Wednesday, November 25, 2015   

Proud house on a hill

Eric Cavaliero

Thursday, January 16, 1997

Proud house on a hill

The role of the house's original occupants was to deal with any trouble _ rather than tea _ that might be brewing in Hong Kong 150 years ago.

A FTER a pleasant stroll through Hong Kong Park, what could be nicer than a spot of tea? And where better to buy it than in the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware, which is located in the park?

Although packets of exotic blends may be purchased at the Sheung Yu Gift Shop on the ground floor of the museum, nobody actually sips the beverage these days in Flagstaff House. But you can, in the words of one visitor, "drink in the atmosphere of tea" there.


You can also drink in the atmosphere of old Hong Kong. That's because Flagstaff House is an elegant reminder of a bygone age.

The role of the house's original occupants was to deal with any trouble _ rather than tea _ that might be brewing in Hong Kong 150 years ago.

Even before Hong Kong Park was developed, the area around the venerable military building was considered a haven of peace.

In 1969, a Hong Kong Standard reporter wrote: "Flagstaff House, known until 1932 as Headquarter House, is a peaceful place in thriving, rapidly expanding Victoria. Set among a variety of sub-tropical trees it stands on its own level site on the east side of Garden Road and is bounded by the Albany Nullah."

The decade of the 1840s was the era when it all began for Britain, China and a small, strategic island called Hong Kong.

In his book, Hong Kong: the Cultured Pearl, Nigel Cameron wrote: "The first magistrate, Captain William Caine (commemorated by a long, twisting road running with the contours of the hills half-way up the Peak) was appointed, and a jail built. A Public Works Department was set up, Hong Kong's first harbourmaster, Lieutenant William Pedder, RN, was appointed (his memorial is the most congested short length of street in Central, Hong Kong); the army established itself near Possession Point as well as in Central Victoria where the Commander-in-Chief's residence, Headquarter House, was soon to be built, and where it still stands today.

"At that time it crowned a small bluff above the new Queen's Road, itself skirting the shoreline. Today the house is all but 300 yards from the harbour, land having been extensively reclaimed."

The two-storey structure has been described as "the oldest domestic building in Greek Revival-style extant in Hong Kong". But there is some disagreement as to who designed it.

Some historians credit Murdoch Bruce, a Scots inspector of buildings in the fledgling administration. Bruce was a talented artist, and one of his drawings of Flagstaff House is still displayed there.

Others, however, claim that Lieutenant Bernard Collinson of the Sappers, who in 1845 produced the first, very fine map of Hong Kong, probably did most of the work in designing Flagstaff House.

The location came in for some criticism in the early days.

The Rev R J L M'Ghee, chaplain of Lord Elgin's expeditionary force and author of How We Got to Pekin wrote: "The barracks are low down, in a most hot and unhealthy position, and the Commander-in-Chief's house stands above the barracks, but still not well placed."

The Royal Engineers spent about three years building Flagstaff House. Construction work to house government officials and senior officers was speeded up by a typhoon on 21 July 1841.

The first occupant was Major-General G C D'Aguilar who was General Officer Commanding from 1844 to 1846 and who also held the appointment of Lieutenant Governor.

The original Government House on Victoria Peak was completed in early 1854 at a cost of 14,407 (HK$188,710). Since it was styled on very similar lines to Flagstaff House, this figure offers a fair guide to the cost of the earlier building.

Christmas Day 1941 saw the fall of Hong Kong to the Japanese. Governor Sir Mark Young and the commander of British Forces, Major-General Christopher Maltby, crossed from Hong Kong Island to the Peninsula Hotel and formally surrendered the territory to the commander of the Japanese army, Lieutenant-General Takashi Sakai.

Years later, Gen Maltby recalled the bombardment of Flagstaff House. The first shell to strike the building was of medium calibre and it went through the roof, bringing down the water tank and cutting off power supply.

"It made a very complete mess of the west end of the house, and, just before the capitulation I had great difficulty in reaching my desk because of the beams, bricks and general rubble," he wrote.

This severe damage and that caused by another shell which later hit the eastern end of the house was probably repaired immediately as the Japanese admiral decided to take residence in preference to living in the Commodore's house which was situated higher up Victoria Peak.

Flagstaff House continued to be used as the residence of the Commander British Forces until 1978 when it was given to the Hong Kong government. It was put under the management of the Urban Council in 1981.

According to a guidebook published by the council, the conversion of the building into a museum was carried out with three objectives in mind:

"Firstly, the building was to be structurally reinforced so that it would be safe to open to the public. Secondly, the interior was to be modified so that it could accommodate the facilities necessary for a modern museum.

"Thirdly, in view of its intrinsic architectural interest, the building was to be restored as far as possible to its original mid-19th-century appearance.

"With the achievement of these objectives, we have preserved a typical example of Western architecture in a style popular in Hong Kong in the mid-19th century . . ."

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