Touring historic Hong Kong with Gwulo.com

Touring historic Hong Kong with Gwulo.com

David Bellis, the man behind the crowd-sourced website on all things historical, unearths a fast-vanishing Hong Kong

GwuloDavid Bellis of Gwulo.com.Some people in Hong Kong walk around with their necks craned upward. After all, sights abound in the upper stratosphere of our vertical city.

David Bellis, on the other hand, walks with his gaze set firmly on ground level, constantly looking for physical evidence that sheds light on Hong Kong’s history.

Bellis is the man behind Gwulo: Old Hong Kong, an online repository for all things historical in Hong Kong. 

On November 16, he'll be giving a talk sponsored by the Royal Asiatic Society titled, “Photos of Old Hong Kong and the Tales They Tell.”

Gwulo, which logs around 10,000 unique visitors a month, is a crowd-sourced digital archive of Hong Kong’s complex history.

The site’s strength is interactivity, which has resulted in 14,000 comments, many of which include photos and videos, giving the site the semblance of an ongoing conversation.

“A lot of the photos on the site would otherwise be sitting in drawers somewhere,” says Bellis. “This is a way of preserving them and sharing them with a wider audience.”

When it comes to Hong Kong history, Gwulo is a catchall, and the titles of some of the more popular posts offer a glimpse of the range of subjects covered -- 1941 Hong Kong: the Harrison Forman Collection of photos; Views along the tram line in the 1950s; Life in Hong Kong's air raid precaution (ARP) tunnels.

One of Bellis’ ongoing projects is to organize content in a more structured way since Gwulo currently embodies a Library of Babel dilemma.

Other ongoing projects include mapping the full extent of Hong Kong’s ARP tunnels and creating a digitized, searchable database of Hong Kong jury lists dating from 1855 to aid the many amateur genealogists who use Gwulo as a reference to trace ancestral roots in Hong Kong.

Curious to learn more about Hong Kong’s rich history and about Gwulo’s role in the documentation of this history, I meet Bellis one morning for a walk around Mount Davis, located at the edge of Kennedy Town in Hong Kong’s Western District.

GwuloHappy Valley, 1955.

Ducking fences

Bellis is a master of spotting arcane historical minutiae, and to walk with him is to see Hong Kong through a new set of eyes.

We walk past Chiu Yiu Cemetery, built for Eurasians at the end of the 19th century, before ducking up a steep path toward a small serial reservoir.

At a dead end, Bellis disappears behind a fence and I quickly follow. We are on a narrow path leading through the dense jungle above Kennedy Town.

This is an old escape route, he tells me, laid by the British military and since hacked clear by the legions of morning walkers who escape into the hills each morning.

“Here,” he calls to me later as we wind our way down a road along the lower slopes of Mount Davis. He is pointing at a stone that sits just above the gutter.

It’s about 20 centimeters high and offers no unusual features. I lean down and take a closer look and I see a faded inscription.

“WD -- this is a boundary stone of the War Department,” Bellis tells me, sweeping his arm toward the summit of Mount Davis, from which we just descended.

I walk this route weekly, but I’ve never noticed these stones before. Nor have I noticed the large iron rings that sit alongside the side of the road.

Bellis explains that these were used as part of a pulley system to haul heavy equipment, including 28-ton guns, to the summit, where today only the skeletal remains of gun emplacements and bunkers remain.

GwuloClick map to see the route taken on David Bellis' tour of Mount Davis.

The British military originally built up Mount Davis Battery as a strategic artillery emplacement in the early part of the 20th century, and it played a large part in the attempt to hold off the Japanese invasion during World War II.

As we walk, Bellis regales me with snippets of history, describing the parabolic paths of shells fired from the heavy guns of the Mount Davis Battery toward the Shing Mun Redoubt, where Japanese forces had entrenched themselves 20 kilometers to the north.

He points out an abandoned building at the crest of Victoria Road, noting that in 1967 during the leftist anti-colonial riots, the Hong Kong government locked up troublemakers here.

The building today looks like a peaceful Mediterranean villa and as we pass the locked gate, we spy an open upstairs window and wonder who might be lurking in the old building.

Further down Victoria Road heading back toward Kennedy Town, Bellis points out the stepped hillside that once housed squatters’ encampments. We pause high above the Lamma Channel and smell wood smoke wafting upward, likely emanating from a last remaining squatter’s hut.

As our walk draws to a close, Bellis leads me across a cement football pitch near the China Merchants Wharf on the outskirts of Kennedy Town. This park, built far from a residential area and smothered in concrete, feels a bit forgotten.

Bellis disappears behind a planter and I find him crouched next to a small obelisk that stands forlornly between a water fountain and a rubbish bin. The chiseled text on its face reads, “CITY BOUNDARY 1903.”

Victoria City, once the capital city of British Hong Kong, used to occupy the area from Kennedy Town to Wan Chai, extending inland from the shoreline to the Mid-Levels. Boundary stones were laid along the perimeter, and this stone marked the far western edge.

Beyond the imperial city frontier, the thick jungle must have felt like an unmapped dimension.

We wonder aloud what ceremony, if any, accompanied the laying of this stone. Was an official cartographer here as a witness? A government surveyor? Or was the stone simply plopped here, forgotten and disused until it faded into an ignominious obsolescence marked by the sad shadow of a rubbish bin?

History, it seems, has passed this poor relic by. The same can be said for the other boundary stones that ring old Victoria, for the crumbling pillboxes that stand sentry along Hong Kong’s shoreline and for the faded ARP tunnel entrances that remain tucked away in the alleyways of Causeway Bay and Wan Chai.

On Gwulo, these boundary stones have all been meticulously cataloged, mapped and documented. Their stories exist just a mouse click away.

Getting there: “Photos of Old Hong Kong and the Tales They Tell,” November 16, 2011 at 6:30 p.m. Visual Arts Centre, 7A Kennedy Road, Central.

RAS Members, HK$50. Non-members, $100.

Gwulo gwulo.com 

RAS www.royalasiaticsociety.org.hk

Freelance writer Jason Beerman has a predisposition for eating food that's served on a stick and sometimes wanders aimlessly for hours at a time.

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