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Building a Modern City: Legacies of Residential Development and Architectural Adaptation in Colonial Hong Kong


This article focuses on the relationship between property developers and architects in colonial Hong Kong in the 1920s to 1930s, identifying a successful collaboration within the architectural development company, the Crédit Foncier d'Extrême-Orient (CFEO). Benefiting from new plots of land made available on the Kowloon Peninsula and the opportunity to plan new neighbourhoods for both Western and Chinese clientele, the directors of CFEO negotiated with their in-house architects regarding land speculation and residential typology preferences while targeting the middle-class market. The company's demolished buildings left a crucial gap in the urban history of Hong Kong and China's treaty ports only recently uncovered through archival research by the author. Drawing upon in-depth primary data research and interviews with the architects’ descendants, this article probes into early twentieth-century residential development in Hong Kong, revealing how certain Western entrepreneurs and architects experimented with unique adaptations of architectural typologies suited to the local environment in the Chinese urban landscape.

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1 See Yeung, Y.M. and Wong, K.Y., Fifty Years of Public Housing in Hong Kong: A Golden Jubilee Review and Appraisal (Hong Kong, 2003); Nissim, R., Land Administration and Practice in Hong Kong (Hong Kong, 1998); S. K. Wong, Housing in Hong Kong: A Multi-Disciplinary Study (Hong Kong, 1978).

2 Faure, D., “Rethinking colonial institutions, standards, life styles and experiences”, in Hong Kong Mobile: Making a Global Population, (eds) Siu, H.F. and Ku, A.S. (Hong Kong, 2008), pp. 231246 ; Smith, C., Chinese Christians: Elites, Middlemen, and the Church in Hong Kong (Hong Kong, 1985).

3 Cody, J., “ ‘Erecting monuments to the god of business and trade’: The Fuller Construction Company of the Orient, 1919–1926”, Construction History, XII (1996), pp. 6781 .

4 Cody, J., Building in China: Henry K. Murphy's “Adaptive Architecture”, 1914–1935 (Hong Kong, 2001), pp. 910 .

5 Ibid., p. 74.

6 Bergère, M. C., The Golden Age of the Chinese Bourgeoisie 1911–1937 (Cambridge, 1989); Henriot, C., Shanghai, 1927–1937: Municipal Power, Locality, and Modernization (Berkeley, 1993).

7 Lee, O. F., Shanghai Modern: The Flowering of a New Urban Culture in China, 1930–1945 (Cambridge MA, 1999), p. 328 .

8 See Smart, A., The Shek Kip Mei Myth: Squatters, Fires and Colonial Rule in Hong Kong, 1950–1963 (Hong Kong, 2006); Carroll, J. M., Edge of Empires: Chinese Elites And British Colonials in Hong Kong (Cambridge, 2005).

9 Drakakis-Smith, D.W., High Society: Housing Provision in Metropolitan Hong Kong, 1954 to 1979 (Hong Kong, 1979); Leeming, F., Street Studies in Hong Kong: Localities in a Chinese City (Oxford, 1977).

10 Howard, E., Garden Cities of To-Morrow (Eastbourne, 1985).

11 “Introduction”, Inventory of the Archives of Crédit Foncier d'Extrême-Orient, and the subsidiary Mortgage Company of Tangier, 1907–1991”, archive files of CFEO, Brussels State Archives.

12 Brooke, J. T. W. and Davis, R.W., The China Architects and Builders Compendium (Shanghai, 1925).

13 Translated from original French text: “Il faut ensuite un homme jeune et de bonne santé; jeune pour avoir la souplesse nécessaire à son adaptation aux méthodes employées en Chine et de bonne santé car le métier est assez dur.” Tianjin office to the headquarters in Brussels, 25 Sept. 1913, Archive file 140, CFEO, Brussels.

14 Advertisements and notices of the company in Chinese appear in The Hong Kong & Far East Builder (Hong Kong: Far East Trade Press Ltd.), a bi-monthly periodical of building and real estate activities and published in Hong Kong from 1938 to the 1970s.

15 Coomans, T. and Lau, L. K. P., “Les tribulations d'un architecte belge en Chine: Gustave Volckaert, au service du Crédit Foncier d'Extrême-Orient, 1914–1954”, Revue Belge d'Archéologie et d'Histoire de l'Art, LXI (2012), pp.129153 .

16 Van Wylick, G., “L'architecture contemporaine en Chine”, L’Émulation. Organe de la Société Centrale d'Architecture de Belgique, XLVII (1927), pp. 99103 . Original text: “J'ai souvent essayé, lorsque j'avais à construire des résidences pour des riches Chinois, de leur faire accepter des projets qui, tout en offrant le confort de l'occident, auraient pu s'allier avec le caractère du pays; rarement j'ai pu arriver à en convaincre.” Van Wylick, ‘L'architecture contemporaine en Chine’, p. 99.

17 Interview by the author with Edouard Van Wylick (1925–), son of Gabriel Van Wylick, in Brussels on 2 June 2011.

18 Newspaper article of 27 December 1932. Retrieved from Gabriel Van Wylick's personal scrapbook of newspaper cuttings. Courtesy of Edouard Van Wylick.

19 Ibid.

20 St Teresa Church, completed in 1932, was another a construction project realised by Gabriel Van Wylick and the CFEO. It is of a basilica form and a full concrete structure, it still stands today and serves the Catholic community in the Kowloon Tong district.

21 Wright, G., The Politics of Design in French Colonial Urbanism (Chicago, 1991), p. 38 .

22 Faure, D., Society: A Documentary History of Hong Kong (Hong Kong, 1997), p. 149 .

23 Faure, D., Colonialism and the Hong Kong Mentality (Hong Kong, 2003).

24 Chu, C., “Combating nuisance: sanitation, regulation and the politics of property in Colonial Hong Kong”, in Imperial Contagions: Medicine, Hygiene and Cultures of Planning in Asia, (eds) Peckham, R. and Pomfret, D. (Hong Kong, 2013), pp. 1736 .

25 “Proposition of purchase”, dated 26 May 1930, by E. Molines. Translated from original French text: “ Je suis persuadé que l'achat de ce lot est une bonne opération, la mise en valeur de ces terrains en constructions chinoises contribuera certainement beaucoup au développement du centre européen que nous avons créé sur les lots voisins, il n'existe aucun magasin dans les environs, il est probable que ceux que nous construirons, seraient très rapidement loués”. Archive file 399, CFEO, Brussels State Archives.

26 Report written by Gabriel Van Wylick on 22 February 1940. Translated from original French text: “Cet immeuble est maintenant bien connu, il convient à merveille à la classe moyenne européenne et chinoise moderne.”. Archive file 401, CFEO, Brussels State Archives.

27 Ibid.

28 Chu, C., “Between typologies and representation: the Tong Lau and the discourse of the ‘Chinese House’ in colonial Hong Kong”, in Colonial Frames, Nationalist Histories: Imperial Legacies, Architecture and Modernity, (eds.) Rajagopalan, M. and Desai, M. (Surrey, 2012), p. 278 .

29 Chadwick, O., Report of the Sanitary Condition of Hong Kong (London, 1882).

30 King, R., Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya: Negotiating Urban Space in Malaysia (Honolulu, 2008), p. 61 .

31 “Il fallait, d'autre part, attirer les premiers locataires en leur offrant des maisons sortant de l'ordinaire, soignées et confortables. A ce point de vue, notre architecte a droit à nos félicitations et je suis loin d’être le seul à le dire. Ses maisons sont admirées par tout le monde à Hongkong, à telle enseigne qu'elles sont imitées et même copiées par bonnombre d'architectes de la place, architectes chinois et même anglais.” Visitation report of H. Bourboulon of the Hong Kong agency, 25 August 1933–14 March 1934, p.1. Archive file 307, CFEO, Brussels State Archives, p.12.

32 M. Kristal, “Detour <Interview with Rocco Yim>”, Dwell, VII/VIII (2008), p. 192.

33 “This area is now occupied by Prince Edward Road and its ramifications: Garden City, in the north; Ho Mun Tin, in the south. It is the zone reserved for the European residences, where we have most of our buildings.” Translated from original French text: “Cette percée est maintenant occupée par Prince Edward Road et ses ramifications: Garden City, au nord; Ho Mun Tin, au sud. C'est la zone réservée aux résidences européennes, celle où nous possédons la plupart de nos immeubles.” Archive file 307, CFEO, Brussels, p.5.

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Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society
  • ISSN: 1356-1863
  • EISSN: 1474-0591
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