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Tuesday, September 22, 2015, 08:14

Oasis in a concrete jungle

By Chitralekha Basu

Kadoorie Estate, where the who’s who of Hong Kong’s corporate, entrepreneurial and entertainment industries have lived since 1937, has been doing its bit for the community. Chitralekha Basu reports.

Nicholas Colfer has been researching the history of Hong Kong Engineering and Construction Company (founded 1922). He draws our attention to an interesting feature in the rent books of Kadoorie Estate, owned by the same family of Baghdadi Jews who also owned the Hong Kong Engineering and Construction Company, among several other businesses including electric power plants, hotels, helicopter services and rope manufacturing.

No entries appear between December 1941 and September 1945. Those familiar with Hong Kong’s history during the World War II probably would know that Kadoorie Estate — one of the city’s first European-style, high-end residential enclaves for highly-placed corporate executives and company heads — was taken over by the Japanese. Asking the Japanese occupiers to pay a rent, naturally, was out of the question. Many among the estate’s residents — including journalist-turned-entrepreneur JP Braga, who at the time chaired the Kadoorie family-owned China Light and Power and being the urban councilor of Kowloon was one of the facilitators of the development — went away to live in relatively stable Macao.

Oasis in a concrete jungle
Oasis in a concrete jungle
Oasis in a concrete jungle

Images of Kadoorie Estate from the 1930s demonstrate how the structures have remained much the same in nearly eight decades. (Provided to China Daily)

Interestingly, when the rent ledger was reopened in 1945, entries continued to be recorded by the same hand. Colfer imagines the estate staff member in charge of collecting rents probably carried the rent book with him to Macao. “It’s quite moving to see the same handwriting resurface after four years,” he says.

In these times, fraught with cynicism, shifting loyalties, altered circumstances and fast-mutating urban landscapes, it is reassuring to know certain things do not change. The Hong Kong Engineering and Construction Company purchased two huge mounds of barren granite at the junction of Waterloo Road and Argyle Street, in 1931, with a view to sculpting a sophisticated garden city from the rocks. It was considered a somewhat fantastic idea then but has proved sustainable.

Kadoorie Estate — an exclusive residential community made up of 86 houses and St. George’s Court, a low-rise apartment block, located along Kadoorie Avenue and its spur, Braga Circuit, in Kowloon — has not changed all that much since the first unit was rented out in 1937. The area surrounding the estate’s 8 hectares has seen tremendous vertical growth — typical of Hong Kong since the 1960s — cutting off the view of the sea from the hills. The rest — the landscape, architecture and the values informing the estate, since construction began in 1934, have remained pretty much the same over the years.

“The founding fathers — Elly Kadoorie and JP Braga — were attracted by the hill with a road round it. The place had a semi-countryside feel,” says Colfer, who is also the chair of Kadoorie Estates Ltd and now lives in the iconic round house at No 20 that Elly Kadoorie’s son Lawrence had designed in 1957 to serve as a family residence but ultimately didn’t use himself. “So they thought they would create a green lung in the middle of a bustling city. They were visionaries, who thought of getting people out of the congested city and giving them an alternative lifestyle. At the same time, whether it’s goldfish you are looking for, or a computer battery, a few minutes’ walk down the hill will get you in the heart of the real Hong Kong.”

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