Hong Kong’s Disappearing Tong Lau - A Panoramic Perspective
This series of remarkable “linear” panoramas offers an entirely new perspective on Hong Kong’s distinctive and much-loved architecture. An international collaboration between photographer Stefan Irvine and post-production expert Jörg Dietrich, the images are a celebration of the city’s rich architectural heritage and the communities living within.
The series focuses predominantly on Hong Kong’s tong lau (騎 ), or Chinese “shophouse” buildings - a type of tenement architecture at one time popular throughout southern China
for both residential and commercial use. Other works capture similarly distinctive, architectural styles, displaying influences from Hong Kong and beyond.
Several recurring features of Hong Kong tong lau are showcased within the portfolio, including the iconic curved corner houses of Ki Lung Street and To Kwa Wan Road, high- density composite buildings (Wah Fu Estate and Ki Lung Street), bamboo scaffolding, multi- coloured paint schemes, and the arcaded facades of Grade II-listed Shanghai Street.
With much of Hong Kong’s urban heritage under constant threat of redevelopment, these photographs serve as vital historical documents for the communities they depict. Although there has been increasing interest in the conservation of Hong Kong’s built heritage in recent years, there are still strong financial incentives for developers to replace older low- rise buildings with ever-taller skyscrapers. At the time of writing, several of the blocks showcased in the series, including Shanghai Street’s listed shophouses, have been earmarked for demolition or significant redevelopment by Hong Kong’s Urban Renewal Authority.
While there has been an encouraging interest in revitalisation programs in the recent past, allowing for some much-needed modernisation of decaying tong lau architecture, it remains uncertain how this impacts the intangible cultural heritage of the communities served by those buildings. Too often, revitalisation and redevelopment results in the break-up of tight- knit communities and long-established businesses, which can no longer afford to stay in these buildings post-regeneration.
The production process of these linear panoramas demands meticulous planning and careful attention to detail. Photographer Stefan Irvine often makes several trips to each location, painstakingly capturing the entire facade of the buildings at precise intervals and distances, with careful attention given to moving objects and people in the scene.
These photographs from multiple perspectives are then digitally merged and manipulated by Jörg Dietrich into one expansive, seamless image, creating a singular visualisation of the architecture in an entire city block. This perspective allows the viewer to experience the life of a whole city street at a glance, featuring greater detail and instilling more emotional impact than other traditional forms of photography.
The Blue House, Wan Chai
The famous Blue House (藍屋) cluster of buildings, located on Stone Nullah Lane in Wan Chai, is a prime example of pre-war tong lau architecture, and a case-study in successful heritage conservation. Once the site of a Chinese hospital, then a temple devoted to the God of Medicine, the tenement buildings now situated at 72-74 Stone Nullah Lane were built between 1922 and 1927. These Chinese shophouses were constructed with timber and bricks, featuring cantilevered balconies and wooden French doors. They once housed local shops on the street level, including a grocery store, a wine merchant and a Chinese bonesetter; while the upper 3 floors accommodated scores of local residents in around 20 subdivided apartments. While the exterior was originally painted white, when the government decided to redecorate the block in 1997, they used leftover paint from the Water Supplies Department, which is how the Blue House got its name. At that time, the section at number 74A was privately-owned and still painted white, so it was decided it should remain that colour until the present day.
A grassroots campaign was successful in preventing the demolition of the Blue House structure, although the shops and apartments were in much need of upgrading. In 2013, the government began to revitalise the Blue House, together with neighbouring tenements known as the Yellow House and the Orange House. All of the Blue House’s historical features would be preserved, including patterned floor tiles, and ornate iron railings, but each of the apartments would be modified to include bathrooms, kitchens and air-conditioning. At that time, most residents had lived inside the cluster for over half a century; the only pre-war shophouse to retain a comprehensive social network. Local activists were able to persuade the government to allow the original residents of the site to move back into the accommodation once the renovations had been completed, with subsidised rents. The revitalisation project was completed in 2017 and now houses several family units who had been long-term residents of the site previously, as well as several restaurants run by social enterprises, and a community centre dedicated to recording and exhibiting Hong Kong stories. In 2017, the restoration was the first Hong Kong-based project to receive the Award of Excellence in UNESCO’s Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation. The jury noted how the Blue House Cluster “has safeguarded not only the architecture, but also the living history and culture of a neighbourhood.”
Ki Lung Street, Sham Shui Po
Ki Lung Street runs through historic Sham Shui Po, a district situated in the northern Kowloon Peninsula. The nine- storey block featured in this panorama was built in 1963, and is a prime example of a post-war "tong lau ( 唐 )" or "shophouse", a type of tenement architecture previously used throughout Southern China for mixed residential and commercial purposes. This block also features the much-loved curved corners at either end, an architectural feature that is increasingly rare in today's modern buildings. Given the high rate of urban decay in the area, Sham Shui Po is a major target for urban renewal projects and such traditional tong lau are rapidly being replaced by new high rises.
Ki Lung Street - more colloquially known as “Button Street” - is one of the go-to streets in Hong Kong for purchasing wholesale fabrics, fasteners, sequins, feathers, buttons, and other garment accessories. The popup market stalls in this panorama are mainly dealing in ready-to-wear apparel; the wholesale fabric merchants are to be found along many of the neighbouring streets in Sham Shui Po and Cheung Sha Wan.
Another notable feature of this panorama is the use of 100% natural bamboo scaffolding for construction, a traditional practice which is still used widely throughout Hong Kong today - 5 million bamboo rods are imported into the city every year.
Shanghai Street, Mongkok
Running down a long section of the Kowloon Peninsula, Shanghai Street in Mongkok features this cluster of ten pre-war tong-lau shophouses, which have been listed as Grade II buildings for their historical value. This is one of the few remaining examples of the typical Hong Kong architecture of the 1920s, with their first-floor verandahs (now enclosed) and arcaded fronts facing the street. The four taller buildings interspersed among the shop houses were built in the 1960s.
Such tong-lau shophouses were residential on their upper floors and commercial at street-level, with stores in this area selling Chinese and Western utensils, hardware, traditional Chinese wedding gowns, and even snake soup.
A major heritage preservation project by the Urban Renewal Authority has already started, which will see the entire block revitalised, with many of the original architectural elements preserved. However, critics fear the loss of the area’s original character and the break-up of the community of some 170 residents, who will need to be re-housed
To Kwa Wan Road
To Kwa Wan Road is a major thoroughfare in the Kowloon City district of eastern Kowloon, located just to the west of the old Kai Tak airport. The buildings in this block comprise the eastern edge of the famous “13 Streets” neighbourhood ( 三街). The 11 parallel streets inside the zone are named after animals which are auspicious in Chinese culture, such as dragon, phoenix, swallow, crane and horse. These dilapidated apartment blocks were built between 1958 and 1960 and are under review by the Urban Renewal Authority for redevelopment.
This panorama demonstrates some typical features of Hong Kong architecture. The distinctive curved building end is common in older parts of the city, but something rarely seen in more modern architecture. The apartment blocks in this part of the city were restricted to eight storeys in height, to allow for the low-passing aircraft on approach to Kai Tak airport.
Wah Fu Estate, Pok Fu Lam
Completed almost 50 years ago in 1968, Wah On House is part of the larger Wah Fu Estate, a public housing development near Aberdeen, on the south-west coast of Hong Kong Island. The first of its kind, the estate was conceived as a New Town project for low-income families, and was designed to foster a sense of community, with integrated services such as schools, a market, banks, restaurants and a public library. This panorama shows the remarkably high-density nature of Hong Kong’s public housing, as well as some of the facilities still available today, such as convenience stores, grocers, an electrical goods shop, and an off-site betting branch of The Hong Kong Jockey Club.
In recent years the ageing estate has fallen into disrepair and many of its residents have been waiting for the government’s help to move to newer and better homes. In 2014, it was announced in the Chief Executive’s policy address that Wah Fu Estate would be redeveloped, and that the 26,000 remaining residents would be rehoused in new public housing developments nearby.
Waterloo Road, Yau Ma Tei
Built in 1964, Wah Tak Building in Yau Ma Tei, Kowloon is a mostly residential building with an almost perfectly square facade fronting Waterloo Road. Sitting directly opposite the century-old Yau Ma Tei Wholesale Fruit market, which operates throughout the night, this building is an example of a post-war composite building, a type of tong lau, with shops and businesses on the ground floor, and 17 floors of residential accommodation above.
Tung Shing Lei Road, Yuen Long
This row of 1930’s village houses, known collectively as “Lau’s House”, was built by a businessman named Lau Wai To from Taishan City in Guangdong province. Lau started a fish-farming business in the Yuen Long area of Hong Kong, and between 1926 and 1935, he built these four houses and one ancestral hall for his eight sons and their families. Constructed in the architectural style of Lau’s home-village in Taishan, each house is split into two halves, with a courtyard separating each section. Although some of these homes have now been abandoned, most of them are still occupied by families today.
Stefan Irvine is an award-winning British photographer living and working in Hong Kong since 2002. His work has been published internationally in The New York Times, National Geographic, Forbes, Harvard Design Review, and the South China Morning Post. His photographs have been exhibited in New York, Hong Kong and London. After graduating with a Master of Arts in Psychology from the University of Edinburgh, Stefan went on to receive a Post-Graduate Diploma in Photojournalism from the London College of Printing (LCP).
Post-production expert Jörg Dietrich lives in Leipzig, Germany, and has been experimenting with multi-perspective visualisations since 2010. He works mainly in Europe documenting city structures and architecture in linear perspectives. He collaborates with photographers internationally to create street and cityscapes worldwide.
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