Historic Building Appraisal
Old House Remains in the rears of Cochrane Street and Gutzlaff Street, Central, H.K.
Hong Kong street names were by and large taken from British politicians, military figures and local civil servants. Cochrane Street (閣麟街) was named after Sir Thomas John Cochrane (1789-1872), who became commander of the British naval forces in the Far East in 1843 and flew his flag in HMS Agincourt based in Hong Kong. He left the city in 1847 but left his mark in the name of the street. Gutzlaff Street (吉士笠街) bears the name of Karl Friedrich August Gutzlaff (1803-1851), a missionary and sinologist who took on other secular posts as interpreter, magistrate, assistant secretary of Chinese affairs, and chief secretary to the Superintendent of Trade and the then Hong Kong Governor. Cochrane Street and Gutzlaff Street are parallel to each other. Lying in the middle of the earliest developed part of the Central District, they had been laid out by 1846 which can be seen from a historical picture of that year.
Trade and commerce brought wealth and prosperity to the City of Victoria, which in turn attracted a huge inflow of capital and people, so that by 1847 the city population had risen to 23,900, up from only a few thousand before the British takeover in 1841. The area embraced by nowadays’ Cochrane, Gutzlaff, Graham and Peel Streets was a Chinese settlement referred to in colonial records as “Middle Bazaar”. Life was made more vibrant by the wide range of goods for sale and the amount of hawker activity which occurred at pavement level. Such was the situation when, in 1900, the famous comprador Robert Ho Tung (何東) bought the house fronting on to No. 33 Cochrane Street partly as a speculation. And, in 1916 his younger brother Ho Kom Tong (何甘棠) bought the houses fronting on to Nos. 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10 Gutzlaff Street and owned them for a while. According to the land records, Ho Kom Tong sold some of the buildings, e.g. Nos. 8 and 10 Gutzlaff Street in December 1916, shortly after their acquisition.
In between Cochrane and Gutzlaff Streets and running from No. 110 Wellington Street (威靈頓街), there is an alley previously called Yim Fong Lane (艷芳里), earlier known in the nineteenth century as 染房里, meaning “dyer alley” that reflects the early presence of that industry in this area. Also from this point, walking into the alleyway, where we can see a rear yard with sections of brick walls and granite foundations. They are remains of old tenement houses (commonly called “Tong Lau”唐樓 in Hong Kong) which can possibly be dated from the pre-1903 era.
The exact date of construction of the old tenement houses is unknown, but there might be evidence to show that they had existed in the 1880s, and remained there until the 1960s and 70s. In three consecutive years from 1882, the Registrar General proclaimed in the Government Gazette that various floors of the houses at Nos. 2, 6 and 8 Gutzlaff Street were Unlicensed Brothels. In June 1895, when the plague of Hong Kong spread far and wide, the policemen in charge of the Special Sanitary Service identified basement dwellings at Nos. 25, 29 and 31 Cochrane Street. In the Medical Officer of Health’s report during the half-year ending 30 June 1901, there was a case of infection of bubonic fever occurring at No. 2 Gutzlaff Street. The back-to-back layout, which is a character defining element of nineteenth century tenement houses up to 1903, is evidently shown in historical maps and block plans of houses in various years. However, there is still no concrete information to indicate that the buildings on the addresses mentioned above were the buildings of the remains now found on site.
The old tenements at Nos. 25, 27, 29 and 31 Cochrane Street and Nos. 2, 4 and 6 Gutzlaff Street were in poor and dilapidated conditions in the 1960s and early 1970s. The brick piers supporting the rear walls were bulged and the brickwork of some party walls was fractured. In addition, much of the structural timbers were in decayed condition. But they still provided tenement homes for people and within the space subdivision into cubicles for subletting were common, until they were declared by the Building Authority to be in a dangerous condition, and have since been demolished and mostly redeveloped. When the Central-Mid Levels Escalator was built in the 1990s, the front parts of the house lots at Cochrane Street were earmarked to make way for this novelty.Now, this part of Cochrane Street is much wider, the ground underneath the Escalator was laid, by taking the space that has been the parcels of the ground of the old tenement houses.
The old house remains on the site include sections of walls built of bricks (often with granite foundations) which were common back walls of two rows of connected tenement houses at Cochrane Street and Gutzlaff Street, and the back-to-side walls of the old houses at Nos. 21 and 23 Cochrane Street and Nos. 1 and 2 Yim Fong Lane. On research and site inspection it is confirmed that they are the remains of tenement houses which can be traced back to pre-1903 as the Public Health and Buildings Ordinance (No. 1 of 1903) was introduced in 1903 providing remedial measures to avoid the outbreak of plague and other diseases that had flourished in the nineteenth century and requiring, among other things, every new domestic building erected on land that was leased before 1903 to be provided with “open space” equivalent to no less than one-third of the roofed-over area of the building. It also required the provision of a “scavenging lane” of at least 6 feet wide (about 1.8 m) at the rear. With these rules, the style of tenement houses changed considerably for the better, and buildings with improved access and ventilation began to replace the previous cluttered tenements. This means that the rows of tenements facing parallel streets could no longer be built back to back, and the new service back lane helped improve sanitary conditions by having the space to allow in lighting and ventilation, and for waste disposal.
The old houses at Cochrane and Gutzlaff Streets and two adjoining houses at Yim Fong Lane had been built before the stringent requirements on open space and scavenging lanes were imposed in 1903. They were built back-to-back or back-to-side, sharing common back walls that exist partially to shed light on the city’s building history when there was no provision of open space or a sanitary lane behind buildings. The areas bound by the brick walls were the cookhouses (kitchens and service areas) at the rears of the tenements at Nos. 2, 4 and 6 Gutzlaff Street. Also identified on the site are the back-to-side walls of the old houses at Nos. 21 and 23 Cochrane Street and Nos. 1 and 2 Yim FongLane.
Rarity, Built Heritage Value&Authenticity
The tenement houses of the pre-plague times, back-to-back and back-to-side in style illustrated the spatial arrangements of the contemporary dwellings of ordinary Chinese people. While the remains of the buildings cannot reflect the livelihood of that time, they can possibly serve to illustrate that particular style of residential buildings of common people.
Most of the living areas or the domestic parts of the old tenement houses had been demolished and replaced by modern apartment blocks, only leaving behind portions of the old common back walls and party walls. Due to redevelopment that had taken place, it is no longer possible for us to see the whole depth of the tenement houses from street front to the rear cookhouse area and the entire buildings.
Social Value & Local Interest
The old house remains are reminiscent of the city's past before the Public Health and Buildings Ordinance was passed in 1903 to set new standards for the design of domestic buildings.
The old house remains are a reminder of a former age and style. They are in proximity to Wing Woo Grocery Shop (永和雜貨舖) which has been earmarked by the Urban Renewal Authority for preservation, and other historic sites like Central Police Station Compound (declared monument).