By Marta Gramatyka

Wan Chai, a commercial district on Hong Kong Island is filled with shops, restaurants and trendy places and widely considered as a party destination. However, in between Wan Chai’s streets and high buildings there is a fascinating history reaching back to the early stages of Hong Kong’s existence. 


If you exit the Wan Chai MTR and walk along the Queen’s Road East, you will eventually reach Stone Nullah Lane, a small street which is known for its colorful buildings. Among these stands the Blue House. The Blue House is not only a picturesque piece of architecture, but it also has a long and vivid evolution of changing along with the city.  The house is now a historical apartment complex. Formerly a Chinese medicine center, starting from the end of the 19th century it became a temple to Hua Tuo, a revered physician from the Three Kingdoms period (220 – 280AD). In the 1950s it was reopened as a martial arts studio by Lam Sai Wing and his nephew, Lam Cho. The pair were famous Kung Fu masters and protegees of legendary Wong Fei Hong, acupuncture, Chinese medicine and the inspiration for various movies and books.

Only in the 1970s did it gain its unique blue color. 

It may seem mysterious since blue is an uncommon color for buildings, but stories say the government decided to use the only color they had left during a shortage – blue, the color belonging to the water department. 


When walking further in the opposite direction from the Blue House, keep your head up to see a tall, round tower on your left  – that is Hopewell Center.  It was built in the 1980s among the shorter buildings in the districts, so it got famous right away, as the height of the Hopewell center was incomparably higher. Back then, it was the second tallest building in Asia. At the time, the way houses were built did not require construction workers to wear any kind of harness or protection even when they were balancing on 222 meters above the ground on metal and bamboo scaffolding. This made the building even more incredible in the eyes of regular citizens. 

What is even more special about the Hopewell center is its general design as it was painted red, and acquired a unique, yet weird, round shape. Due to these peculiarities never seen in the city’s architectural design before, the building has been long perceived by feng shui masters as haunted, due to its resemblance to a temple’s incense and candles. To neutralize the bad connotations, a pool was built on the very top of the center to prevent the “candle” from “burning.”

Every time you are in Wan Chai, there’s something under your feet. Way down below the surface, there is a network of underground, Japanese war shelters, which, although not accessible for a regular citizen, hide a yet another fascinating story.

Wan Chai was one of the most important districts of Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation. In the 1940s the Japanese occupied Hong Kong for nearly four consecutive years, leaving an underground network of tunnels and shelters behind them. The shelters and tunnels, built by the British, who were at that time in charge of Hong Kong, had various roles. Some of them were storages for explosives while others were simply places where the ordinary people could flee to. Even though after the war many of them were filled or left for dilapidation, there are still some hidden entrances which you can notice while strolling through the Hong Kong Island side. An interesting thing is that the tunnels and shelters were built based on the plan of London alleys, narrow and ultimately confusing for the enemies, but very familiar for the Brits. 

But this district has also an intangible heritage, as it happens to be the background for a classic Hong Kong love story, “The World of Suzie Wong” by Richard Mason and its 1960s movie adaptation. It tells a story of Suzie Wong, a young prostitute who pretends to be a high class woman and falls in love with a British artist who came to Hong Kong to start a new life.

The novel was inspired by Gloucester Luk Kwok Hotel (on Gloucester Road) which was once a cradle of Wan Chai night life. In the 1930s when the hotel was built, it was not only the tallest building in the district, but also one of the most popular ones – used as a place for relaxation and entertainment of sailors and incoming travelers, as back then the street was still positioned by the waterfront. Although the original building was torn down and rebuilt as a modern business hotel and conference center that serves customers to this day, the glimpses of its infamous history can still be found in the novels and Hong Kong movies. 


Not all stories associated with Wan Chai are supposed to be romantic and moving. Some of them awaken our fears and anxieties. Take for example the blood-freezing story of Nam Koo Mansion. Located at No.55 Ship Street, Nam Koo Mansion is better known as the Wan Chai haunted house. With over a hundred years of history, it is one of the most protected heritages in Hong Kong. It was initially owned by a rich family from Shanghai, during the Japanese occupation it became a military brothel and it was abandoned in 1945. 

It is said that until this day it is possible to spot the ghosts of the Japanese soldiers and the “comfort women” who died in the Mansion. Some people reported seeing ghostly flames and hearing screams from the house. The scary atmosphere is magnified by a unique architectural mix of Eastern and Western architecture.


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