Stanley Offers a Quieter Side of Hong Kong’s Urban Hustle
Simon Marcus Gower
Hong Kong is generally blessed with an excellent public transportation system. Kowloon and Hong Kong Island have long enjoyed the benefits of a comprehensive mass transit railway and an extensive bus network; but now too the outlying areas and islands of the “Special Administrative Region” of China that is Hong Kong are very well served.
The quality of this public transportation is exemplified when traveling to a quieter side of Hong Kong Island, which is located on a peninsula on the south-eastern part of the island. To get to this more sedate and indeed scenic side of the island, all one need do is hop on a bus. The route is extremely convenient, running through Central, the heart of the city.
The destination in question is called Stanley. Today it has the relaxed feel of a seaside resort but it was not always so. When the British took control of Hong Kong in 1842, it was at Stanley that they chose to locate the headquarters of their administration. But they soon moved these activities to Victoria City, which was to become Central. Perhaps ironically, a major building in Stanley today once stood in today’s Central area of Hong Kong and was part of the British administration there (more on that later).
Stanley today is far from being an administrative hub and this becomes apparent by just getting on a bus to it. The bus is not filled with commuters busily hustling to work but instead is more crowded with tourists. They principally are heading to Stanley for its famous market areas but before they get there, the little matter of the bus journey has to be overcome, as it can be quite hair-raising. The roads are narrow and wind their way through the more hilly parts of Hong Kong Island, but narrowness and tight curves do not deter drivers from swinging their double-decker buses at speed along these roads, with tree branches often clattering along the sides of the buses.
When the buses slow down a little, it is possible to see a greener and more untouched side of the island. The urban intensity of the city is left behind and more in evidence are large private villas, often with spectacular views, that surely must be the homes of Hong Kong’s richest. A fellow bus passenger suggests that some of these homes belong to the stars of Hong Kong cinema such as Jackie Chan.
From time to time the greenery on this bus route does give way to blocks of apartment buildings. This is the case as we pass Repulse Bay and its beach. Clearly many people have sought to escape the intensity of central Hong Kong. But buildings become more intense as we enter the peninsula that is Stanley and it is evident that Stanley is in effect a small town unto itself.
A small bus station acts as the drop-off point for most of the passengers to easily walk to the nearby market. In truth there is nothing remarkable about the market. It runs through narrow alleyways and there is an abundance of stores, but it soon becomes apparent that they are all selling very similar goods. From endless T-shirts to cheap and cheerful souvenirs and moderately priced electronics, the sellers follow similar patterns of smiles and bartering that can be entertaining for the tourists but becomes a bit humdrum.
The better parts of Stanley lie just a little bit beyond the market areas. Stanley’s Main Street is lined with bars and restaurants that face out onto the waterfront. A boardwalk promenade has been created and this too has small cafes allowing for al fresco dining. This can be very relaxing, enjoying good food and refreshments while looking out at the numerous small boats anchored in the bay. Along the promenade is perhaps Stanley’s most outstanding building, but unusually and interestingly, it did not always stand here.
Murray House used to stand on the other side of the island within the Murray Barracks, where it was originally the officers’ quarters of the British military that ruled here for some 150 years. Murray House was built in 1844 and stood for more than a hundred years. It has a checkered history, being used for government administration and, during Japanese occupation, it was apparently a place of war crimes. In 1982, though, it was taken down to make way for the new Bank of China Tower.
Fortunately, it was not demolished but dismantled. This meant that some 3,000 blocks of stone that made up the building were preserved for possible reassembly. That reassembly happened in 2001 and the building opened up in Stanley in 2002, becoming a key feature of the bay. Today it houses the Hong Kong Maritime Museum on its ground floor and various cool, chic restaurants may be found upstairs.
Near to Murray House is another reassembled structure: Blake Pier. Originally this pier was also on the other side of the island, where it was built in 1900. In 1909 a steel pavilion was added to provide an attractive shelter. This was preserved when the pier was demolished in 1965, then in 2006 the pavilion found an appropriate new home in Stanley.
These two reassembled structures effectively form the elegant center of Stanley on the waterfront. They may be from an era that has long gone, but then, generally Stanley has a different feel to it than most other parts of Hong Kong. It has a more leisurely pace to it and gives you a breather from all the modern skyscraper intensity of much of the rest of the region.