Why Nobody Knew About the Spectacular Bishop Hill Reservoir

Years ago, Lam Hiu-man went to school at the base of Bishop Hill, a densely forested knoll that rises between the neighbourhoods of Sham Shui Po, Shek Kip Mei and Yau Yat Chuen, just north of Boundary Street. Every day, she looked outside her classroom window and watched as elderly people climbed the slope to do their morning exercises on the grassy lawn at the hill’s summit. She had no idea what lay under their feet: the ruins of a spectacular century-old reservoir. 

On December 28, around noon, Lam was back on the hillside when one of its regular visitors told her that something remarkable was happening up top. She made her way to the summit and found a crowd abuzz with excitement. A demolition crew working for the Water Supplies Department had smashed an opening into the old reservoir, exposing a lofty chamber supported by dozens of stone arches. Sunlight poured into the newly unearthed room as people wandered around, mesmerised by the stonework, the light and the rubble left behind by workers. It was like something out of ancient Rome. “Some people doing morning exercise were even dancing inside the cave,” says Lam.

Lam is a photographer who runs Hong Kong Reminiscence, a Facebook group dedicated to the city’s heritage. She took some photos of the newly exposed reservoir and posted them online. They quickly went viral. People were captivated by the beauty of the space, which was amplified by the fact that it was a total surprise: even those who knew there was an abandoned reservoir under the hill had no idea what it looked like. “When I first saw the photos I was surprised and amazed at its history,” says Alfie Chung, a design educator who had spent time studying the hill and its regular visitors. “At the same time, I wonder why the government and relevant departments seem to have no records of it and they seemed just as surprised as we were.”

People shared the photos with a sense of urgency. The reservoir had only been uncovered as workers were in the process of demolishing it, because the Water Supplies Department was worried about its structural integrity. The public’s howls of outrage were loud enough that the government was forced to respond just hours after Lam had posted her photos. By the end of the day, the Water Supplies Department announced the suspension of demolition works. The next day, surrounded by news media, the government’s Commissioner for Heritage, Ivanhoe Chang, visited the ruins and made a public apology for the “mistake” of demolishing the reservoir. 

Heritage has become a hot-button issue in Hong Kong, and in recent years there have been a number of successful campaigns to save prominent structures from the wrecking ball, including the State Theatre, Wing Lee Street and the West Wing of the Central Government Offices. But even in that context, the campaign to save the Bishop Hill reservoir was remarkable in its speed and effectiveness. “The civil society response to the heritage reservoir row has been nothing short of extraordinary,” wrote pundit Neptune Ng, attributing it to the public’s pent-up desire to be heard in the aftermath of the 2019 protests and the national security crackdown that followed. “Many have been waiting for an outlet to unleash their repressed energy and pained frustrations to good use. In these trying times, the public will adapt and turn their wits to issues of community concern that are perhaps safer and less political.”

That may also explain the government’s swift response. But even though the reservoir now seems to have been saved from destruction, plenty of questions remain. Why was its discovery such a surprise in the first place? And what happens next? 

Photo courtesy Lam Hiu-man / Hong Kong Remembrance

To answer those questions, it helps to understand why the Bishop Hill reservoir exists in the first place. As civil engineer Tymon Mellor explains on the Industrial History of Hong Kong website, people living in Kowloon initially relied on wells to provide freshwater, but these quickly became inadequate as the peninsula’s population swelled in the first years of the 20th century. In response, the government earmarked a site above Cheung Sha Wan for a new reservoir—the Kowloon Reservoir—which would supply water to a holding tank underneath Bishop Hill. 

Construction began in 1903 and was completed the next year. “A hole was excavated at the top of the hill to allow a concrete slab to be cast,” writes Mellor. “On this, granite pillars were constructed with brick arch vaulting to form the roof. The structure was then backfilled and landscaped.” The new tank was 46 metres in diameter and six metres deep, with a capacity of nearly 8.3 million litres. It was initially fed by rainwater and local streams until the Kowloon Reservoir opened in 1910. It continued operating until 1984, when it was finally disconnected from the water network, rendered obsolete by more modern tanks elsewhere.

And so it remained, ignored and nearly forgotten. But its presence meant that Bishop Hill could not be developed, so it became a kind of in-between space appropriated by people living in the densely-packed neighbourhoods around it. Even the name is fluid: although Bishop Hill (zyu2 gaau3 saan1, 主教山) has now become the most common appellation in the media—perhaps because of the distinctive Berwick Street Church that sits on its northwestern flank—local residents also know it as the Shek Kip Mei Hill (sek6 gip3 mei5 saan1 石硤尾山, referring to the adjacent neighbourhood), as well as Wo Chai Hill (wo1 zai2 saan1, 窩仔山, “Little Nest Hill”) and sometimes as “the hill with no name,” given the lack of official signposting. 

Over the years, nearby residents have cobbled together leftover construction supplies to build makeshift benches, bamboo railings and a shack near the summit where they gather to play mahjong. Small shrines dot the hillside, similar to what is found near Waterfall Bay. Dirt trails have been converted into staircases with pieces of wood and doormats nailed into the ground. Most remarkably, a retired mechanical engineer and SARS survivor named Mr. So spent ten years building an ingenious collection of exercise equipment from scrap materials. There are training bars, swings, even a punching bag mounted on the base of an old signpost. 

All of this is set amidst a wild landscape populated by wild dogs and enormous banyan trees – a jungle within shouting distance of high-rise apartments. This beguiling atmosphere drew Alfie Chung to the hill a few years ago. “I doubt many would find Bishop Hill aesthetically pleasing,” he wrote on his website. “What you can easily appreciate, however, is its friendly, supportive and resilient community. Upon closer inspection, you will also find the odd amateur designs here and there that are charmingly functional. The hill itself is also full of small natural paths and old trees waiting to be explored with a child-like curiosity.”

The stone arches of the reservoir can now be counted among the hill’s many curious attractions. But why did nobody seem to know of their existence? According to the government, a miscommunication was to blame. Although the Water Supplies Department had records of the reservoir’s design, it assured the Antiquities and Monuments Office (AMO) that it was just an ordinary water tank when it was drawing up plans to demolish it. But heritage experts say the real blame lies in the inadequacies of Hong Kong’s heritage protection laws. 

In many countries, archaeologists are involved in any construction project that may touch on historic properties. But Sharon Wong, an assistant professor of archaeology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and former member of the Antiquities Advisory Board, notes that Hong Kong’s Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance only considers structures or objects from before 1800 to be antiquities. That’s why archaeologists were called in when the MTR built a new subway tunnel near relics from the Song Dynasty (960-1279), but not when the Water Supplies Department decided to demolish a reservoir built in 1904. 

The way Hong Kong categorises historic structures is another shortcoming. “The problem really goes back to our heritage assessment approach where all heritage assets are classified under building types and only a single guideline was developed to assess these heritage assets as such,” says Fredo Cheung, a lecturer at the University of Hong Kong’s Architectural Conservation Programme. “This can best be described as a one-size-fits-all approach which does not work in the context of appraising our extensive and highly diverse body of heritage assets.”

In other words, a lot of potentially significant heritage is being overlooked by Hong Kong’s heritage laws, including military relics, burial grounds, boundary stones – and reservoirs. The upside of the Bishop Hill controversy is that it has underlined the need for change. “This accident is very positive for the future heritage policy of Hong Kong,” says Wong. The Antiquities Advisory Board is currently studying the reservoir and its potential for heritage grading. Professional groups are urging the government to go further. This week, the Hong Kong Institute of Surveyors and the Hong Kong Institute of Architectural Conservationists both called for systemic changes to the way Hong Kong deals with heritage, including better coordination between the AMO and other government bodies, a clear set of internal guidelines on dealing with unassessed and ungraded heritage, and more conservation training within the government. 

For now, at least, the government seems receptive to such changes. “The public apology from a government official is actually very telling,” says Cheung. “When was the last time in recent history that the government has made a public apology? This underscores the fact that even the government realises that there is an inherent flaw in the system and no excuse can really justify what had transpired at Bishop Hill.”

The next step is to figure out exactly what to do with the reservoir. There are plenty of examples of repurposed reservoirs around the world, such as the Cisternerne in Frederiksberg, Denmark, which turned a 19th century reservoir into a contemporary art venue. You don’t even need to look far for inspiration: in 2018, the giant Tai Hang Tung stormwater drainage tank, which sits at the base of Bishop Hill, played host to an art installation by Kingsley Ng

Cheung says it’s important to understand that the reservoir’s value lies not only in its aesthetics but in the historic role it played in Hong Kong’s water system. “It is a testament to the civil engineering profession’s invaluable contribution to the development of Hong Kong. [And] it is a testament to the skills and craftsmanship of the local stonemasonry industry, a trade which has long since been in decline with the advent of modern material, with much of the knowledge being lost in time.”

Wong recently organised a web seminar that explored the reservoir’s importance and its potential for reuse. Whatever happens, she says, it will be crucial to involve the community – especially given the way Bishop Hill has been embraced by the people who live nearby. “Perhaps [the government] might try, under safe conditions, to allow local people to visit the site and collect their opinions on the future use of this site before they do anything like an architectural design competition,” she says. “[Because] this site is not just for a small group of professionals and experts – it’s for local people.”

Photos of the reservoir were taken by Lam Hiu-man of Hong Kong Remembrance. Photos of Bishop Hill were taken by Christopher DeWolf.

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