How the Blue House is Keeping Hong Kong’s Heritage Alive

For most of its history, Hong Kong had a straightforward approach to heritage: knock down as many old buildings as it could, pausing just long enough to spare a remarkable few structures here and there – a church, say, or maybe the gilded manor of a tycoon. The few ordinary buildings that were preserved were cleansed of their inhabitants, buffed and turned into cultural centres like Comix Homebase or upscale restaurants like The Pawn.

That could have been the fate of the Blue House. Instead, it became something unprecedented for Hong Kong – a piece of living heritage in the heart of the city. “Wan Chai is gentrifying and all the tenements have been torn down. But what about the grassroots?” asks Suki Chau, who helps manage the historic complex. “The hardware of historical buildings is important, but so is what’s inside. People are key to the whole Blue House project.”

Peeking out from behind the gentle curve of Stone Nullah Lane, the Blue House is a throwback to another era. Built in 1922, it was the kind of typical four-storey tenement building that filled Hong Kong’s urban areas, with shops on the ground floor and apartments on top. The building’s flats were spacious — about 600 square feet — with high ceilings and French doors that opened onto shallow balconies. But they were also overcrowded, and the building had no toilets, so residents had to use bedpans and wash up in public bathhouses.

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Up to 35 people once shared this flat in the Blue House

The Blue House survived World War II bombardments and the postwar building boom. At various points in time, the ground floor was home to a martial arts studio, a temple, a grocery store, a Chinese wine shop and an osteopathy clinic. Some of the upstairs flats were used as a free kindergarten and a meeting place for the fishmongers’ union. In 1978, most of the building was acquired by the government, which spruced it up with leftover blue paint from the Water Supplies Department. And there it sat – a conspicuous relic in a city that was changing at a bewildering pace.

In 2006, the government announced its intention to renovate the Blue House, along with three adjacent tenement buildings known as the Grey House, the Yellow House and the Orange House. Community activists were quick to insist that the people who lived there be allowed to stay. Chau joined St. James’ Settlement, the Wan Chai charity that manages the Blue House, not long after she graduated from university in 2004. She has been working at the Blue House ever since, liaising with residents and running a community space on the ground floor. “The project took ten years. It was tough, but we finally made it,” she says.

The government announced in 2007 that any Blue House residents that wished to stay would have the right to return after the building was renovated. All of the Blue House’s historical features would be preserved, including steep timber staircases, patterned floor tiles and ornamental iron railings, but each of its 20 apartments would be modified to include bathrooms, kitchens and air conditioning. Architect Kenneth Tse came up with an idea for a scaffolding-like system of outdoor staircases and breezeways that would link each of the compound’s flats to a lift, without disrupting the historic architecture. An empty lot in the middle of the block would be converted into a public gathering space. Conservation architect CM Lee lead a team at LWK & Partners Architects to implement the plan.

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Records and other vintage items in the House of Stories

All of the Blue House’s residents moved out during the renovations. Ultimately, eight households decided to return, leaving 12 empty flats that have been rented out to a select group of tenants. “We looked for people who embrace community life,” says Chau. “It is quite diverse – retired people, families, young people.” Returnees pay subsidised rent similar to that of a public housing estate; newcomers pay between HK$32 and $38 per square foot, which is still a good deal for Wan Chai.

It didn’t take long for the residents to settle in. On a muggy day in early March, Chau is making her way up to the top floor of the Blue House. Sunlight filters through the trees in the courtyard, landing on the potted plants and drying laundry that residents have placed in the breezeways. A woman says hello as she returns home. Introducing herself as Mrs. Lai, she says her family were the first tenants to move into the Blue House when the renovations were finished last May. “It gives my kids an interesting experience. They can live the history instead of just hearing about it,” she says.

That history is still visible inside a top-floor flat that has been preserved for the school groups and visitors that pass by the Blue House every day. Chau unlocks the front door to reveal a room filled with wooden bunk beds and partitions. “It has high ceilings and very good ventilation, but do you know how many people once lived here? 35!” she exclaims. The flat was rented by a principle tenant that sublet out the rest of the space to other families. It was a common arrangement in Hong Kong’s old tenements. “That’s how our fathers and grandfathers grew up,” says Chau.

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Kevin Cheung in his live/work studio

The flat is filled with objects donated by the Blue House’s residents: vintage paper bags from Wan Chai tailors, old fashion magazine clippings that were used to decorate walls, a 1960s-era tram map. “We were eager to keep this flat because in Hong Kong, most of the preserved buildings are for rich people, like King Yin Lei, or they’re colonial buildings,” says Chau. By contrast, the Blue House offers a window into how most people actually lived.

Stepping back outside, Chau shouts down to another new tenant, product designer Kevin Cheung. He invites her into his flat for a visit. It’s a bright, airy space with a ceiling high enough to accommodate a wooden cockloft, which is where Cheung keeps his bedroom. The entire space is dominated by a huge arched window that is open to the warm spring breeze.

Cheung works with upcycled materials — he made the cockloft from construction materials left over from the renovation — and his flat is filled with old objects that have been given new life. Above the window hang plastic bottles that have been turned into pendant lamps. A pair of guitars hang on the wall, one made from a wooden crate, the other from a jerrycan. Every weekend, Cheung holds upcycling workshops for his Blue House neighbours. Not long ago, they used old bamboo scaffolding to make a pair of benches for the courtyard.

“Every neighbour has something to offer,” he says. “For me, the most important things here are the history and the neighbourhood feel. It’s hard to find something like this in the heart of the city.”

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Kevin Cheung’s live/work studio in the Yellow House

Walking back downstairs, Chau passes through the House of Stories — a kind of heritage gallery filled with artefacts and anecdotes from Wan Chai’s history — and into a grocery store, a social enterprise that employs elderly people. “We get organic vegetables every Monday and Thursday from local farms,” says Chau. A zesty aroma fills the air. She pokes her head into the back of the shop, where a couple of elderly staff are chopping lemon rinds. “We’re using it for Chinese medicine – you boil it for 10 hours and it’s good for your throat,” explains one of them.

It’s a far cry from the chain stores and trendy restaurants that dominate the streets nearby. Chau says that many of the Blue House’s former residents — those who opted not to return — still come back to visit for events like a Chinese New Year dinner they held in February. “We still have a connection even if they didn’t move back,” she says. That’s exactly why she has stayed with the Blue House project for 14 years. “I’ve met so many good people here. They’ve treated me like family.” She pauses. “I think this is the last part of Wan Chai that still feels like a community.”

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Leftover paint from the Water Supplies Department gave the Blue House its distinctive hue

Guided tours of the Blue House are offered every morning and afternoon. Click here for more information.

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