Headquarters of Cable & Wireless in Hong Kong, Electra House, being demolished in 1948. You can see the style of its neighbours. The whole waterfront of Hong Kong used to look like this. Compare waterfront of Algiers.
Toynbee, sailing off Amoy, en route from Hong Kong to Shanghai on October 12 1929, comments on this Latin architectural style in some English colonial ports:
open loggias round each block of buildings – tiers of arches supported on classic columns.
He has travelled by car from London to Constantinople, by train through Turkey and Syria, by bus from Damascus to Baghdad, by train to Basra; by boat from Basra to Karachi, and by train on to Bombay; and is continuing from Bombay to Japan by sea via Colombo, Penang, Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai. (The return journey is overland through Russia, after a side-visit to Korea and China.)
Each port makes its separate impression; and during these last sixteen days half a dozen such impressions have stamped themselves on my memory as Bombay, Colombo, Penang, Singapore, and Hong-Kong have drifted past, one after another. Now, once again, we are in empty space between Hong-Kong and Shanghai; and my mind, turning in upon itself, begins to sort and compare the successive impressions which it has already received. As I call them up and set them side by side, some common element at last begins to emerge.
But just what is it that these five ports have in common with one another? It is not that they are all islands and are all under the British flag; for these are points which they share with Great Britain itself, and the common feature which I am trying to apprehend is certainly something quite un-British. Perhaps it is something to do with the relation in which all five islands stand to the vast continent alongside which they are anchored. They are all dependent on Asia Major. Yet, though altogether dependent on Asia, they are either self-consciously holding aloof from her or else they are being deliberately kept outside her pale. Standing on her threshold, they live a suburban life of their own which is not hers. Here is a paradox; and this paradox is the common feature in the impressions which the isles severally make upon the Western traveller’s mind.
“The Isles of the Sea” is the name of the chapter in his book of the journey and is a quotation from Isaiah.
It strikes one first in the architecture – especially if one has been travelling, as I have, through countries upon which the great Oriental civilizations have left an enduring mark. But what common feature can there be in the aspect of Bombay and Colombo and Penang and Singapore and Hong-Kong which distinguishes them all alike from Adrianople and Constantinople and Angora, and from Aleppo and Damascus and Baghdad, and from Ahmedabad and Jodhpur? You may well ask that question, for the differences which distinguish my five ports from one another might seem more obvious. For instance, Bombay is one of the great cities of the modern world – the only really first-rate modern city which I have yet encountered on this journey since I left Vienna (I have not yet reached Shanghai) – whereas Penang is a kind of tropical garden-suburb. Again, Hong-Kong is a peak, while Singapore is a mud-flat. Nevertheless, there undoubtedly is some common feature in the aspect of these five ports which does distinguish them from Adrianople and Ahmedabad and from all the great continental cities of Western Asia that lie between those two.
This way of referring to Bombay is, it seems to me, characteristic of a certain period, say 1920 to 1960. Bombay is often referred to in those years, not only by Toynbee, as very “modern”, as if there is almost nothing to distinguish it from, say, Liverpool. There is a suggestion of that in another reference of 1956-7 which I have already quoted. Nobody would have said that later. They might start saying it again twenty years from now.
I think it is that those continental Asiatic cities are still dominated by the monuments of ancient Oriental civilizations, while these isles of the sea are exotic versions of modern European ports without an Oriental background. In the ancient cities of the East the monuments of the past still maintain an ascendancy over the symptoms of “Westernization.” It is in vain that the fez and the veil have been banished from Constantinople; for, so long as that line of domes and minarets crowns the ridge from Sultan Ahmed to Sultan Selim, Stamboul will be Stamboul still. It is in vain that Angora has been equipped with hotels and public buildings and statues and garden-suburbs which would not look out of place in Budapest or in Canberra; for the sightseer’s eye sweeps over them all in order to rest upon the battlemented towers and curtain-walls that set off the Acropolis. It is in vain that Ahmedabad has been girdled with factory chimneys. The tracery in the windows of mosques and tombs stamps out the impression of the cotton mills in the pilgrim’s mind. And so it is with all those other continental cities: Aleppo is still dominated by its castle, Jodhpur by its fort, Damascus by its running waters, Hyderabad by its wind-towers. In these places the railway-stations and power-houses and ice-factories [there is still an Ice House Street in Central, Hong Kong], and all the other portents of Western civilization, have the discretion to know their place and keep it. But that is on the mainland. In the isles of the sea the landmarks of Western civilization dominate the landscape without any serious rivals.
But what form of Western civilization [as demonstrated in architecture] is it that has so audaciously made these Asiatic ports after its own image? Certainly it is not the “Anglo-Saxon” form. You can convince yourself of that by one glance at the Protestant churches. In these Asiatic ports which the English have inherited or created they have delighted to build their churches according to the most rigid canons of the “neo-Gothic” architecture; and against their background of palm groves these uncompromising piles make an indescribably exotic impression. Yet the Hindu and Buddhist temples here equally offend the eye, for though their forms may harmonize better than “Gothic piles” with the tropical vegetation and the tropical light, they are put out of countenance by the surrounding works of Man. Indeed I saw only one place of worship in all these five ports which struck me as being really in harmony with local Nature and local Mankind alike, and that was the Roman Catholic cathedral of Santa Lucia in Colombo. It was a noble baroque building, subtly – though, I suppose, quite unconsciously – adapted from a Mediterranean to a tropical environment. And this Catholic cathedral was full of Asiatic worshippers. In these isles of the Asiatic sea it is the Catholic-Latin form of Western civilization that has struck root. Indeed, in architecture this has become the indigenous style; and I found it reproduced in the sumptuous modern mosque which adorns the capital of the Malay State of Johore. A mosque in the image of a baroque Catholic cathedral! To the Muslims of Stamboul and of Ahmedabad this would surely be a stumbling-block or a folly; but the Johore Muslims knew what they were about. They chose the style which had made itself most at home in their land.
He can call this style of architecture, or civilisation, “indigenous”. The West, or England, was in charge of these ports, even if the style – aside from the anomalous Gothic churches – was not very English. What was the origin of the style of arcade and loggia? He suggests Portuguese. Practically, it was the need to shield buildings from heat before modern air-conditioning was invented. When modern air-conditioning came after the Second World War, the old buildings could be replaced by skyscrapers.
With this clue I looked with new eyes at the secular architecture, which in all these five ports conforms to a single pattern – in English-made Hong-Kong as well as in Portuguese-made Colombo. Surely this architecture, with its open loggias round each block of buildings – tiers of arches supported on classic columns – must be Latin in origin too. In the older and smaller buildings its Latinity is unmistakable. In the modern “big buildings” – hotels or post-offices or Government Houses – where British architects have taken it in hand, it has suffered a sea-change and has assumed the likeness of Mr. Selfridge’s building in Oxford Street; but even in these curious metamorphoses its origin is not altogether obscured. Presumably it comes from the Portuguese – the first modern Europeans to sail the Asiatic seas. I find myself wondering whether this Latin-Catholic culture, which was the harbinger of Western civilization in these Eastern isles of the sea, may not be destined to make itself still felt there centuries hence, after the British empire-builder, with his neo-Gothic churches, has softly and silently vanished away.
Even if new, very local and very energy-efficient means of cooling buildings allowed them to open up again and the windows and loggias to return, they would look modern, because buildings more than five storeys high cannot have “tiers of arches supported on classical columns”. (Though there is plenty of eclectic kitsch in east Asia which heads in precisely that direction.)
In Hong Kong, one of the last buildings in the arcade and loggia style to go was the old Hong Kong Club – demolished in 1981. No doubt there were many examples in Colombo, Penang and Singapore: and it was observant of Toynbee to identify this as a style of ports. Did it come literally from the Portuguese? I suspect that it just suited the pre-air conditioning world. Bombay had been a Portuguese foundation, more or less: it was part of the dowry of Catherine of Braganza on her marriage to Charles II. Colombo had been Portuguese before it was Dutch; so had Penang. Singapore and Hong Kong had been almost nothing before the British arrived in the nineteenth century. But when Westerners built outside Europe, they also did things which had a local flavour. I have mentioned the Italians in Russia and the English in Delhi. The ports Toynbee is referring to were, more than the inland cities, creations or re-creations of the West.
When most people think of “colonial” architecture in Singapore, or KL, they think of something a little different from arcade and loggia. They think of a Straits Chinese vernacular style called “shophouse”. The “shop” wide open at the front. Behind it, on a spacious ground floor, living quarters, decorated with a certain amount of Chinese “Baroque”, and more again on a (usually) single upper storey; on top of everything, a quasi-Portuguese tiled roof. The whole making a terrace. (There are less dignified equivalents in the shop fronts of mechanics and car-repairers in the outskirts of towns in nearly every country on earth.) It is a kind of Europeanisation, incorporating the idea of a street, of the shop-façades of a souk. Most of this was pulled down in Singapore between 1965 and 1990.
The other architectural treasures in Singapore are/were different again: a kind of localisation of an Arts and Crafts style in a suburban architecture for the rich, which incorporated, as subtly as that cathedral in Colombo incorporated something local, elements of the Malay house – itself a grand style.
Here are some more pictures (I apologise for the lack of attributions: they would include Wikipedia and the Hong Kong Public Libraries). Of, from left to right, the Hong Kong Club in 1890 (old Supreme Court building on the right), a Hong Kong street in 1865, the Hong Kong waterfront, the cathedral of St Lucia in Colombo, the Abu Baker Mosque in Johor on the mainland off Singapore, and converted shophouse.
A Journey to China, or Things Which Are Seen, Constable, 1931
Before that The Manchester Guardian