Hong Kong’s Modern Heritage, Part I: The General Post Office

Zolima CityMag is embarking on a year-long exploration of Hong Kong’s modern architectural heritage. This month, writer Christopher DeWolf and photographer Kevin Mak visit the first building on our list: the General Post Office.

Even those who want to save the General Post Office don’t seem to like it very much. “In terms of architectural design, I don’t think the building has great value,” says Charlie Xue Qiuli, an associate professor of architecture at City University and the author of Contextualizing Modernity: Hong Kong Architecture 1946-2011.

Built in 1976, the post office resembles a number of other public buildings in Hong Kong, and it hardly distinguishes itself on an international level. And yet when news broke in 2017 that the building was slated to be replaced by a new shopping and office complex — a so-called “groundscraper” that would stretch all the way to the Central ferry piers — many members of the public expressed their discontent.

But why? Xue sums it up neatly. “If you demolish it, one more building from this period disappears.”

That’s the dilemma of modern heritage. Like all architecture, it is a reflection of the city and society that produced it. But it was also built within living memory — Hong Kong has a median age of 43, meaning half the population was born before the GPO was erected — which could lead many to take it for granted. What’s so special about a building that isn’t even as old as most of the people walking down the street in front of it?

“It needs to be put in context,” says Cecilia Chu, an assistant professor of landscape architecture at the University of Hong Kong and the president of the local chapter of Docomomo, an international organisation that promotes modern heritage. “It’s not just about the aesthetics.”

The GPO’s full story starts at the end of the 19th century, when influential entrepreneur Sir Catchick Paul Chater had the vision to expand the Central harbourfront outwards into Victoria Harbour. It wasn’t the first time Hong Kong had reclaimed land from the sea — the first reclamation projects began in the 1850s — but it was the city’s most ambitious land creation initiative to date, and it provided space for an elegant waterfront befitting an increasingly ambitious city.

The new harbourfront attracted a suite of ostentatious buildings. There was the Queen’s Building, whose cupolas and colonnaded cornices were mirrored by the similarly ornate architecture of the Hong Kong Club and Prince’s Building. The domed Supreme Court rose across from a new public open space called Statue Square, which boasted a huge statue of Queen Victoria that sat inside an ornamental crown-shaped pavilion.

In 1911, this concentration of colonial power was joined by Hong Kong’s first purpose-built General Post Office. Fashioned out of red brick and locally-quarried granite, its corner rooftop pavilion and Dutch gables made it seem even taller than its five storeys.

It lasted just long enough to witness a new wave of land reclamation. By the 1960s, the Central harbourfront had pushed ever further out into the harbour, making room for Connaught Road and the new civic centre around Edinburgh Place. In 1967, the government unveiled plans for a 30-storey structure on the freshly manufactured land that would be home to a new General Post Office and 25 floors of government offices.

These plans were stymied in 1971, when Hongkong Land paid a record price for a plot of real estate just opposite the proposed post office tower. As a condition for its HK$258 million purchase (well over HK$1 billion in today’s money), the developer asked for a clause in its land lease that would ensure its harbour views would never be blocked by a building to the north. A 120-foot height limit was imposed on the site of the future office and Connaught Centre — later renamed Jardine House — rose across the street with an unbroken vista guaranteed in perpetuity.

Plans for the post office tower were shelved and architect K.M. Tseng, working for the government’s Architectural Services Department, designed a five-story structure instead. An arched canopy over its front entrance gives it a certain verve; so does a two-tiered structure that layers offices atop a main postal hall with colonnaded windows. But for the most part, it isn’t a particularly remarkable or exciting building. “It’s very functional,” says Charlie Xue. “It’s a box that does not have a lot of consideration for its expression outwards.”

Even the architect agreed. “The GPO is a simple, forward statement of what goes on inside the building,” Tseng told the Hong Kong Star in 1976. “From the ground one can see inside while the exterior design suggests the functions performed on each floor. I tried to make the building functional and truthful, an expression of what goes on within the concrete walls.”

The new building featured Hong Kong’s first central vacuum cleaning system, as well as a mechanised sorting operation that was state of the art. The old GPO, meanwhile, was slated to be demolished to make way for construction of the MTR, and later the erection of World Wide House, which stands in its place today. “Whatever nostalgic whims the public may have about Hong Kong’s venerable General Post Office building, the administrators and staff cannot move out of it fast enough,” reported the South China Morning Post in 1976.

It seems that hindsight is indeed perfect. Many of those who remember the old GPO say it was as beautiful as it looks in photos. Joseph Ting, the former chief curator of the Hong Kong Museum of History, said in 2015 that he thought the GPO was “Hong Kong’s most beautiful building,” and he considered its demolition a mistake.

Before the old GPO was demolished, a plaque was removed and transplanted to its successor. “As cold water to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country,” it reads. “It is somehow reassuring to find such a human sentiment in the midst of so much gleaming marble efficiency!” enthused the Post in 1976, predicting that “the new building will certainly become as much of a landmark as its solid late-Victorian predeces­sor on the other side of Connaught Road.”

More than just a landmark, though, Cecilia Chu says the GPO represents a period of civic-mindedness in Hong Kong, a time when public institutions and civil society were quickly expanding. Mandatory schooling was introduced, shack-dwelling squatters were being given new homes in public housing estates, a public healthcare system was introduced. “A lot of mid-century buildings were built with the ideal of serving the public, not just the elite, and that makes them quite attractive,” she says. “They represent a different era of Hong Kong.”

The current GPO was built as a gesture of faith in public service. The plans to demolish it suggest the opposite. According to the redevelopment plans, the GPO would be relegated to the basement of the new commercial block, which is being driven primarily by the value of its land – the government expects this plot to fetch an astronomical price, given its location on the last developable patch of Central’s harbourfront. Chu thinks this has triggered the public’s discontent with Hong Kong property development, which may be the main reason its planned demolition has been so controversial.

But saving the GPO wouldn’t just stick it to the developers. Like the State Theatre, saving the GPO would be a chance to save a piece of mid-century architecture before it becomes critically endangered like the pre-war architecture before it.

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Hong Kong has already lost many of its modern landmarks, including the GPO’s neighbour, the Central Star Ferry Pier, whose demolition in 2006 was so controversial, it sparked a new heritage conservation movement that helped save the PMQ, Central Government Offices and other pieces of modern heritage. “People are not necessarily aware of the significance of the General Post Office as a building itself, but they have a general idea that we should not demolish so much,” says Chu.

Xue says it’s up to the public as to whether the GPO is preserved – or whether it will meet the same fate as its belatedly beloved predecessor. “I think the Hong Kong government is keeping an eye on the public’s voice,” he says. “If there is a big enough call to keep the building, the government will follow.”

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