Slow Hong Kong: In the Steps of a Governor

When you’re on the Peak, you aren’t really at the summit. You’ll need a bit of effort and imagination to reach the true peak of Hong Kong Island, 552 metres above sea level. Try as you might, you will never quite make it, because access is restricted by the telecommunications infrastructure on the summit of Mount Austin.

Still, making an effort to transcend the touristy commercial jumble that occupies the Peak will lead to some nice surprises.

To get there, you’ll have to slowly make your way up Mount Austin Road towards the Victoria Peak Garden.

You’ll see Lamma Island in the distance, easily recognisable thanks to the three smokestacks of its power station.

Surrounded by upmarket residences, you’ll find the Mount Austin Road Playground, possibly the most chic play space in Hong Kong, with its rows of perfectly arranged flowers. Every morning, elderly people take advantage of the cool air to do tai chi exercises in the park’s kiosk.

Keep climbing. On your left, you’ll see the residence of the Consul General of Japan, christened with the odd name of The Haystack. The Japanese flag flutters agreeably above, far removed from the memories of a more traumatic era that wasn’t so long ago.

Victoria Peak Garden – Photo Courtesy of Alice Miquel

As fancy cars make their way towards the city, continue your climb past the workers heading to one of the worksites that seem to permanently adorn Hong Kong’s slopes. Domestic helpers walk peculiar-looking dogs, waving hello to the street sweeper, a regular fixture around these parts.

Soon, you’ll arrive at a pretty white cottage with blue shutters. This is the Former Gate Lodge, the sole remaining vestige of the time when the governor or Hong Kong had his summer residence on the Peak, in order to escape the swampy Hong Kong summer.

This era was ultimately quite short due to the climactic misfortune of Mountain Lodge, which was built on the orders of Governor Richard Graves MacDonnell in 1867. It stood on the site of a failed sanatorium, and the summer residence was itself demolished in 1898 after being damaged by typhoons in 1868, 1874 and 1892.

It was given a second life in 1902 by Governor Henry Arthur Blake, for whom an elegant Renaissance style house was built. Blake’s successors Francis Henry May and Cecil Clementi, as well as Colonial Secretary Thomas Southorn, spent time with their families there until a new summer residence in Fanling, in the New Territories, was adopted in 1934. Abandoned bit by bit, Mountain Lodge was finally demolished in 1946. 

You can still see the foundations that surround a pretty English garden, where it is possible to have a peaceful picnic at the foot of the Former Gate Lodge, which is now an historic monument. Built in the neoclassical style, it is now occupied by a gallery of colonial-era photos and documents. Like many Hong Kong edifices, it has served multiple functions: it was a police station in the 1950s and an office for workers rebuilding the Victoria Peak Garden in the 1970s. 

It is also the starting point of the Governor’s Walk, which invites you to take a stroll along a narrow, shady path. Lulled by birdsong, surrounded by butterflies, the trail runs along a stream before revealing astounding views towards the south, over Pok Fu Lam. What did the governor think while walking these few hundred metres, contemplating this island so far from his own? Pride? Nostalgia? Did he focus on his tasks at hand or let his imagination wander? Was he like Henry David Thoreau, who thought that “an early morning walk is a blessing for the whole day”?

Arriving at the end of the path, two stone lions greet you in front of a pavilion that takes advantage of the southerly view, which reveals itself on those days the Peak is not shrouded in fog. Don’t look the other way; a parking lot full of cars brings you far too quickly back to reality.

Forget the antennae that surround you and take a breath: you are at the summit, not of Hong Kong (that honour goes to Tai Mo Shan’s 957 metres), not even at that end of the island, but at the culmination of a path that you shared with the governors of the past.

Translated from the French by Christopher DeWolf.

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