Pokfulam Blues

Holmes Chan reflects on childhood memories of a neighborhood in Hong Kong, amidst more recent luxury property developments.

Part of The Stakes of Naming, a series that asks an array of writers and artists what they need to say to live.



Not long ago I received a breathless email from a property developer introducing me to Mount Sapphire, an “iconic supreme-luxury residence” in presale. Attached was an image of white houses on a hillside: each had three storeys, glass facades, right angles, with the front tiered like a wedding cake to maximise balcony space. Together they rested on a giant pedestal, which contained the car park, various amenities, and the estate’s main entrance, a tall arched door.

            It was exactly the sort of thing to spark in me a morbid fascination. Show me the commanding vista, the imported granite slab, the patios and verandas—once I knew I could never own it, I wanted to know everything about it. But the email left me disappointed. Not only was there no word on price or delivery date, it didn’t even specify an address. A link directed me to a webpage that played string quartet music and read “coming soon.”

            Searching for clues, I zoomed in on the image, which was framed narrowly and scrubbed of all real-life context. It was an artist’s rendering that “does not reflect the actual appearance, view or surroundings of the development,” as the fine print explained. A black sedan was pulling up a driveway smooth as a racetrack, flanked by verdant greenery. There were no people visible.

            The scene could have been from anywhere, yet I couldn’t shake a sense of familiarity, like I had seen it before.

            When I was a child, my family lived briefly in a flat near the western edge of Hong Kong Island. The area was secluded, which for my parents added to its charm, but as a kid I found it empty and lifeless. Heading home usually meant falling asleep on a bus that trudged up Pok Fu Lam Road, leaving the city behind as it climbed. Our building was perched atop a little ridge, almost like a watchtower, and could only be accessed via a winding driveway or a short flight of steps. There were no shops, restaurants, or businesses that met everyday needs, except a rundown garage that was rarely open.

            Soon after we moved in, I was relieved to find a classmate living nearby. Jack was good-natured and would invite me to his place for videogames after school. His home rested among a cluster of buildings further up the slope; cars would first need to ascend the driveway to where I lived, before taking another connected path. Despite the proximity of our homes, it was clear even to the eyes of a child that Jack’s family had paid more. Their flat was less cramped, had a better view, and the living room windows were tinted so that the afternoon sun streaming in turned the furniture vaguely sepia.

            Jack’s parents hailed from one of the coastal provinces and spoke Cantonese with an accent. His father was often away, travelling for business across the border, while his mother was fond of traditional arts and sang opera as an amateur. On their instructions, Jack always wore a small piece of jade around his neck, but that seemed to be the full extent of their protective streak. As parents they were not stricken with ambition, which to me indicates that they probably knew they would succeed.

            I visited Jack often enough that the building’s name became a shorthand between our families. His parents, ever the gracious hosts, would bump into me at a bus stop and ask: when are you coming over to Sapphire Lodge?

            Staring at the email, I wondered if the names were too similar to be a coincidence; it didn’t take long to confirm my hunch. As it turned out, the developer spent more than a decade acquiring the Lodge, unit by unit, so it could be razed to the ground for redevelopment. North of HK$700 million had already been spent consolidating the rights before a single bulldozer started working, according to one news report. Now it was counting down the weeks to a public sale. The new name, announced via a splashy ad campaign, was the final touch.

            It was almost dark when, on a recent Tuesday, I arrived at the base of those steps I knew so well. That used to be our daily route, and one time my mother made the climb with an armful of groceries and nearly stepped on a snake. Not much had changed in the intervening two decades. There were still cracks in the retaining walls, covered with moss, and fallen leaves clogged the gutters. At least the garage received a fresh coat of paint.

            Whatever drove me to return, it was certainly not nostalgia. Over the years, the area has seen its fair share of facelifts, which quickened in pace as the rail line extended west. The city is always shedding and one learns not to get attached. Despite that knowledge, it felt like a mismatch—a contradiction, even—to find Hong Kong’s newest luxury houses in my old backyard. They may as well be from outer space, and I couldn’t resist the urge to go see for myself.

            I found the houses unlit but complete, while the lower section was still under construction and partially exposed. Back in the day the Lodge had a dozen families living in flats. The redevelopment had slashed the number of households by half, and gave each of them their own private rooftop, garden, pool, and lift. The houses were separated by near-imperceptible gaps, so that each could claim to have the largest possible footprint while not requiring neighbours to share a wall.

            Somewhere from within the structure came a drill’s piercing note. In the email, the developer said the project “combines Italian Baroque architecture with modern minimalist design” and features a “military-grade security system.” In the semi-darkness, the tiered shapes loomed over me like the ramparts of a castle.

            I hadn’t heard from Jack in years and wondered where he was. His family was so at home there, so settled—or at least they seemed that way. In my imagination, those residences from the 1960s and 70s were meant for their milieu: GPs two decades into their private practices, owners of import-export firms specialising in canned seafood, civil servants on the cusp of retirement who hit a ceiling on their pay scales. Happiness was anything with 1,000 square feet, three bedrooms, and a parking spot.

            Jack and his family might have found a way to preserve that life; money from the developer would go a long way. In Hong Kong there are still zones of obscurity and comfort, where the floodwaters have yet to reach, or perhaps that dream will bring them to distant lands. It’s not implausible—for him, at least. Once, we were two boys in front of a television and it’s not so far-fetched to believe some cosmic quirk could have us transposed. I don’t think that anymore, and some days it’s hard to imagine how I ever did.



Holmes Chan is a reporter covering Hong Kong news.

Banner illustration: Jocelin Kee. 



Holmes CHAN

Fri, 13 Oct 2023

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The Stakes of Naming
Part of series

The Stakes of Naming

A series that asks an array of writers and artists what they need to say to live