When I used to work in Wan Chai, my colleague and I used to dawdle about the streets until the dying seconds of our lunch hour, bemoaning the lack of pleasant public spaces in the area where we could sit and avoid returning to the office for as long as possible. Little did I know that one such place did exist and could have saved us from being harangued by strippers and grimacing over grotty tattoo parlour displays in the streets of WC.
The Roof Garden (and yes, those are real plants and they’re gorgeous), on the third floor of The Pawn restaurant, is a quiet haven from the heaving hubbub of Wan Chai. It offers spectacular views over the city, a chance to drink in the different styles of architecture and savour the fact that somehow, a little piece of old Hong Kong has been preserved. Admittedly, preserved by becoming a set of swanky restaurants, but preserved nevertheless.
Photo contrasting the old Woo Cheong Pawnshop with the new development, from HK Man’s Flickr, which you need to check out like, now. Hundreds of amazing photographs like this comparing old and new HK.
The Pawn occupies the former premises of century-old Woo Cheong Pawnshop (hence the name), a set of four tenement houses (known as “tong lau”) originally built around the turn of the 20th century. “Tong lau” were unique to Hong Kong and Southern China, balcony-type shophouses featuring a mixture of Chinese and Western architecture, where the ground floor was usually devoted to a family business whilst the upper levels were residential. These ones have four stories, with high ceilings, French windows to the balconies, verandahs facing Johnston Road and other typical Tong Lau features that you can see in some of my photos, like the balustrades and decorative urns on the roof, which have been restored and revitalised. Columns on the ground floor supported the upper levels, forming a covered pedestrian arcade – a feature more HK buildings today could do with, saving us from the beating sun and dripping air cons!
Another nice little detail – the shophouses did not have toilet provisions. Instead, the “nightsoil” was collected by government scavengers at night from the pail latrine (i.e. a bucket). How do I know all this stuff? Well, upon visiting the Roof Garden, you’re met by an attendant from the Urban Renewal Authority (who bought the building in 2003 and helped restore it), bearing a pamphlet snappily entitled “Welcome to The Pawn Roof Woo Cheong Pawnshop Building Cluster”, full of such interesting facts and photos! Apparently, this was a response to The Pawn not exactly encouraging non paying-customers to enjoy the Roof Garden but I certainly had no such problems on my visit. Sadly, the attendant didn’t speak much English so couldn’t answer any of my other questions – like whether some of the racks on the roof were actually from the Woo Cheong Pawnshop itself (they definitely looked rusty enough!).
The preserved terrazo front sign for Woo Cheong Pawn Shop
It’s easy to get frustrated with Hong Kong’s attempts (or lack of) at historical preservation. Many old buildings have ceded to anonymous modern developments already and it always seems to be an uphill battle to prevent sites of historic interest from being ripped apart and swiftly following suit. Although it isn’t exactly ideal that these century-old tenements have survived as a luxury commercial development sold to the highest bidder (with Woo Cheong shunted out elsewhere in Wan Chai to make way for them), I’d rather concentrate on being happy that it’s survived at all, that a stunning part of it is easily and freely accessible to all and that The Pawn has put real effort and thought into making the most of its setting and history (review of the restaurant itself here!).
[And what with The Press Room Group paying homage to the pawnshop, having previously done so with The Press Room itself (its name references the Overseas Chinese Daily News / Hua Qiao Daily newspaper, the 1920s residents of that building), perhaps they’re getting a taste for this kind of thing?!]
View showing the orange lift going up the side of the Hopewell Centre, which at the time of its completion (1980) was the tallest building and first circular skyscraper in Hong Kong
As for the Roof Garden – well, the pictures speak for themselves, don’t they? (As ever, click for enlargements.) It’s a spot of serenity with absolutely breathtaking views and a humbling sense of heritage. (And it would be absolutely great for a private party as well, they have a bar and everything!) There is also a small computer screen attached to one of the columns downstairs as part of the Wan Chai Heritage Trail (quite how it hasn’t been carted off by some hobo yet I’m unsure) which details some of the history of the area – including jaw-dropping maps showing how much land has been reclaimed. Basically, I’d have been standing in the sea!
Amazingly, we also had the place all to ourselves for the entire duration of our visit – so get yourselves down there before everyone else gets clued in and savour this hidden oasis set in the midst of our concrete jungle.
Photos showing the redevelopment and restoration
The instantly-recognisable HK pawn shop logo. Wikipedia reckons it represents a bat (signifying fortune) holding a coin (signifying benefits). The character in the middle is the symbol for pawn shop, the two upper characters the name of the family who own the shop.
Roof Garden, 3/F The Pawn, 62 Johnston Road, Wan Chai.
For more information and photographs about the restoration and preservation of 60-66 Johnston Road, check out the Urban Renewal Authority’s website here.