It wasn’t so long ago that you could walk into the Shun Tak Centre and board a ferry to Macau—or Shenzhen or Zhuhai or Zhongshan—on a whim. There were hydrofoil sailings day and night, every 15 minutes at their most frequent, each propelled across the Pearl River estuary on a cushion of air. If the 55 minute sailing time was too long for your busy schedule, you could opt for a helicopter instead. Total travel time from Hong Kong to Macau: 15 minutes.
Today, all of that seems like a distant memory. The centre’s Hong Kong Macau Ferry Terminal was shuttered by government order on February 4, 2020, as the virus that causes Covid-19 was sweeping relentlessly around the world. More than two years later, ferry service has yet to resume, and travel to and from Hong Kong is still severely restricted. Macau, just 60 kilometres away from Central, might as well be on the moon.
But the Shun Tak Centre is still there. Its two 38-storey towers and hulking ferry terminal rise over the harbour as a testament to the days when movement—of goods, money, people and ideas—was the foundation of Hong Kong’s economy and culture. Though few would describe it as beautiful, it is an important building, both for its architecture and urban form and the symbolic weight it carries as a gateway between Hong Kong and its maritime neighbours.
The Shun Tak Centre was completed in two phases, with the first opening in 1984 and the second in 1985. Designed by local firm Spence Robinson, it is instantly recognisable from the exposed steel framework on each tower—at the base, on the refuge floor and at the top—which has been painted scarlet red. The curtain-glass towers are similar in appearance, though not quite twins, as the westernmost tower is larger than the one to the east. They sit atop a podium studded by oversized porthole windows, which also make an appearance in the ferry pier, which is connected to the tower podium by an enclosed footbridge.
Perhaps more remarkable than the centre’s appearance is the way it is massed. The Shun Tak Centre was one of the first in a new generation of mixed-use complexes integrated with public transport and a multi-level pedestrian network. Even compared to its contemporaries like Admiralty Centre (completed in 1980) and Exchange Square (1985), the Shun Tak Centre is extraordinarily complex. There are pedestrian tunnels linking it to nearby Sheung Wan MTR station and footbridges connecting it to the Western Market and the Central office district. Taxis and passenger vehicles drop passengers off right inside the centre’s podium, where a maze of escalators and lifts take them into a three-storey shopping mall. From there, they can access the two office towers or—at least in pre-pandemic times—buy tickets for a ferry crossing or helicopter journey.
If that sounds unremarkable, it’s only because so many other buildings in Hong Kong now follow the Shun Tak Centre prototype. From the enormous Union Square complex in West Kowloon to suburban estates like Yoho Town in Yuen Long and East Point City in Hang Hau, vast megastructures built atop transport hubs and linked together by multiple layers of passages have become the norm in Hong Kong. It’s a city where a building is never just a building, it’s a conduit to other places.
In the case of the Shun Tak Centre, all of this connectivity served a very specific purpose: ferrying people to the up-and-coming gambling destination of Macau. The centre’s namesake is Shun Tak Holdings, a conglomerate founded by tycoon Stanley Ho, who was part of a sprawling Eurasian clan that began with a Dutch Jewish coolie trader named Charles Henry Maurice Bosman; the Ho surname is actually derived from Bosman’s Cantonese name, Ho Sze-man (ho4 si6 man4 何仕文). Bosman was Ho’s great-grandfather; his grandfather was a well-connected comprador named Ho Kwok, while his great-uncle was Sir Robert Hotung, one of Hong Kong’s most powerful businessmen. (Ho’s father was Ho Sai-kwong, a comprador who kept a relatively low profile.) The Hos are considered one of the “four big families” of early colonial Hong Kong.
Such an illustrious lineage no doubt helped Stanley Ho earn entry into Queen’s College and later the University of Hong Kong, despite being a scholarly underachiever in Class D, the lowest academic tier. His studies were interrupted by the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong in 1941, and he went to work for a Japanese import/export firm based in Macau, which was a Portuguese colony and therefore considered neutral ground during the war. That’s when Ho found a calling more suited to his skills: smuggling luxury goods from Macau into mainland China. He made a fortune and used it to launch a construction company.
Colonised in 1557, Macau was once part of Portugal’s mighty network of Asian trading outposts, which at its peak in the 16th century included Goa, Chittagong, Malacca and Nagasaki. That empire crumbled over the centuries, and when Hong Kong was colonised by the British in 1842, it quickly supplanted Macau as the region’s economic centre. Many of Macau’s more ambitious residents left for the new British territory, where they formed an influential Macanese and Portuguese diaspora.
But Macau had one thing that Hong Kong did not: gambling. Whereas British authorities in Hong Kong took a hard line against gambling, Macau legalised it in 1847. Three years later, its colonial government set up a concession system that awarded a gambling monopoly to a particular business for a set period of time. With the help of several other Hong Kong tycoons-in-the-making, Stanley Ho bid for the monopoly in 1962, ousting the previous concession-holder, a former boiled peanut hawker turned money lender named Fu Tak-lam.
Fu had won the concession in 1937, thanks to the close connections to power brokers and government officials he had made in the money-lending business. He began turning Macau into a gambling destination, opening hotels and casinos that appealed to wealthy exiles who had fled mainland China and Hong Kong after the Japanese invasion. Ho took things even further. In 1964, he launched the Far East Hydrofoil Company, one of two competing enterprises that offered high-speed ferry services from Hong Kong to Macau, cutting travel time from 3.5 hours to just under an hour. In 1970, he opened the Lisboa, a hotel and casino housed in a flamboyant circular tower capped by a gilded jewel. It lured Hongkongers across the delta in droves.
In 1972, Ho launched Shun Tak Holdings and named it after the Pearl River Delta county he considered his ancestral home (soen6 dak1 順德, today officially known by its Mandarin name, Shunde). The company built the Shun Tak Centre to serve as its headquarters, but it also served as a representation of its many interests in hospitality, property and transport. If its 1980s architecture seems a bit dated today—it is one of the few buildings that still has rooftop neon signs—that may be a symbol of changing times. Even before the pandemic hit with the force of a typhoon, the new Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, which opened in 2018, took a toll on Shun Tak’s hydrofoil service. And Macau’s gambling industry has suffered as mainland China has cracked down on the junkets that allow gamblers to move money across the border with Macau.
When it opened, the Shun Tak Centre embodied the restless energy of a city always on the move. It’s now a reminder of a city stuck in place: ferries idle, helipad silent, a worn but still imposing hub biding its time until something changes.