What do you imagine the site where RealtyGardens stands today and its surroundings looked like around a century or more ago?
On the steep hillside with its lush vegetation, well above Realty Gardens at No. 41 Conduit Road, exists even now, what is sometimes called ‘Cheung Po-Tsai’s Path’.Shown on maps, starting at May Road and crossing Old Peak Road, although heavily overgrown and not negotiable in parts because of landslips and other obstructions, the Cheung Po-Tsai footpath finishes up on the southern slopes of the Peak. Cheung was Hong Kong's most notorious and fearsome pirate who was at the zenith of his powers during the first decade of the 19th century. He was reputed to command as many as 600 junks, 40,000 fighting men - including a few British ex-Royal Navy gunners- and the prettiest girls. No firm evidence, however, appears to exist that he himself ever walked along that path.
Conduit Road itself really came into being as a result of Hong Kong's first water supply scheme which resulted from the construction of the Pok Fu Lam Reservoir. Water began to flow in 1864. Before then, the entire Island depended on wells and streams. Later, a water main was laid around the upper slopes of Mid-Levels and a road was constructed at the turn of the century which became known as Conduit Road. The well-to-do in the Colony liked the location and built their dwellings there.
A Chinese gentleman name Mr Mok Kon Sang, in 1911 built a palatial residence at 41 Conduit Road where RealtyGardens stands today. Mr Mok was a compradore for Butterfield and Swire (in 1974 the name was change to just Swire). In keeping with rich Chinese of his time he had eight
(some say nine) concubines. In 1928, the house was passed on to his son, Mr Mok Hing Shung.
Up until the 1950s and 1960s, there were several palatial mansions standing in their own grounds in the Mid-Levels, some with tennis courts. One splendid example was Marble Hall, at No1 Conduit Road where Chater Hall now stands. Marble Hall was built by Sir Paul Catchick Chater a wealthy Armenian merchant and philanthropist. It was said in his days: 'What Chater does today Jardine does tomorrow'. The general design of Marble Hall was similar in many respects to the old mansion at No. 41 Conduit Road. In addition to the photographs hanging in the entrance lobbies of the five blocks at RealtyGardens, there is an artist's embellished impression of No. 41 in the Hong Kong Museum of Art at Tsim Sha Tsui.
The old palatial residence at 41 Conduit Road, which stood where RealtyGardens now stands, was demolished in the 1960s. From 1951 to 1961 it was the scene of many a wild party when the Foreign Correspondents' Club rented it. At other times it was mainly peaceful. Barking deer could sometimes be heard.
From 1951 to 1961 the Foreign Correspondents' Club (FCC), a period some members describe as its heyday, was ensconced in the splendid building at No. 41 Conduit Road. One could drive to the Club then and either drive up the slope or there was space for about three cars to park at street level. One could then take the lift (the first installed in a private dwelling in Hong Kong) up to the main entrance. There were nine bedrooms on the upper floor and fireplaces were of Italian marble. The whole house had a wonderful ambience. One could sit under a cupola on the roof and partake of afternoon tea. The FCC was offered the lovely old building for a mere HK$250,000 in the 1950s but the political situation was considered too precarious to contemplate purchase.
The film, Love is a Many Splendoured Thing, with Jennifer Jones and William Holden, was partly shot at 41 Conduit Road in the 1950s. This film was based on the autobiography by Han Suyin, A Many Splendoured Thing, where Han's lover, a British correspondent, was killed in the Korean War. In the film, in addition to the slight change of title, the hero miraculously became an American. There is a full-sized replica of the Chinese-style pavilion, in the garden at the back of RealtyGardens over towards Po Shan Road, although it stands a little higher up the slope compared to where the original pavilion stood. That is where Han and her boy friend did their courting. A bit further away is a watercourse which seldom dries up even during a drought. Water was piped from there for flushing toilets, at the old mansion at No. 41, right up until it was demolished in the 1960s.
In the film the hero became an American. A number of old structures, like balustrades, steps and retaining walls, remain on the site left over from the old residence.
I first came to live in Conduit Road in March 1955, at the previous (then newly completed) block No. 56. I frequently walked past the old Foreign Correspondents' Club, sometime when boisterous parties were in full swing. On Saturday nights it was considered the place to be. The FCC had its own band but it also hired bands from the armed forces. Private parties were common there as well as diplomatic corps and air-line lunches.
But, in spite of the noise emanating at times from No. 41, Conduit Road was generally quiet and peaceful. At the western end especially it was almost like a country lane, with trees and undergrowth, and one could sometimes hear barking deer calling from VictoriaPeak. At the time one could still hire a sedan chair and four coolies to carry one up to Conduit Road. There were half a dozen or so parked in Wyndham Street, in Central, up until the later 1950s. The fare was 30 cents for each 15 minutes with a 30 cents surcharge. The working life of a chair coolie was said to be eight years.
As with many houses in Conduit Road at the time, 41 Conduit Road had a superb view and, long before the days of cross-harbour tunnels, one of the pastimes of children was counting the number of ferries they could spot. Between the two World Wars an eccentric Englishman who lived in Robinson Road, not far away, did not own a clock. He used a telescope to tell the time from the clock tower then standing in Pedder Street. In the 'good old days', more than one British Governor used the activities in the harbour as a barometer of the strength of the economy. We are talking of times when a cannon was fired from Blackhead Point, in Kowloon, to let residents know when a typhoon was approaching or the mail ship had arrived. Occasionally, inhabitants did not know to which of the two events the firing referred!
When the FCC vacated the premises the final days had come for the old mansion at 41 Conduit Road. In 1960, it had been bought by Cheng Hing Realty and, in 1966, it was bought by Court Properties. As with so much of Hong Kong it was a case of 'Hungry for the new forget the old' (貪新忘舊). The old building was demolished and the site remained empty for some time. The sale price was reputed to have been HK$13 million. The site was then redeveloped. In the summer of 1970, there were 1,200 applications to purchase the 400 flats (the first batch) at RealtyGardens. My wife and I were successful in a later ballot and we took possession of our newly completed flat in Venice Court, for which we paid in mid 1972, the princely sum of HK$114,000 (HK$120,000 including solicitors fees). Prices were still low after the property slump brought on largely by the drawn-out 1967 riots. My flat has been a splendid investment. We let it for the first four years, unfurnished, at HK$2,000 a month. We moved in ourselves on 1 March 1976. As one neighbour living a few floors down from me not so long ago said, 'I would not choose to live anywhere else other than Realty Gardens'.
Although I can see a narrow strip of the harbour and StonecuttersIsland (an island no longer) from my bedroom window, my flat at RealtyGardens faces south. It is thus shielded from the cold north-easterly monsoon in the winter and receives the benefits of the cool south-westerly monsoon in the summer. As the Cantonese saying has it, 'Even with a 1,000 taels of gold it is not easy to buy a flat facing south' ( 千金難買南風窗).
From the fung shui aspects VictoriaPeak with its spurs, including Seymour Cliffs to our south-east, symbolise strong backing. The location's 'cosmic breath' brings blessings which are just and inevitable rewards for the skilful and the diligent. Watercourses stream down the mountain keeping fortunes flowing into our flat and protecting our well-being. Some fung shui specialists maintain that the spiritual energy from the Peak is the best in the whole of Hong Kong. The 'cosmic breath' of fung shui rides on the wind and is dispersed and checked by watercourses.
At the far western end of Conduit Road, close to the junction with Kotewall and Po Shan Roads, a steep, narrow road branches off. This is Hatton Road. It leads to the Peak. About half way up it passes the remains of Pinewood Battery which has been utilized as a picnic area. This artillery emplacement was constructed by the British, starting in 1903. The whole area around Hatton Road is relatively unspoiled and provides a wonderful recreational area for Conduit Road residents to stretch their legs and to appreciate nature. Many of the elderly who walk up there daily for exercise call it 'Long Life Road' (長命路).
Sadly however, while talking of heritage, with the villa at No. 55 (completed in 1919) having been demolished in the summer of 2000, there is only one pre-World War Two building still standing in Conduit Road. That is the real estate agency at No. 44. Now, many of the buildings flanking our Road top 30 or 40 storeys blocking their neighbour's view and creating the 'wall effect'. Certainly today barking deer can no longer be heard calling from the Peak. But, proving the location is still peaceful, we do have a flock of pigeons at RealtyGardens and we are not infrequently visited by a destructive, gregarious group of sulphur-crested cockatoos.
Nevertheless the pattern of nature does change. In the 1970s crested-mynah birds were common in the grounds at RealtyGardens. Nowadays, you seldom see them. Snakes are not uncommon. But much of the wild life on the slopes of the Peak itself is nocturnal and limited. However I did see dead ferret badgers and masked-palm civets, in the 1990s, which had been run over by vehicles. Although rare on the Peak, one can occasionally even see fresh-water crabs and blue-tailed skinks. The latter is Hong Kong's most attractive lizard.
Although customs have changed one can still sometimes see and hear street criers in Conduit Road. They vary from the itinerant, tiny, wizened old sharpener of knives and scissors to the trader who buys odds and ends of scrap metal (收買爛銅爛鐵). There is also the old man who sells lengths of bamboo. These are used for hanging out the washing to dry when it is euphemistically called 'flags of 10,000 nations' (萬國旗). In the mid-1950s, I remember, there was a peddler with a pet monkey. But such sights have long disappeared.
Certainly if the old, worn steps, the balustrades and heavy, battered, gravity retaining walls at RealtyGardens could talk they would have wonderful tales to tell.