Stanley: vestiges of the past
When family friends and relatives are in town, my father makes it a point to take them to Stanley. He goes not for its famous street market – where stacks of knickknacks and souvenirs can be found – but to soak up the town’s ambiance and history.
Stanley, or Chek Chue in Cantonese, straddles a narrow strip of land between two bays, with several beaches lying close by. Expats come for simple comforts like hot dog, pizza and cold beer, available at the many cafés and watering holes lining the sweeping boardwalk.
Literally ‘Red Pillar’, the town was named after an imposing cotton tree whose fiery blooms once graced the area. When the British annexed Hong Kong Island in 1842, Chek Chue was its largest existing settlement and temporary capital. The town was given its English name in honour of Lord Stanley, who was Colonial Secretary at the time.
Today there are several physical reminders of those early days. Located right on the main road, Stanley’s old police station was built in 1859, but it has now been converted into a supermarket with shelves of merchandise amid the original tilework.
Two other monuments have been relocated from the city, including the cast iron structure of Blake Pier, which once stood on the busy Central waterfront. Visitors to Stanley can dine inside Murray House, the oldest colonial building in Hong Kong until it was dismantled in 1982, stone by stone, to make way for I.M. Pei’s Bank of China Tower. More than 3,000 granite blocks were carefully catalogued and stored in a warehouse, before being rebuilt almost 20 years later.
Under the Japanese occupation in World War II, the military police used the building as their command centre, where they tortured and killed prisoners with a cruelty repeated across much of occupied Asia.
Stanley itself was where an international band of allied fighters – assembled from the Royal Rifles of Canada, the Middlesex Regiment and the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps – made their last stand against the invading Japanese forces. The territory formally surrendered on Christmas Day, 1941, and most of the Western civilians who had not already left were held in an internment camp at Stanley.
Nearly 100 prisoners who died mostly of disease and malnutrition remain buried at the military cemetery next door, as are soldiers who fell defending Hong Kong from the Japanese onslaught. Their graves are a sobering reminder of an epoch that continues to cast its shadow over current East Asian geopolitics. ◊
Stanley is a nice place for those who still want to see and get everything in southern Hong Kong Island, well away from the downtown. We went on a such nice day with clear blue skies… and free ice cream! 🙂 I’m glad the plan to demolish The Boathouse was cancelled because it’s a beautiful small building, indeed.
I was quite fascinated by the cemetery for its history and the cornucopia of fine white tombs with different engravings on them. Christians, Jewish and Muslims all fought to defend HK from the Japanese. Nice photo, James! That particular shot of the tomb is just perfect!
Thank you, Bama! And you’re right, it was truly a perfect Sunday morning. I was not expecting the free ice cream at all – these kinds of things only seem to happen when you’re around. 🙂
Funny how the cemetery is just a short walk from the market and boardwalk… seems that not many people know of its existence so we had the place entirely to ourselves.
Oh, I love Stanley! Sadly, I never got to see much of it (mostly around the markets and the pier). Thanks for sharing what I didn’t get to see!
My pleasure, Stephen. There’s even a Correctional Services Museum next to the prison there… Stanley sure is full of surprises!
I’ve been a couple of times to Stanley, it is a delightful place to visit. Thanks for the history.
I’m not surprised Debra – I can see how you would enjoy Stanley! That lovely boardwalk, the laidback atmosphere, good food in abundance… it’s the kind of place anyone could go back to again and again.
At first I thought you meant Stanley Park in B.C. Canada. So that is Hong Kong. I would love to see more.
Thanks, Leslie. There must be tens of Stanleys scattered around the former British Empire – with street names included they might just run into the hundreds.
I never thought about it, but you are probably right.
So informative, and wonderful pictures.
Glad you enjoyed it!
In memoriam tells the story without thousands words. A small temple hidden in the park, just on your right when you face the ocean, you following a short coast path is another secret spot at Stanley.
I’ll look out for that temple the next time I go – thanks for the tip!
Looks lovely, and thanks for the history James. Your reference to the war brought to mind James Clavells “King Rat’ for some reason…I read it a couple of decades ago! I meant to lunch at the Boat House on one of our visits, but never made it.
You’re welcome, Madhu. There was once a plan to tear down the Boathouse but I’m glad it didn’t come through. Perhaps next time you come we can plan a meal there as I’ve never been myself! It sounds like I should make a start on reading James Clavell’s Asian Saga – ‘King Rat’ and ‘Noble House’ would clearly be my first picks.