The Last Occupant of The Blue House in Hong Kong

About a decade ago, I had visited the last occupant in the Blue House. He had lived for pretty much all his life with his wife and brought up his kids there. His children were in the US but he had preferred to stay back not wanting to join them. “My children ask me to come but what will I do there?” he asked me.

The entrance of the newly conserved Blue House in Hong Kong’s Wanchai district.

We were sat in his living room. Even in the August heat, the house’s high ceilings made the interiors really cool. His marble top table was strewn with possessions from his past – an old transistor radio, books, lunch boxes, fruit bowls, containers, rice bowls, chopsticks and much more. He told me he had worked for a now defunct Japanese electronics company.

The home of the elderly gentleman and his wife is now converted into an organic food shop

The Blue House had no toilet facilities and the tenants relied on night soil collectors. The old Tong Lau style architecture, built in 1920s was assigned Grade 1 historic building status. The interiors contained common kitchen facilities and rooms were subdivided for rental purposes – a common feature in Hong Kong even now.

The lower level of Ovo seen here was once a wet market which served as the public toilet for the occupants of the Blue House.
The multi-story tower now has sky high rental unaffordable to many

Nearby, there is a Yellow House which was deemed Grade 3 historic building and Orange House. Together, the Tong Lau tenement buildings had a close knit community of occupants.

The adjoining Yellow House is also a historic building but graded lower than the Blue House. No one knows the origins of the colour choice and when it came to be painted in these colours.
There is also a Orange House. In fact the whole street is colourful with varying levels of historic relevance.

By 2003, Lee Tung Street, otherwise called the Wedding Card Street nearby the Blue House cluster, and the surrounding neighbourhood was demolished and the community dispersed.

The flat owners, unable to afford rental in the newly redeveloped neighbourhood were forced to leave. The cultural character of the place was gone without a trace.

Hong Kong is losing its cultural heritage to gentrification like this one-of-a-kind lucky money shop in one of its remote districts.

The Wedding Card Street was full of such shops which was iconic for the purpose it served.

By the time I met the elderly gentleman in his house back in August 2009, he was the last occupant of the Blue House. Hong Kong’s Urban Renewal Authority had already earmarked the Blue House for conservation while slowly relocating its occupants.

Many had already taken the government’s offer to relocate and had moved. The elderly gentleman had remained defiant. “Why make an empty shell of the Blue House a heritage? Why not preserve the living heritage – us and the community?” he had asked.

The old Tong Lau had shared balcony running along the front of the building, a rare feature in the new buildings

Hong Kong is known for tearing down old structures to make way for new, glitzy ones. Many are used to the constant renewal of the city and accept relocation.

In fact, the very characteristic of Hong Kong is its transience. So, the elderly gentleman’s defiance was uncharacteristic to me. I was then the editor for a notable architecture publication and writing an article on the Blue House’s so-called conservation.

Social workers from Saint James’ settlement, the non-governmental charitable organisation in Hong Kong that helps the needy to cope with social challenges, mobilised other community groups to urge the URA not to destroy the community. Being people-oriented was indeed the core value of the Blue House.

The entranceway to the Blue House where you can book tours in English and Chinese.

By the time my article was published the elderly gentleman and his wife were gone. I had no way of knowing where they had moved to and whether they will ever manage to return to the Blue House.

In January 2022, I returned to the Blue House, enlisting myself in the post-pandemic English language tours. The place had a coffee shop; its entrance had a gift shop selling historic insignia of the Blue House like umbrellas, post cards, books etc. and nearby was an organic food store – the ground floor apartment of the last occupant. All I wanted to do was to pay the elderly gentleman’s house a visit to remember him by.

A pang of nostalgia gripped me as I walked into the shop and all I could think of was how the Last Emperor of China, Puyi, may have felt visiting the Imperial Palace he once lived in, post the Cultural Revolution; visiting his home he knew so intimately, yet rediscovering through the eyes of a guide.

When you destroy local communities and replace them with luxury property, you create transient society purely interested in wealth generation, something Hong Kong continues to perpetuate.

I remembered those shrines well. The elderly gentleman’s wife had sat on a chair silently where the blue box is on the left hand side.
The Blue House is ironically called Hong Kong House of Stories yet the story tellers are all but gone

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