Hong Kong in the 1920s

After finishing my graduate degree in architecture, I capped three years of study and travel with a three-week long trip across China with a group of classmates. During those first few days of jetlag and culture shock–I was repeatedly reminded of the classic segue from Monty Python–”and now for something completely different.” Not only had I never traveled in Asia, but China itself is full of contrast. Every new city and region showed us variations on traditional Chinese architecture and different–and usually larger–skyscrapers.

Photo by Kent Sorenson, 2012.

China is growing rapidly, and its towering high-rises are the proof of its population boom, but it is also an ancient civilization with a rich tradition of art and architecture. Because of its size, there is huge variation between regions and cities. Land-locked Beijing, the ancient capital, is as different from seaside Shanghai—located 750 miles to the south—as New York is from LA or Chicago is from San Antonio. The architecture of each of these cities tells the story of its own unique development, from China’s early history to the country’s modern growth and industrialization.

Hong Kong’s streetscapes during a pause in the rain. Photos by author.

We began our journey in the south, easing into eastern culture in Hong Kong, the former British territory. In 1841, Hong Kong was primarily a series of coastal villages and its population was 7,450–1/1000 of its 7.4 million today.

A drawing of Kowloon Bay in the 19th century.

The British first occupied the island as a military strategy point during the First Opium War. Soon after the British victory in that war and in the Second Opium War, they signed a 99-year lease agreement for Hong Kong, Kowloon (the neighboring peninsula), and the islands that surrounded them. As a free port and one of the first Asian countries to industrialize, the population and economy boomed. In 1997, the British handed the island back to China, but its government and economic system remain independent.

Kowloon Bay in the 1900s.

This dense city is crowded, and we walked many miles dodging traffic (and a mild typhoon) by ducking through the city’s maze of shopping malls and escalators.

The Hong Kong nightly light show from Victoria Peak. Photo by author.

We climbed up to Victoria’s Peak—a true tourist trap with admittedly incredible views of the city’s nightly light show on the buildings themselves—and crossed Kowloon Bay on the ferries of the Star Line, which has been running continually since 1888.

The skyline of Hong Kong with a Star Line ferry in the foreground. Photo by author.

The Hong Kong waterfront with a Star Line ferry in the foreground, c. 1938.

Though the city’s crowded skyline dominates any tourist’s impression of the city, its historic buildings tie it to its rich past. Between the high-rises and dense city blocks, there are examples of British colonial architecture, Buddhist temples, and buildings that resulted from the city’s growth.

The Cenotaph (a replica of Lutyen’s Cenotaph in Whitehall), built in 1923, in Statue Square next to City Hall with I.M. Pei’s Bank of China Tower behind.

The Peninsula Hotel, Hong Kong.

The lobby of the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong.

Man Mo Temple, Hong Kong.

The interior of Man Mo Temple, Hong Kong. Photo by author.

More recently, the Chi Lin Nunnery was rebuilt in 1998 in Kowloon and offers a peaceful retreat from the bustling city. Nestled in the dense city blocks, the nunnery and gardens are a beautiful example of Buddhist temple planning and provide an idyllic retreat.

Chi Lin Nunnery, Hong Kong

The Nan Lian Garden. Photo by author.

Nan Lian Garden, Hong Kong. Photo by author.

Nan Lian Garden, Honk Kong. Photo by author.

The Bund in Shanghai.

From Hong Kong, we flew to mainland China, and began our journey north with a stay in the Bund, a historic area of Shanghai that was the center of the first international settlements in China. Classical western buildings, built during the 1800s when the Shanghai International Settlement was formed, feature distinctly eastern architectural details.

Historic photograph Pudong Lujiazui from the Bund in the 1980s.

Pudon Lujiazui in 2017. Photo by author.

Directly across the water from the Bund is the city’s financial center, where one sees Chinese architecture contrasting again, this time with the modern skyscraper. Shanghai was originally a fishing village; “Shang hai” means “on the sea.”  Just like in Hong Kong, the city grew rapidly first when it became a treaty port open to western trade in the 1940s and again when it opened to foreign trade in the 1990s. Today, it is the financial center of mainland China and commercial gateway into the Asia-Pacific region.


The scale model of the city of Shanghai at the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center.

When we arrived in Shanghai, we learned that a new map of the city is released every six months because of the excessive amount of new building. While the world’s largest cities almost all boast impressive skylines, Shanghai’s stretches for miles and at its center is the tallest skyscraper in the world.

The Jin Mao Tower with the Shanghai World Financial Center and the Shanghai World Financial Center in the background.

The entry portal to the Jin Mao Tower and the central atrium of the building. Photos by author.

The 1,380-foot Jin Mao Tower, designed by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, is inspired by the pagoda and takes its octagonal shape, height (88 floors), from the number 8, associated with prosperity. Standing on the 88th floor, two of the world’s tallest buildings loom overhead.

The Jin Mao Tower, Shanghai Tower, and Shanghai World Financial Center disappearing into the clouds on a hazy day. Photo by author.

The Shanghai Tower, with the world’s highest observation deck, and the Shanghai World Financial Center, with its distinctive bottle opener shape, disappear into the clouds on a decidedly hazy day. My group went “skywalking” among those clouds on the outside of the 88th floor. Strapped into harnesses and (I hope) well-secured by two separate ropes, they leaned over the edge and dangled one foot off the building before returning through an airlock.

“Skywalking” on the 88th floor of the Jin Mao Tower. Photo by author.

Other Chinese cities boast similarly large and impressive skyscrapers, and in each they provide a constant and dramatic foil to the country’s traditional architecture and urbanism…