Time Travel Made Easy: Hong Kong’s Vintage Guidebooks

Hong Kong - Riviera of the Orient, circa 1930, by S. D. PanaiotakyLin Fa Kung Temple in Causeway Bay, 1869 by William Pryor FloydA 1953 guidebook produced by the Hong Kong governmentHong Kong's Praya promenade 1867-68 by William Pryor FloydA 1935 poster entitled 'See Hong Kong, the Riviera of the Orient'A 1893 guidebook authored by Bruce Shepherd

It’s a warm spring morning and you’re sipping your coffee in the Hongkong Hilton, the colony’s newest and largest hotel, wondering how to spend your day. Your travel guidebook sits next to you, brimming with advice. Perhaps you should start with a ride on the Peak Tram; “a sightseeing must,” raves the guide. Or maybe you could visit Tiger Balm Gardens (“fantastic”). You could even trek out to Lok Ma Chau, where an observation post gives you a peek across the “Red China Border,” the bamboo curtain still sealed to Western tourists.

Whatever the itinerary, you will try to sneak in a bit of shopping (Hong Kong is “the greatest bazaar in the world,” informs the book) before your dinner reservation at the Peking Restaurant on Great George Street, known for its Peking duck and Mongolian Fire Pot. A martini back at the Hilton — just HK$2.40, a fair bit cheaper than back home — will put an agreeable cap on a busy day in the Pearl of the Orient.

All of this can be gleaned from Hong Kong: An Illustrated Travel Guide, published by the Lane Magazine and Book Company in 1965, when Hong Kong was a British outpost taking its first uneven steps towards prosperity. (Guests at the Hilton enjoyed luxurious harbour view rooms, but in the early 1960s they had to cope with water rationing that limited them to one bucket per day.) It’s hardly a comprehensive account of the city. But like all travel guides, it is a window into the everyday details of days gone by, from the cost of a bus fare to the etiquette of shopping at a local market. It’s as close to time travel you can get.

This weekend, China in Print brings a number of rare travel guides, posters and other artefacts to its annual fair at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum. “By immersing ourselves in the texts, images and objects we can actually feel what it might have been like to journey across the world and find oneself in a new culture, climate, language,” says director Andrea Mazzocchi. Some remarkable objects from Hong Kong will be for sale, including SD Panaiotaky’s 1930 guidebook Hong Kong: The Riviera of the Orient, alongside other gems from elsewhere, such as a 1928 illustrated map of Beijing.

“We had heard that a few exceptionally rare and important travel items would be coming this year, meaning that 2018 especially would be a treat for collectors of travel material,” says Mazzocchi. “But the fair has always been strong on travel books and maps, as well as the printed ephemera such as posters and luggage labels which further illustrate the history of travel.”

Today, the rows of guidebooks at every Hong Kong convenience store make it clear just how commonplace travel has become. But until very recently, travel was a rare and privileged opportunity to seek out another place and culture. “We all say we love to travel, but when we look back at travel accounts from 16th century right up until even the early 20th century, it’s clear how absolutely extreme the travel experience once was, a world away from our modern comforts and conveniences,” says Mazzocchi. “When we talk of circumnavigating the world in 1600s or travelling from London to China in 1800s, we may as well be comparing these experiences to space travel today – they were inconceivably enormous endeavours.”

Such daunting journeys required a guide. While the internet has now democratised travel advice — you can easily plan a visit to a city by reading local magazines or browsing through Instagram — it was once dispensed by a privileged few. As such, every guidebook is a reflection not only of a place but of the prism through which it is seen. “Guidebooks throw light on the compiler and on the contemporary culture that envelops or engulfs him,” writes HJ Lethbridge in his introduction to the 1982 reissue of Kelly and Walsh’s Handbook to Hong Kong, which was one of the first guides to the city when it was published in 1893. “What does he include and what does he leave out?”


Tourists on a boat tour in Aberdeen Harbour, 1985. Photo courtesy HKU Libraries.

You can find the century-old Kelly and Walsh guide in the reference collection of the Central Library in Causeway Bay, along with many other guidebooks. Hong Kong at the time consisted of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon — the British would not lease the New Territories for another five years — and the guide’s author, Bruce Shepherd, is unapologetic in his celebration of British imperialism. His first pages effectively erase Hong Kong’s centuries of pre-colonial history. “For ages prior to the year 1841, it existed only as a plutonic island of uninviting sterility,” he proclaims.

That is jarring to read today, but like every guidebook, Shepherd’s is product of its era, and China was seen by 19th century Westerners as a tragically crippled civilisation. In the view of Shepherd and many others, Hong Kong was Britain’s gift to the Far East. “No stranger, however sympathetic, can pass along the roads and streets of Hongkong without a feeling of wonder and admiration at the almost magical influence, which in so few years, could transform the barren granite mountain sides of the island of Hongkong into one of the most pleasant cities of the earth.”

Shepherd is surely not talking about the squalid Chinese quarter of Sheung Wan, where an outbreak of bubonic plague would kill thousands just a year after he published his book. Indeed, the neighbourhoods where most of Hong Kong’s population actually lived do not figure much in Shepherd’s guide, which reserves most of its enthusiasm for the colonial institutions of Central, the leafy byways of the Mid-Levels and the city’s scenic outskirts.

A section on places of worship details St. John’s Cathedral (which “possesses a very fine organ”), the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (“a handsome modern cruciform structure”) and three other churches, but it contains no mention of the Man Mo Temple or any of the other Chinese religious landmarks that existed in 1893 – though to be fair, Shepherd does describe several temples in other sections, including a “tumble-down old temple perched on a rock” in Shau Kei Wan that “had been a holy place since time immemorial.”

Some of what Shepherd describes remains strikingly familiar, like his descriptions of Deep Water Bay, (“prettier and more interesting” than it appears from afar) and the Chinese New Year market in Causeway Bay, with its “array of stalls laden with light-coloured papers and candles for offerings.” Others depict scenes that long ago ceased to exist. In one passage, Shepherd recalls how the colonial elite would spend their free time going on “picnics” to Aberdeen, which involved being transported by sedan chair over the hills to a specially-built pavilion where they enjoyed a sumptuous feast overlooking the water.

Shepherd was an avid walker, and he recommends taking a boat across the harbour to the Cosmopolitan Docks in Tai Kok Tsui, from where visitors could hike over to the sandalwood mills of Tsuen Wan, or if they travelled in the opposite direction, the impressive granite formation of Lion Rock. (He was not impressed by Tai Mo Shan, from which “very little is visible but haze and glare.”) Shepherd also describes the Kowloon Walled City, then a “particularly dirty” Chinese military garrison: “The chief trade of the place is from the several gambling houses erected near the beach there.”

Interestingly, for all his apparent haughtiness, Shepherd had the forbearance to recognise the absurdity of colonial arrogance. For a time every British family considered it essential to own a carriage, which they rode back and forth to Shau Kei Wan as entertainment. “The man who walked over the hills was regarded as a lunatic, he who walked on the level as a pauper,” he writes. “There was no real pleasure, nothing but a heavy and pompous extravagance, with no return for the huge sums fooled away, an astounding ignorance of all the surroundings, the Chinese, their language and their ways, or even of the very place itself, and a great deal of insolence and the pride of life.” By 1893, it seems, people were slightly more adventurous, if not open-minded.

Fast forward a century and Hong Kong’s exoticism was its main attraction for international visitors. The Fodor’s 1988 guide to Hong Kong proclaims that “Hong Kong doesn’t just have some of the better Chinese food in the world; it has the best.”  It advises readers not to shy away from ingredients they might find unusual: “Try goose webs, cockerels’ testicles, cows’ innards, snakes (in season), pig’s shanks and other things that may not be served at McDonald’s.”

Similarly, the guide enthusiastically advises readers to plunge themselves into Hong Kong’s markets, including some that have since disappeared into the maws of voracious property developers, like the fabric hawkers of Cloth Alley in Sheung Wan and the Poor Man’s Nightclub, a lively flea market and street food destination next to the Macau ferry terminal.

It also describes a nightlife scene that is entirely foreign to the craft beer taprooms and mixologist-led cocktail bars of today. “There are several hundred entertainment places in Hong Kong. For every 100, at least 99 are for men,” it explains. There is an entire section on hostess clubs like the China City Nightclub in Tsim Sha Tsui East. “Would you believe 1,000 ladies waiting to please?” gushes the guidebook. “The hostess bar is an Oriental tradition, a modern version of the original pleasure houses, and Hong Kong is full of them,” it continues, happily oblivious to the sex trafficking that occurred in those clubs. Only one hostess club remains in Hong Kong today.

These guides once served a useful purpose to world travellers; today, they offer scenes from a bygone city and the values of a society that has since changed. And they are as close as the nearest public library.

A earliest known travel poster for Hong Kong entitled ‘Hong Kong – Riviera of the Orient’, circa 1930, by S. D. Panaiotaky, issued by Hong Kong Travel Association

China in Print runs from November 30 to December 2, 2018. Click here for more information.

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