Hong Kong’s Modern Heritage, Part VIII: The Hopewell Centre

For nearly a decade, Jardine House ruled the Hong Kong skyline, its porthole-shaped windows overlooking a city still dominated by the British trading houses that had shaped its economy. That changed in 1980. A few kilometres to the east, in Wan Chai, a new tower rose, this one a symbol of a new, giddily prosperous era in Hong Kong’s history. 

Hopewell Centre soars 216 metres above Queen’s Road East, and for nearly the whole of the 1980s, it was the tallest building in Hong Kong – and the second-tallest in Asia. But it wasn’t just its height that made it stand apart. Rising from a blocky commercial podium is a perfectly cylindrical building capped by a revolving restaurant, which customers can reach by taking an express lift that runs up the side of the building, offering dizzying views of the city and harbour. Vertical fins stretch up and down the façade, giving the whole building the appearance of a precision screwdriver, or some kind of ribbed vacuum flask.

Lee Ho-yin, director of the University of Hong Kong’s architectural conservation programme, says the Hopewell Centre represented a number of firsts for Hong Kong. “It was the first and only circular office tower in the city,” he says. No other building had both an observation lift and a revolving restaurant, and these days the Hopewell Centre has the only revolving restaurant left in the city, after the Wu Sang House restaurant in Mongkok closed in 1996 and the Furama Hotel was demolished in 2001. Perhaps most impressively, the Hopewell Centre was the tallest building in Hong Kong for nine years – the longest reign of any of the city’s champion towers. 

There are some interesting quirks, too. The mountainside building has two ground-floor entrances, one on Queen’s Road East and another 17 floors on Kennedy Road – a true embodiment of Hong Kong’s verticality. The building serves as an effective shortcut up the hill, and if you continue hiking up towards the Peak, you will notice that the Hopewell Centre’s roof is occupied by a circular swimming pool.

 The pool can be traced back to a feng shui expert who consulted on the Hopewell Centre’s design. He reportedly expressed concerns that the building’s shape evoked that of a cigarette—a geomantic invitation to fire—so the pool was built as a symbolic counterbalance. It was featured prominently in the music video for 1990s R&B singer Dru Hill’s song “How Deep is Your Love,” but it’s unclear what effect this has had on the building’s feng shui.

Like Dru Hill’s music, the Hopewell Centre has not aged well. “The circular plan form of Hopewell Centre as well as its revolving restaurant and the observation lift were seen as novel features that did the trick at the time – but they now look positively dated,” says Lee. He adds that the tower’s circular form has never been popular with tenants, because of the inefficiencies it creates, although it’s worth noting that the Hopewell Centre currently enjoys full occupancy.

Perhaps more than anything, the Hopewell Centre represents the era in which it was built. The 1980s were Hong Kong’s golden era, when the city’s economy was ascendant and so was its global influence, with Cantopop dominating charts around Asia and Hong Kong films beloved around the world. “Hopewell Centre was among the first commercial architecture of its kind in Hong Kong that expressed the confidence and optimism of local developers in a bullish property market that was just taking off in the colony,” says Lee. “It speaks very much of Hong Kong’s architecture in the 1980s, when Hong Kong was in a nouveau riche mode seeking more distinctive architecture to show off.” He points to the Hong Kong Club Building (1984), HSBC Building (1985), Lippo Centre (1988) and Bank of China Tower (1989) as other show-stopping examples. 

The Hopewell Centre was also a sign of a shift in the power dynamics that governed Hong Kong. Hopewell co-founder Gordon Wu led the design of the building in collaboration with local architects WKMY. Born in Hong Kong in 1935, Wu studied engineering in Canada and the United States before returning home to invest in real estate. In 1972, he established Hopewell Holdings and continues to serve as the chairman of its board. Like Li Ka-shing’s Cheung Kong Holdings, Hopewell was part of a new generation of Chinese-owned companies that challenged the dominance of old-stock British companies such as Swire and Jardine Matheson.

And just as Swire controls much of the land around Tai Koo and Admiralty, and Hongkong Land dominates the Central waterfront, Hopewell used its new landmark tower to establish a base in Wan Chai. It spearheaded the controversial redevelopment of Lee Tung Street and now owns much of the property around Queen’s Road East, where it is developing a second 55-storey tower, Hopewell Centre II, that will include a hotel, conference centre and shops. 

The new tower has been a long time coming. It was first proposed as a 90-storey behemoth in 1994, but nearby residents lobbied against it, worrying it would overwhelm the roads with traffic while blocking light and ventilation. Construction is now underway, and renderings show a bulky cruciform building.

Lee is not impressed. The site’s bustling surroundings and dramatic topography are remarkable, he says, “yet the designed building does not seem to have taken advantage of [them] to create a world-class architectural landmark through innovative architectural form, space or technology. Instead, the building appears to be 1990s-era architecture, not dissimilar to Times Square. From an architectural academic point of view, by one-word summary would be ‘disappointing.’ And my two-word summary would be ‘missed opportunity.'”

It’s tempting to see that unambitious design as a reflection of Hong Kong’s current state of affairs: riven by political divisions, anxious about its place in the world, looking towards a future that seems murkier with every passing day. Kitschy as it may be, the emblem of Hong Kong’s golden years won’t be overshadowed just yet.

 

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