There are always rumours of ghosts and supernatural happenings around Tai Ping Shan Street in Sheung Wan, especially among the local community. In this article, we are going to unravel the dark side of the “haunted” Sheung Wan.
In the end of 19th century, there was a so-called ‘tomb street’ in Sheung Wan. A lot of businessmen and farmers in China travelled out of their hometowns at that time to earn a living, as the country was in chaos. Thousands of them died in a strange land, and Sheung Wan was the final destination of a lot of these people, who were trying so hard to feed their families. Century-old architectures and local boutiques are still in the area today, and these establishments have witnessed this bitter piece of Hong Kong history.
Dying – Street, Dying House, Kwong Fuk Ancestral Hall
Towards the end of the Qing dynasty, there were a lot of troubles both inside and outside the country in addition to the existing rampant bandits. A lot of Chinese businessmen, therefore, opted to flee to Hong Kong, where the political environment was relatively stabler. To the many farmers that had lived a hard life, travelling out of their hometown would bring light and hope. Many single men thus came to Hong Kong in a bid to make a better living, or go abroad through Hong Kong.
The majority of Chinese living in the north of Hong Kong Island were lower-class new immigrants. According to the director of Hong Kong Society of History, Tang Ka Yue, most of these single men could only afford a bed in a very crowded room, in which the hygienic condition was beyond awful and thus there were a raging epidemic and plague. Yet, the healthcare system was poor and most Chinese people didn’t trust Western medicine at that time. They rather die than going to see the doctor, and therefore it wasn’t uncommon to see dead bodies on the street.
Since most Chinese wouldn’t want patients to pass away in their apartments, that led to the arising “Dying House”, in which people could pay to stay and die there. Nothing was provided in these dying houses, not even food. It really was just a place for you to stay and die. Situated in Sheung Wan, Kwong Fuk Ancestral Hall (a.k.a. Pak Sing Temple) became the shelter of the dying patients. It was also described as “Living Hell” by the media, since both the alive and the dead stayed in the room together.
Tung Wah Hospital Collects Corpses
The horrid situation at Kwong Fuk Ancestral Hall led to an indispensable revolution of medical care – The British Hong Kong government passed the “Tung Wah Hospital Ordinance”, which allowed the hospital to provide Chinese medicine service. However, most Chinese only went to hospitals when they were at late-stage or dying state as they considered hospital as a place where only the dying stays. Tung Wah Hospital, therefore, had to deal with a large number of dead bodies.
At the early beginning when Hong Kong first started to open for trades, the British Hong Kong government imposed the “Chinese self-governed” policy and adopted a half-hearted attitude towards Chinese affairs, so most local Chinese problems encountered within the community were solved by the Chinese themselves. Due to the policy, the Chinese Tung Wah Hospital basically became the dedicated agent for corpses. Whenever there was a big disaster, the British Hong Kong government would appoint Tung Wah to go collect the corpses.
Since most of the Chinese workers came to Hong Kong alone without their families, their funerals were mostly hasty. The government hadn’t established the public cemetery yet and as a result, mountain graves were scattered around Hong Kong Island.
In 1856, a reader submitted an article to The China Mail, an English-language newspaper published in Hong Kong from 1845 to 1974, claiming that the epidemic killed at least 30 Chinese daily, but the bodies were only buried in the hillside without coffins and were not even laid two meters deep. A lot of rotten corpses were often rushed to the road after the heavy rain.
A hillside in Sheung Wan became the major Chinese burial ground, the street next to it was even officially named as Cemetery Street (was renamed as Po Yan Street in 1869). And in the same year, the government finally set up a Chinese cemetery at Mount Davis.
In addition to that, Tun Wah hospital also requested a land from the government for the use of public burial ground, as a great number of corpses were not claimed and the hospital itself wasn’t capable of buying lands and coffins to deal with the dead bodies. Tung Wah Coffin Home was thus established and is still at Sandy Bay Road today.
Sheung Wan Offered “One-Stop Death Service”
This piece of history greatly influenced how Sheung Wan is shaped at present and traces of the past could still be seen in the area. At the nowadays popular “Po Ho” (which refers to the area around Po Hing Fong and Tai Ping Shan Street, there are numerous galleries, coffee shops and boutiques etc. that attract the hipster crowd. But if you’ve paid attention, you would have noticed that there are also a lot of hospitals, ancestral halls, and coffin shops that witness the one-stop death service (sickness, death, burial) that the neighbourhood offered.
“Traces of early Chinese laborers could still be seen in many of the Hong Kong’s infrastructure such as the granite paved retaining wall, in which each and individual piece was hand-crafted and laid, and these walls are still present around Central and Western District as well as in Wanchai.” said the director of Hong Kong Society of History, Tang Ka Yue.
Hong Kong is a foreign land for many of the deceased labours. It is important in Chinese culture, that worship is performed and sacrifices are offered to the deceased so that their souls won’t become wild ghosts. Some charitable organisations, therefore, were dedicated to helping to return thousands of bodies to their home which was miles away. Hong Kong was thus once upon a time, a hub of coffins and bodies’ transfers.
Yet, a lot of the dead who wished to be buried in their motherland, still, couldn’t make it home and at last, could only rest eternally in Hong Kong.