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Uniquely HK

History Matters

Pampered on the Peak

Richard Garrett looks at the privileged life led by those living on The Peak before the war

 

The Peak offered some relief from the heat of Hong Kong’s summer. Temperatures were a few degrees lower and fresh breezes were plentiful. This was highly valued and reflected in the price of the property there – only the rich could afford to live on The Peak.

 

The Peak Club

 

What was life like there in the past? The breadwinner, exclusively the man of the family, would go down to his office in town. Meanwhile, back on The Peak, what were master’s wife and family up to? In the heat of summer the lady of the house must have had a pretty boring time. Matilda Sharp, after whom the Matilda International Hospital is named, wrote in her diary for 1866; “You cannot come out and no one comes to you until sunset. It is not living but vegetating.”

 

 She goes on to say that she would wear a “cool and comfortable Chinese dress and trousers”, or a loose flannel chemise with loose buff linen trousers and a loose jacket, “all beautifully light and cool”, together with thin, loose-fitting and open-worked Chinese slippers with no sides or heels. When the men were there they also dressed down and lay back on the veranda.

 

The Staff and owner of the Stone House

 

When the weather was cooler there was bridge at the Peak Club, tennis parties and tiffin lunches. Trips down to town for shopping and afternoon tea also used up the time. Some of the prominent wives took part in charitable activities, although generally this was discouraged. Luckily the ladies did not have to do any housework. Up until the Second World War it was normal to have an army of helpers to clean, cook, wash clothes and look after the children. Margaret Mary Ough was brought up at Craigmin East, near Magazine Gap, and she notes in her reminiscences that “there were nine servants; the cook and scullion, coolie No.1 cum. gardener, coolie No.2, two sedan chair coolies complete with uniforms, Chinese style, of white with royal blue borders on jacket and trousers and finished with a huge letter 'D' also of royal blue on the back of the jacket. In addition there was head boy No's 1 & 2. An amah, employed for sewing and helping to look after the children, used to come in daily.”

 

Servants at La Hacienda. Circa 1890. Courtesy of Wattis Fine Art

 

In the old days European children were not usually educated in the colonies. It was justifiably felt that the risk of tropical disease was too high and so they were sent back home to boarding schools. It is not surprising that it was as late as 1911 before a school was started on The Peak. This was a junior school and was housed in a purpose-built building. The Peak School originally catered for 48 pupils and two mistresses. After the war demand rose and the premises had to be expanded and that was done on a site at the start of Plantation Road, where it still remains in operation.

 

The old school building remained as an annex up until 1966 and then it was taken over by the Fire Services, supposedly on a temporary basis as it was felt the school might need them back. Nevertheless the old school remains a Fire Station to this day.

 

The site for the new premises was the former Peak Club. The Peak Tram stopped running at 8.00 pm and residents of the Peak found it inconvenient not to have a club close by, so in 1893 they founded the Peak Club. The Directory of 1923 described it as follows:

 

“The Peak Club is domiciled in a neat building at Plunkett Gap near the point of junction with Chamberlain Road and Mount Kellett Road. It was erected in 1902 and enlarged in 1912 by the addition of a second storey. It possesses tennis and croquet lawns on land adjoining.” It became a casualty of the war.

 

Relaxing at the Mess

 

Another inconvenience was having to go down to the cathedral for Sunday worship, so a Peak Church was built. The site of it was between today’s Fire Station and Stewart Terrace. The church was opened in 1883, the first service being held on 17th June. The Directory of 1923 described it as “an unpretending structure after the similitude of a jelly mould”. Photographs show it to be in the gothic style and it was indeed nicknamed the Jelly Mould. It was badly damaged during the war and afterwards it was felt unnecessary to rebuild it. One memento remains as the cross from the altar was rescued and it is now preserved at St Stephen’s Chapel in Stanley. An inscription on the back notes that it was “recovered from the ruins of the old Peak Church in 1941 and sent in to Stanley Internment Camp where it was used in the United Services of Worship in the College Hall and afterwards in the Cathedral upon the liberation of the Colony”.

 

The Peak was indeed a self-contained community. Today it is less so, but still retains a unique character and is a special place to live.

 

Richard Garrett has lived in Hong Kong for more than forty years and is the author of numerous articles on people and places in Hong Kong, Macau and China. See www.richardjgarrett.com

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