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Wan Chai: Bay, Bars, Brothels and a battle

There was no way one could walk without touching another. Yet, there came an ambulance and the crowds parted like a wave, making for a video that would be watched by millions and millions. It was worth it, the world rarely gets to see such blending of anger, resistance, and compassion. The boy from Babhnan was walking, nay, marching in protest to Tamar Park, the site of the government offices of Hong Kong, Special Administrative Region of China. 

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In one of the Hong Kong protests

Over 2 million HongKongers had taken to the street that day. Few knew that this would be one of the last protests in the city with people not covering their faces. One of the last ones to be peaceful too. They would soon metamorphose in pitched battles between Police firing real bullets in decades, and students replying with Molotov Cocktails, petrol bombs for the uninitiated. 

Trams, cars and pedestrians: above an underground subway.
Trams, cars and pedestrians: above an underground subway

Wan Chai was not always known for this though. The area, now one of the poshest in the megapolis has a rather interesting, colourful and intriguing history. A history that starts from a small bay and went to become the city’s first red light district and then the centre of governance. Red light district still exists, by the way, the stigma does not with everyone minding their own business. 

Very few Chinese settlers, all of them fisherfolk, lived in the area by the end of the 18th century. Almost all of them lived around the Sea God “Hung Shing Ye”‘s temple.

China’s defeat in the Opium Wars and resultant handover of Hong Kong island to the victors was to change it all. With Central being the unofficial capital of the one city British colony, Wan Chai too began to grow. Came in a British merchant Lancelot Dent, with a huge mansion around the 1840s, and the area suddenly became upmarket. Many colonials chose the area as home for both: them and their businesses. Dent went bankrupt by the 1870s and that brought in the local Chinese people. 

Sikh Gurudwara on Guruparab
Sikh Gurudwara on Guruparab

Wan Chai as we see it today was getting born with bustling businesses, shipyards and even a waterfront hospital built by the British firm Jardine’s. British royal navy bought it in 1873 and converted it as Royal Navy Hospital. Ferry piers for the sailors and soldiers followed. The Red Light district was born too by the first few decades of the 19th century. Many of the brothels displayed huge street number plates to advertise themselves so their area became known as Big Number Brothels. Decades later, US-Vietnam War would contribute even more to the sex work in area with US soldiers returning from, and going to fight in the Nam, at Fenwick Pier, now demolished. 

Former bay now, in the night!
Former bay now, in the night!

The Big Numbers did not disappear though. They just metamorphosed into shopping arcades, malls and markets in the area still carry the numbers. The City’s biggest computer market, 298 Computer Centre is one of them, perhaps. 

The curious mix of the people and activities another added layer to the area. It soon started becoming the most multicultural one in the town. Taoist temples standing next to Buddhist ones, city’s first Sikh Gurudwara built in 1901, HK’s first Hindu temple built in 1953, a church all standing next to one another!

A Guangzhou Verandah style building decorated with lanterns
A Guangzhou Verandah style building decorated with lanterns

The boy remembered the happier days in the life of the city. Into history and architecture- he would go for the heritage trail. Beginning with colourful houses from the colonial times with green, blue and yellow ones being the most famous. The trail would then take him to PAK TAI TEMPLE  built in 1862. Former Wan Chai Post Office (1912) would follow suit. Then Guangzhou Verandah style shophouses and finally the Hung Shing Temple, with “Shiwan” ceramic pottery roof decorations.

Tired, he would head to the nightlife area- now catering to both- sex workers and officegoing pub hoppers unwinding for the day. Adding to the curious mix would be families living just above the ‘nightclubs’ with having nothing to do with either! All three would keep aloof from one another. He would hit a pub, or just stand at one of the intersections seeing life go by. This is one signature thing to do in the Fragrant Harbour, aka Hong Kong.  

A slogan with a clenched fist up in the air broke his chain of thought. The march was passing by the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre- where the famous handover of sovereignty from Britain to China took place in 1997. The protestors would soon be in the Golden Bauhinia Square Golden Bauhinia Square, so named for a beautiful sculpture of the flower which is also Hong Kong’s emblem. Then the Legislative Council called LegCo. It would be a long drawn resistance. And it would win. It did!

He cannot wait to explore the area even more even if the pubs and bars are shut down. The city is not in a lockdown, you can always roam around maintaining distance and wearing mask! This weekend, perhaps!