High above Wan Chai, surrounded by tower blocks and gaudy townhouses, one of Hong Kong’s most remarkable mansions sits empty and idle.
Built in 1937, King Yin Lei is one of Hong Kong’s best examples of Chinese Renaissance architecture. It’s a sprawling palace built by a Chinese woman entrepreneur at a time when both women and Chinese people were not welcome in the upper echelons of colonial Hong Kong society. “It’s probably one of the finest of its kind, as a piece of architecture that combines the Chinese tradition with the Western tradition,” says Lee Ho-yin, director of the University of Hong Kong’s architectural conservation programme.
And yet, ever since King Yin Lei was saved from demolition in 2007, it has remained a mystery to the public – except for a few precious days a year when its green metal gates are thrown open to visitors. That was the case last weekend, when 16,000 free tickets were handed out to anyone eager to explore a rare piece of Hong Kong history.
The mansion was built by Li Po-lun, who originally named it Hei Lo (禧廬). Li had won a fortune on the stock and foreign exchange markets and spent HK$600,000 to build a home on Stubbs Road, a winding road that leads up to Victoria Peak. Though the mansion was financed by Li’s savvy investments, she was not exactly a self-made woman. Her father Li Sing had earned a fortune in casinos and construction, and she was the second wife of Shum Yat-chor, who ran a successful chain of herbal tea shops in Australia.
Li hired Hong Kong-based British architect Arthur Robert Fenton-Raven to design the house. At the time, the Chinese Renaissance style was sweeping through China, but its revival of classical Chinese forms and motifs found relatively few takers in Hong Kong, except for a handful of church buildings and a few other mansions, including Haw Par Mansion and the recently demolished Ho Tung Gardens. Nevertheless, Li insisted on building a distinctively Chinese home and Fenton-Raven obliged, producing a strong counterpoint to the European-style mansions that populated most of the Peak.
The Chinese Renaissance style was born with the Republic of China. A sense of cultural renewal swept through the country after the 1911 revolution, and this was translated into architecture that adopted typically Chinese forms and motifs – though in a less ostentatious way that suited modern tastes. King Yin Lei is an example of this. Its roof sweeps upwards, evoking a temple or a palace, and its ceramic roof tiles are shaped like bamboo. A traditional Chinese gate leads to the property, which extends across a 4,910 square metre plot on the edge of a cliff. Anyone travelling to the Peak from Wan Chai or Causeway Bay would have passed it.
Li and her family were based in Guangzhou until the Communist Revolution in 1949, when they moved to Hei Lo full time, hosting pool parties and banquets with private performances by well-known Cantonese opera singers. In 1955, the mansion was used to film Soldier of Fortune, starring Clark Gable as a Hong Kong shipping magnate. By the 1970s, however, Li and her family found themselves in dire financial straits, and they sold the mansion to merchant Stephen Yow Mok-shing, who renamed it King Yin Lei (景賢里).
(There’s no information on why the owners chose to name the property Hei Lo and King Yin Lei, but it’s likely they chose these names simply because they sounded nice. The former could be translated as Happy Hut or Happy Cottage, while the latter means, roughly, Esteemed View Court.)
Things took a dramatic turn in 2004, when news broke that Yow was thinking of selling the property. Assuming that the house would be torn down for development, activists launched a campaign to save it. Yow backed off – for a time. In 2007, workers were seen removing the mansion’s roof tiles and chiselling away the Chinese characters on the front gate. It turns out that Yow had sold King Yin Lei after all and the new owner was bent on demolishing it in order to redevelop the site.
Public outcry was swift. In response, the government declared the mansion a proposed monument, which put a halt to the demolition workers. It was made an official historic monument in the summer of 2008, protecting it against any future damage or demolition. After negotiating a land swap with the property owner, the government took control of the site and began restoring it as well as it could.
That opened the door to another problem: what to do with the old mansion. In recent years, the government has embraced adaptive reuse as a way to give historic buildings new life, and landmarks like the Tai O Heritage Hotel, Comix Homebase and the PMQ have all benefitted from this new approach to historic conservation. There were similar plans for King Yin Lei, too, but proposals to turn it into an ink art museum or a wedding venue were shot down because they would have required altering the original structure.
Lee thinks that’s a shame. “The purpose of a building is to be used, but right now, King Yin Lei is treated like an art object and restored like an artefact,” he says. One solution could be to use it as the official residence of a senior government official, or rented out to a foreign consulate for the use of their consul-general. But that could trigger another public outcry about making a fascinating piece of Hong Kong heritage off limits to the public.
So for now, King Yin Lei sits empty, except for when curious onlookers are allowed inside its gates. What they find is a veritable palace sprawling across 1,735 square metres and dozens of rooms. The house is divided into three wings surrounding a central courtyard. The exterior walls are clad in red brick that stands in contrast to the curved green tile roof. A garden extends beyond the house, but it’s hard to imagine what it would have been like in the glory days of King Yin Lei, as many of its original features have been altered, including an auspicious half-moon-shaped pond that was filled in at some point in the past.
Inside, most rooms are empty, but a few have been stocked with antique furniture, including a formal sitting room and a dining room. A bright pink bathroom hints at someone’s eccentric taste. Chinese architectural motifs can be found in every corner: window screens shaped like longevity symbols, Buddhist swastikas carved into doors and rendered in tile mosaics. In one circular room, the ceiling is gilded in a concentric radiating pattern that mimics that of traditional Chinese palaces. But there are also modern touches typical of the 1930s, such as smooth terrazzo staircases that curve up between floors.
Back outside, thick moss grows on hillside retaining walls and muddy rainwater collects in the empty swimming pool. When the last visitor leaves and the gate is sealed shut, King Yin Lei returns to darkness, waiting for the next chapter of its life.
King Yin Lei will be open to the public from October 21-22, 2017. Visitors must sign up for one of four 90 minute viewing sessions each day. For more information, click here.