Thursday, August 28, 2014

First Houses on The Peak in Hong Kong

In the late 1980s, when I was an alderman on Mission City Council, I enjoyed learning about the implications of depths of road beds or the consequences of varying lifts of asphalt, or the life spans of pipes. It was a time when I learned, in a most visceral way, how angry voters can get with politicians when things like slopes and river dikes fail, but how unwilling they are to fund them when the risks do not appear to be imminent. These days, I am training most of my amateur curiousity about infrastructure on some of the issues that Hong Kong faced about a hundred and fifty years ago, particularly with respect to the challenges of dealing with the development of the residential area known as The Peak.

Thomas Jackson acquired his Peak property sometime in late 1878 or early 1879. He named his house Creggan - after the parish where he had grown up in South Armagh, and where his infant daughter Edith had died four years earlier. By the time that he and Amelia Lydia Dare had moved into their new home, looking down on the harbour, they already had three living children, and there would be five more to come.

I took this photo - with permission - in 2012 from a Jardine Matheson residence on Strawberry Hill. I believe that Creggan would have been sited about where the red roof is in the foreground.

It is easy to miss seeing how young so many of these early residents of The Peak were. By the time that they were being celebrated in banquets and such, they had become notable members of the old boys club, but in the late 1870s they would more accurately have been called the young boys club. Their wives and children joined together at church outings, social clubs, and charity events, while the men met in board rooms, or at the Jockey Club or sporting events. Actually, many of the women were also surprisingly athletic.

Thomas Jackson was in his mid-thirties when he built his Hong Kong home. Like many of his neighbours, he had not been born into wealth, but had taken a chance on life on the other side of the world. Even though he and his neighbours were privileged to enjoy the support of the British Empire, as well as the benefits of the laws and prejudices that disenfranchised the Chinese residents, they were also men with more grit and determination than most. Building their mansions on The Peak was as much as anything a statement and a celebration of their successes.

By the late 1870s, the desirability of The Peak for Hong Kong’s white upper crust was already apparent. Victoria, the city at the foot of The Peak, had serious issues with over-crowding, unsanitary water and decent sewage disposal. Its system for the disposal of human wastes relied on the labours of the night soil scavengers. In the heat of the summer, when the rates of disease peaked, and lives were lost, those on The Peak rose above it – literally.

It took daring to be amongst the first to build and live there. Not only was the tramway yet to be built, but there were also the issues of how to supply water, sewage, power and such. Dozens of questions come to my mind when I try to envision what this must have been like.

A view from Creggan - likely in the 1890s.
Where did these early homes get their water? Creeks, wells, pipes or cisterns?  

Without access to early hydrology maps, I can’t say if Creggan had access to a nearby creek. I suspect not. Most of the old creeks now run through underground pipes or have been channeled into concrete conduits. Much of the need for this came about through trial and error. The risks of slope stability in a climate which often experiences sudden, torrential rains was clear long before 1841. Early pictures show that The Peak had already been stripped of the native trees which would have kept the soil in place. By the time that Jackson built his house, some of the risks of slope instability had been lessened by plantings that also greened up the hillside.

I took this photo in 2012 while walking on The Peak - I can't recall where. There is a sophisticated system for following slope slippages on The Peak. There are decals pinned on the rock faces or concrete retaining walls identify the precise location, and where to phone to report change. Unfortunately, the only photo that I took of such decals was in my mind. At least this photo shows the kind of slope that engineers and landscape architects have to contend with..
A channel on The Peak, designed to manage water during downfalls.

In 1863, the first water reservoir was constructed at Pok Fu Lam under the watch of the Governor Sir Hercules Robinson of Rossmead, Co. Westmeath, Ireland. Although this water system was expanded in 1877, it seems more likely to me that Creggan and its neighbours were supplied by well water at this time. An 1888 map shows a well less than two hundred feet northwest of Creggan, and due north of The Mount - the home of Thomas Jackson’s neighbour and longtime friend and business associate John Bell-Irving.

In the map above, Thomas Jackson’s Creggan is coloured in green. It is hard to see, but it is beneath and to the right of the well which is marked in red. The surrounding cluster of early development makes perfect sense.
Who funded the construction and operation of this well?

With two such powerful men owning land so close to it, at a time when residential development was just beginning, it is hard to believe that they didn’t either lobby for the construction of this well or even fund the building of it themselves. The next question is: Was it a drilled well? (likely) An artesian well? (If they were lucky). Was it gravity feed (doubtful), or was it steam powered? These kind of questions are part of my rationale for writing posts like this one – in the hopes of learning more.

How did the early builders get their building materials up there?

I won’t repeat what I described in a previous post: Creggan on The Peak, but one aspect that I should add is that I suspect that much of the rock that was used for retaining walls and such was quarried in situ. Most of the ledges available for building were narrow, and although the early photos are fuzzy when magnified, there is enough detail to suggest that blasting created a level space, and the resulting blast-rock went into masonry walls to buttress access roads, The leftover rubble seems to have been used as back-fill and to level off the surface of the access roads.

When did electricity (or gas), phone and transportation services come to The Peak?

By 1883, there were 30 to 40 families who lived on The Peak, but electricity as a source of residential power was in its infancy, not only in Hong Kong, but world-wide. It wasn’t until then that Thomas Edison discovered a practical way to both generate and transmit electricity in a cost effective and reasonably reliable manner. Given this time frame, it is extraordinary that the Hong Kong Electric Company was able to introduce Hong Kong's first telephone system in 1882. This made it easy for a taipan to call his chair coolies to carry him from the Praya all the way up to the Peak - although Thomas was known to prefer riding a pony or else hiking up the hill.

As to when the residences first had electricity, I don’t yet have an answer. The Peak Tram - 1,350 metres long and built by the Hong Kong High Level Tramways Company in 1888, - was initially steam driven, and not powered by electricity until 1926.

What about sewage disposal?

As most engineers will put it: Shit flows downhill.  Need I say more? There were outdoor privies on the early properties, but other than that, there were no systems in place to handle human wastes. Nuff said.
The Bluff Path which is near where Creggan was, on the eastern side of Strawberry Hill.
Also see: Wikipedia: First Houses on The Peak. NOTE: Sir Hercules Robinson had a path cut through the bush up to the top of The Peak in 1859, wide enough for sedan chairs. That and the water system were the first two bits of infrastructure improvements which opened the possibility for The Peak to be developed for residential use.

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