were more resources for parks like this. often they are a little run down,” says Chu.

But the park remains an unheralded oasis. And Chu’s contemporary addition adds yet another twist of fate on the long road from a distillery in Guangdong to a Buddhist compound in the hills of Hong Kong.   

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