There is a mysterious object on Prince Edward Road West. It doesn’t invite attention to itself. In fact, it blends into the landscape well enough that you could pass along that stretch of road two, three, four, a dozen times without noticing anything amiss. But once you see it, it’s hard to ignore: a solitary column attached to two adjacent buildings, seemingly without purpose or context.
With its embossed texture it looks significantly older than the streamlined 1960s-era apartment blocks that flank it. Does it have a structural purpose? Is it decorative? Soon enough you will begin noticing these ghost pillars all over Hong Kong, standing invisible to the crowds rushing past them.
That’s when you might also notice the few remaining shophouses that dot the landscape. These are the historic structures that stretch out and over the pedestrian footpath, turning the sidewalk into a handsome arcade sheltered from the elements. You can still find them in abundance in Singapore, Penang and Guangzhou, but in Hong Kong, where fewer than a thousand buildings predate World War II, nearly all of them have disappeared.
In old neighbourhoods like Sheung Wan, Yau Ma Tei and Sham Shui Po, only a few solitary survivors remain. Wan Chai is home to one of the last intact shophouse blocks — today known as The Pawn — as is Mongkok, where two rows of shophouses on Prince Edward Road have been restored and another row on Shanghai Street is being rebuilt.
Once you become familiar with these few remaining shophouses, you’ll realise that the ghost pillars were once attached to their long-gone compatriots – shophouses that were demolished during Hong Kong’s postwar building boom, but only incompletely. Somehow, random bits of these shophouses were left standing. The mystery is only half-solved: why would a developer tear down a shophouse only to leave one incongruous column intact?
“Those freaky ghost columns – one can spin many creepy urban legends out of them!” exclaims Lee Ho-yin. As the director of the University of Hong Kong’s Architectural Conservation Programme, Lee is the person to see about such architectural enigmas, and sure enough, he has an explanation for their existence.
But first, a history lesson. Shophouses known as tong4 lau2 (唐樓) — literally “Chinese building” — first emerged in the busy commercial cities of southern China. They consisted of large, flexible open spaces stacked atop one another, perfect for housing large families that ran businesses on the ground floor and lived upstairs.
As Chinese migrants spread throughout Southeast Asia, they brought the shophouse typology with them to cities like Penang, Singapore and Malacca. They evolved in tandem with local building codes. Singapore began regulating shophouse construction in its 1822 town plan, but Hong Kong had few restrictions until 1903, when the colonial government finally responded to concerns that poor living conditions had contributed to the outbreak of bubonic plague in 1894. The new law boosted the amount of ventilation and outdoor space in every shophouse, encouraging the construction of balconies or verandahs.
Property developers took advantage of this to build deep verandahs that stretched right over the public right-of-way. In Hong Kong, their emergence seems incidental, but in many other cities they were enshrined by law. Also known as porticoes, they were popular in the poorly regulated cities of medieval Europe, allowing property owners to extend their buildings well into the street, inadvertently creating arcades that sheltered pedestrians from the elements. Seeing how much they enhanced the quality of public life, the Italian city of Bologna made porticoes mandatory in 1288, a law that still remains in force.
Other jurisdictions followed suit. The Royal Ordinances of King Philip II of Spain required the construction of arcades, so when the Portuguese began establishing trading outposts in Southeast Asia in the 16th century, this European tradition of porticoes melded with the Chinese tradition of shophouses. These soon spread throughout the region, inspiring Singapore’s founder, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, to enshrine their use in the new colony’s town plan.
Hong Kong tolerated the construction of arcades so long as the verandahs above them remained open to the air. (Of course, over the years, many building owners and tenants flouted the law and enclosed their verandahs, turning them into extra rooms that could be rented out.) Hence the arcaded footpaths that were common along every major Hong Kong street before World War II.
When the city was hit by the postwar population boom, many of these older shophouses were replaced by larger and more modern tong lau that did not need columns to support their cantilevered balconies. This is what led to the ghost pillars.
Lee explains. “The site was originally a contiguous row of shophouses – one development,” he says. “Along came a developer who bought up half the row and demolished it for a new modern development. The row was demolished up to the subject column, which was still attached to the remaining row of shophouses. Later, another developer bought up the remaining row, and demolished it for another new development.
“This was when the ghost column manifested – one vertical-half of the column belonged to the first developer, and the other half belonged to the second developer. Since there was no neat way for the second developer to demolish just his vertical-half of the column, the expedient thing to do was to leave the entire column alone.”
So there you have it: mystery solved. The pillars were preserved as a matter of expedience by competing property developers. They were relieved of their structural duty to become inadvertent witnesses to history.
But they may not survive for long. The rapacious pace of Hong Kong development is once again reshaping many parts of the city, and the modern buildings that replaced the old shophouses — leaving behind the ghost pillars — aren’t so modern anymore. One day, they too will be replaced, and the ghosts will retire forever to the afterlife of Hong Kong architecture.