Help bring Hong Kong's lost buildings back to life | Gwulo: Old Hong Kong

Help bring Hong Kong's lost buildings back to life

I'd love to see some of the old buildings that have long ago been demolished - be able to look all around them, and get in close to see details. Which one would you choose?

I suggest the old KCR terminus - the station building that stood in TST where the Cultural Centre is today.

Now you might agree with MrsB as she shakes her head at the odd things I find to waste / fill my time with, so let me try to present a decent defence:

  • It's another way to bring history to life, to relive some of Hong Kong that we'v missed the chance to see. And for some of our older readers that have fond memories of the original building, it gives them a second chance to see them and maybe to share some more memories with us, like oldtimer's recollection of using the old station building not long after the war: Grandma used to take me on her frequent trips to Guangzhou our home town. What impressed me were the train bumpers mounted at the very end of the tracks on concrete platform. Each time, the thoughts would come up in the little boy's mind: "This is where the exciting journey starts".

  • Then there's a satisfaction that's harder to explain. The way that we can bring together lots of small pieces of existing information that are currently unrelated, and link them together to maybe show us something quite different.
  • And ok, I'll admit there is the geek-appeal. There is some remarkable technology behind this - something like our panoramas on steroids.

Next, on to how it will work.

Here's the first video I saw of the Photosynth tool we'll use. The whole video is only eight minutes long, but if you just want the key section watch from 03:38 to 05:04. It shows the reconstruction of Notre Dame Cathedral :

Photosynth is something I've been waiting for for several years. The tools we use to make the panoramas were a step in the right direction, but they are still very limited in what they can do. This video showed what I was really looking for - a way to throw in a bunch of photos taken by different cameras, from different angles, at different times, and build it back into a recognisable 3D structure.

But, after seeing the video last year I found they were just teasing us - that Photosynth  wasn't available for public use. Fortunately, last week it was announced that the tool was available to the public at last.

So can we build a similar 3D view of the old KCR terminus, like the cathedral in the video?

I'm not sure, but I'd like to give it a go. My first attempt used the photos we already have:

1950s TST, KCR, & PO
1950s KCR Station
1950s Kowloon Star Ferry
1950s KCR & Bus Terminus
1950s KCR & Star-Ferry
1950s KCR Clocktower

But unfortunately the photosynth tool wasn't able to link them together. I guess there wasn't enough overlap among the photos to link them all together, so we need lots more photos of the building. Do you know of any? If yes, please leave a comment below with the links (if the photos are on the internet), or send them to me via email (if they aren't). My email address is mrb at batgung dot com.

Obviously the clock tower and / or station should be clear to see in the photo. (so no point sending in recent photos that show the clock tower with the cultural centre). From what I understand it shouldn't matter from which angle the photo was taken.

I''ll try rebuilding the photosynth view every time we get a few extra photos, and let you know once there is a successful version to look at.



What a wonderful project!  I just wish I had some photos to add to your collection, sadly my family wasn't into taking photos when I was growing up. 

I remember twice-monthly trips to the KCR station in TST in the very early 70s with my mother and sister, to board a train to Shatin, which in those days was a sleepy village. The purpose of the trip was to take me to horse-riding lessons from a woman who had a rescued retired racehorse (or maybe it was two).

She was a bit of an eccentric, after the ride, she'd take the towel from her bathroom to wipe down the horse, then put it back on the towel rail.  The riding lessons ended after the horse bolted one day before I had my second foot in the stirrup and I was dragged for a not inconsiderable distance.  I was badly bruised (including my ego) and had a twisted ankle (the one which remained in the stirrup after I fell off) but luckily there was no other damage.

Getting off the train in Shatin, I recall green green green, it is totally unrecognisable today when I think back to the early 70s.

Again, Mr. B, a worthy project :)


Adding to what Fiona says ... I used to climb Lion Rock to Shatin. On the outskirt of Shatin, hillside noodle-soup vendors would walk up to greet me hoping for business. The little boy was too shy to look at them and reply. This was rude thinking back. The tourist-street was about 3 blocks long and had restaurants and shops, located a few blocks southeast of the train station. It had more visitors on weekends; but on weekdays, only a dozen or so passengers got on the train with me for Kowloon. The place was that quiet - the good old days.

Fiona and OldTimer, thanks for the stories!

I had a more careful look through our photo galleries, and found a couple more (Fiona, the second photo is one you passed on from your friend some time back):

1960s TST Clock Tower
1960s KCR terminus

I can also zoom in to one of Peter's slides to get a shot of the clock tower and terminus:

1966 Star Ferry, KCR Terminal, Holt's Wharf

Next I'll start on the resources we've listed, and see if I can find any more. If anyone else would like to help, please leave a note with details of any searches you've made - I'll do the same so we don't duplicate work:

Slightly diverging off-topic: I was thinking about Photosynth a few weeks ago, but with the mind of how interesting it would be to reconstruct a 4D (3D plus time) of Victoria Harbour, probably from the vantage point of the peak (probably the most photographed from spot of HK!) and elsewhere. Photos of the harbour start from the late 1800's and carry on through to the current. It would certainly be most interesting to "fly" through a virtual Hong Kong and see how the skyscrapers have sprouted and the harbour shrink. For about half the time-line, you would be able to see the old TST railway station spring to life and return to rubble!

That would be something to behold. You could throw in maps from the same period too, so you'd have something like a Google Earth, but with an extra slider for time.

The main problem seems to be the lack of date information on photos taken before digital cameras became popular. It's easy to do a web search for images of say the 'view from the peak', but not so easy to search for those photos taken between say 1910 and 1920. An extended photosynth would need date information to stand any chance of organising the photos correctly.

It would be an interesting project to tackle manually though, especially taking your idea of a single location that has been a popular photo spot for many years. So you'd just collect photos taken from the same viewpoint, and then manually arrage them in a timeline.

The differences are remarkable - look how the buildings have grown, and the visible harbour shrunk, over the forty years since this photo was taken:

1966 Nighttime view from the Peak

Here's as far as I've got:

You should see a photo with two arrows. Click them and you'll be taken to the other photo - another view of essentially the same location, but it looks as though they were taken at different times.

Click the 'grid' icon (looks like a leaf a 3 x 3 grid of squares) to see all the photos. The two groups of photos at the top are those which photsynth has been able to connect. You've seen the left pair already. Click on one of the right pair and click the '3D' icon. It looks like both photos were taken at the same time (shipping & traffic are the same) but from slightly different locations - probably from a plane or helicopter?

Back at the grid view, the bottom section shows all the photos that I submitted, but that photosynth couldn't match with others. Looking at what works, photosynth likes photos that are only slightly different in content - so I'll need lots more photos to fill in the gaps and have any chance to make it work. Many of the photos I have are low resolution. I wonder if higher-res versions work better with photosynth

I'll keep looking for other photos, and show an update if I can get it looking any better.

nice project. Have u try fotos fr ? :-- Sam

Hi Sam, thanks for the link. I did take a look there, but didn't see any taken in the star ferry area - did I miss any?

I've now checked all the sites listed on our old photos page. For the PRO and HK Public Library sites I searched on kcr, station, terminus, terminal, clock, railway, tsim, and star. I think that should catch them all?

I couln't see the photos on the discuss website anymore - the thread seems to have moved. If you know the site, please could you let me know if it is still available at a different url?

Then as a last resort I've also done a visual scan through the 4,000+ photos at flickr's 'old hong kong lovers' pool.

After all that, here's the latest photosynth:

Only 48 photos, and you'll see photosynth has identified two of them as duplicates. I'm surprised how few there are.

Any suggestions for other image sites to search, or other local groups that might have relevant photos? eg I've just sent an email to the HK Railway Society asking if they can help.

Regards, MrB

I had a search through the photography books in the HK section of the Helena May library - NOTHING!!  seems people didn't find a railway station interesting enough to photograph.

Also nothing from Hedda Morrison, but I reckon if anyone could help you it would be Edward Stokes of the Hongkong Conservation Photography Foundation.  I've tried googling him / it, but they don't seem to have a website!

 If you have time, you may want to nose around the Cat street 'antique' market.  quite a few stalls there have abandoned old photo albums, you may find something amongst all the family snap shots.

 Good luck

I've had a couple of very helpful replies from members of the HK Railway Society:

  • Robin pointed me towards the  "Measured Drawings Vol I and II" published by the University of HK. He notes that Vol II (Historical Western Buildings) contains 8 pages of drawings of the KCR terminus. They are very sharp.
  • Peter sent along some a good hi-res scan of a photo taken by his father in the 70's, plus two scans from old newspaper clippings. He also pointed me to a KCR history book published in 1990 by the Urban Council. The writer was R.J. Phillips.

I found both books in the local library. Here's the photosynth after adding the new material:

I had high hopes for an improvement after adding the extra material, but the photos still don't connect. (Compare with this one that I made with photos I've taken specially for the photosynth.) Certainly it will be good to have more photos, but I think the more important task is to get photos at a better resolution. The photos I've found on the web are often < 640 pixels.

So, where to get them? I've exhausted all the google searches I can think of, so I'll give that a miss for now. But there are still some other options:

  • HKCP. (Gweipo, thanks for checking at the Helena May, and for your suggestions). I've found an email address for the HKCP, so I'll see if they can help at all.
  • Cat Street - I've also had that in mind as a possible source. Does anyone know the going rate for photos there? I guess the trick is not to look too enthusiastic!
  • Public Records Office. Their search page returns details of several photos that don't show any internet-viewable image. Also the images they do display are lo-resolution. Has anyone had any success at visiting the PRO and being allowed to scan the original photos?
  • Any other ideas?

Has an interesting collage of photos (low res) on the wall. Though I expect these will befrom the PRO or similar.

Maybe the heritage discovery museum in Kowloon Park (though I've never been) and perhaps even a begging letter the the A&M office.

How about Tiger Balm Gardens for your next project. Thousands of high quality colour photos all over the net - albeit copyright protected :-(

After finding a few more on the web, here's another couple of photos that have matched. Slow work though, so I'll change to looking for printed photos, and asking relevant organisations for help. I've just written to the PRO, so we'll see what options they offer.

I had a quick walk around Cat Street last Friday, then up Hollywood Rd. I found one I hadn't seen before in one of the Hollywood Rd bric-a-brac shops, but I'll need to head back for a more thorough search in Cat Street. (It seems I've stumbled in to a strange demographic, as the stack of photos on offer was 50% old HK scenes, 50% old photos of naked chinese women!)

The email address I found for Edward Stokes ( seems to have expired, so if you know Edward and think he might help, please could you forward him a link to this page?

Phil, thanks for the suggestions. Some more good places to try. Why not start on the Tiger Balm Gardens yourself? It would be a colourful synth to see.

First a request for help. If you know anyone that works at the KCR (or MTR as it is now), please could you help me find out who looks after their photograph collection? If you have any luck, please email me their details, and I'll get in touch to ask about seeing if they have any good shots of the old building.

Next, I've had replies from the PRO and the KCR Museum.

The PRO can provide digital copies of their photos for $53 a time, and the KCR Museum (actually the Heritage Museum, which looks after their photos) can provide print-copies from $43 up, depending on size. So I doubt I'll be getting too many of those - maybe just a few of their best shots.

I've written off to the Peninsula and the YMCA, asking about their photo collections, but no replies yet. (I'm thinking any photos taken of / from those buildings will likely show some of the old terminus building too).

I've tried Cat Street again. I found a couple of postcards - modern prints but copies of old photos. I think I've exhausted that source now. I've also looked through several hundred old photos without any luck. The old local photos are mainly of people, either on holiday overseas, getting married, or at a restaurant!

In one shop though, as I left I spotted a bit of the old clock tower peeping out. When I moved away the stuiff in front, it was a couple of shots of the terminus / star ferry area in the 1950s. The shopkeeper explained he kept them for personal interest, not to sell. (But as he readily sold them, I'm not sure how true that is!) He went on to show me a few more little books of photos he said he'd had reprinted from old sets of negatives he'd bought. Only one other of the terminus, but it was still interesting to see all the others.

My guess is that the good shots of the area would be in the photos of tourists and expats who visited Hong Kong in the 50's-70s. Hard to find them though!

On the photosynth front, none of the recent photos have added much. I'm trying a slightly different approach, taking new photos of the clock tower to build up a good 3-D view of that first (click it with the mouse and then press the 'p' key to see the 3-d model):

My idea is that I can use that as a sort of framework, then hang the other photos on to it. hasn't worked in practice though, so I'll keep looking for more old photos.

Here's the latest synth.

You can see that, of the 144 photos, very few have been matched together by the photosynth software. (The matched photos are in groups at the top of the screen, the unmatched photos are the majority below.)

Ther are a few tantalising glimpses of it working - see the 7th and the 17th groups (in these cases just pairs) of matched photos. It's clear that in both cases, the pair of photos comes from a single photographer.

That is what the software is designed for: matching together large groups of photos taken at one time by one photographer. What I've asked it to cope with is not practical - there are too many changes in the surroundings that confuse the software as it tries to match photos together.

I'm still hoping that at some point the Photosynth software will allow manual hinting. Then I can mark matching points on different photographs, and so tell it what to match.

Another alternative is to find a film that was taken in the area, preferably moving around the station building by road or sea, and use that as a source of photos. Does anyone know of a film with scenes set around the old terminus?

Also, please keep sending in any photos of the area that you find. Even if they don't synth right now, I'll keep building the collection for the time that the photosynth software can handle them.

Regards, MrB

Have you tried contacting Jason Wordie.  He would know exactly what is available in the HKU archive and has a large personal archive. Not sure if it extends to film as well:

The movie site 十月圍城 is also using this software to display the street scenes.