The last Chinese style architecture: St. Francis of Assisi Church and School in Shek Kip Mei

St. Francis of Assisi in Shek Kip Mei. Photo: supplied

St. Francis of Assisi Church and School was built in Shek Kip Mei in 1955 in the Chinese renaissance architectural style (or adaptive Chinese style), which refers to buildings using modern materials such as reinforced concrete with designs of traditional Chinese architecture such as a curving upturned roof with tiles and imitated bracket system. 

The Chinese renaissance architecture movement emerged in China in the 1910s and appeared in Hong Kong, too. St. Francis of Assisi Church and School was one of the last of its kind and a rare living example. I always wondered how this splendid building was made possible during a very difficult time in the 1950s. 

After the late 1950s, architecture of Hong Kong lost style and became mostly functional. As a historian, I tried to uncover forgotten stories of St. Francis of Assisi Church and wish to share some of them below. Further details can be found in my journal article, Building St. Francis of Assisi Church and School in Hong Kong: Emergence of Church and School Complex in the 1950s, in Architectural Institute of Japan Journal of Architectural Planning, Vol. 85, No. 768, published in February 2020.

The origin of St. Francis of Assisi Church dates back to 1869, not in Shek Kip Mei but in Kowloon City, when it was established by the Catholic Mission. However, the colonial government demolished this structure around 1927 to construct an air force base, which later became Kai Tak Airport. 

As a replacement, St. Francis of Assisi Church was built in 1937 on another lot in Kowloon City. It was renamed to commemorate the donors’ father, Francisco d’Asis Gomes. Yet the Japanese army, which occupied Hong Kong from 1941 to 1945, demolished this building in 1943 to expand the air base.

On another side of Kowloon, in Sham Shui Po, the Catholic Mission had been attempting to build a proper church since the 1920s while using the Precious Blood Convent and its Tack Ching School as a temporary venue.

After World War II, the number of refugees increased in Sham Shui Po and its surroundings. In 1950, the Bishop Enrico Valtorta resumed negotiations with the government to build a Catholic church and school in the area and he claimed that it should be the replacement of the demolished St. Francis of Assisi Church in Kowloon City. 

Finally, after some frustrating years with slow responses from the government, on 15 December 1953, the diocese signed the land lease for a new church and school. After only 10 days, on 25 December 1953, the fire broke out at the squatters area of Shek Kip Mei. Though there were some delays, the construction began in mid-1954 and was completed in October of 1955. 

The Director of Education of the colonial government praised this complex of church and school as “a compound of faith and practical common sense.”

The architect of St. Francis of Assisi Church and School was Chien Nai-jen (錢켄훗). Though his name has been forgotten in the social and architectural history of Hong Kong, his contributions were phenomenal, particularly for Catholic Church property.

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Chien was born in 1913 in Guangdong, in China, and studied at Yenching University (Peking University). He further studied architecture at the University of Michigan in the late 1930s, and returned to China and practised in Guangdong. He moved to Hong Kong around 1949.

Chien’s first major project in Hong Kong was apparently St. Francis of Assisi Church and School. I have identified 56 building projects by Chien (one of them was in mainland China) and 32 of them were for the Hong Kong Catholic Church, including St. Jude’s Church and School (North Point, 1956-59), St. Anne’s Church and School (Stanley, 1957), Our Lady of Rosary Church and School (Kennedy Town, 1958-60), and Immaculate Heart of Mary Church (Taipo, 1959). 

These churches have very similar modernism design and express very little Chinese style. Chien emigrated to the United States (US) around 1965 and passed away there in 2010. His life in the US is unknown.

Out of 32 Catholic building projects Chien was commissioned to do, it is only St. Francis of Assisi Church and School that had an explicit Chinese style. Why was that? It can be explained by Chien’s professional background and experiences in the mainland and the US: Chinese renaissance architecture flourished in China from the 1910s reflecting the Chinese nationalism of the early 20th century. 

While Chien studied at Yenching University in Beijing in the early 1930s, there is no doubt that he was exposed to Chinese renaissance architecture like his own Yenching University (1918-27) and Peking Union Medical College (1916-18). 

The architectural education he received in the US in the late 1930s presumably deepened his understanding of Chinese renaissance style since its concept originated there with Henry K. Murphy and prevailed among Chinese architectural students in the US. 

When Chien returned from the US and taught in Guangzhou in the late 1930s, there were more works of adaptive Chinese style such as the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Auditorium (1928-31), Guangzhou City Hall (1931), and Sun Yat-sen (Zhongshan) University (1930-35). 

When Chien moved to Hong Kong in the late 1940s, Chinese renaissance architecture was also visible there. By the 1930s, several churches in Hong Kong had adopted this style such as South China Regional Seminary (today’s Holy Spirit Seminary, 1931) and St. Mary’s Anglican Church in Causeway Bay (1937). 

Other architects like Su Gin Djih (其쓴殮), who also studied at the University of Michigan from the late 1920s to 1930 and moved from Shanghai to Hong Kong in 1949, promoted Chinese renaissance architecture throughout the 1930s to 1950s in China and Hong Kong. 

Chien was deeply in the midst of the Chinese renaissance architectural movement in China, the US and Hong Kong from the 1930s to 1950s. It could explain his motivation to develop the design of St. Francis of Assisi Church and School in Chinese style.

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In the 1950s, after the Communists took over the regime in the mainland, Chinese renaissance architecture was still explored by scholars like Liang Sicheng (졺鋼냥). Yet, it was not the case in Hong Kong. 

Chien didn’t use Chinese renaissance style for his projects after St. Francis of Assisi. Presumably a large number of projects and the Church’s shortage of funding prevented the building of more church buildings in Chinese design, which had a significantly higher cost. 

Apart from financial constraints, political and social contexts of post-war Hong Kong possibly no longer favoured Chinese nationalistic concept and design.

The only exception was Chien’s last project, the east wing of Holy Spirit Seminary. He seemingly adopted the Chinese style because the existing main building (1931) and the chapel (1956) were both in that style. Yet this east wing has less elaboration in design compared with St. Francis of Assisi. 

It must have been related to closure of Chien’s firm in 1965 to emigrate to the US. Many of his projects in the mid-1960s were thus taken over by other architects.

St. Francis of Assisi Church and School was the product of the architectural movement which developed globally in China, Hong Kong, and the US. For Chien, who was born in China, educated in pre-war China, and deeply exposed to Chinese renaissance architecture, there must have been no question about designing a building in Chinese style. 

However, it became the last of its kind and no other architects did anything similar in the 1950s. It is understandable as Hong Kong was rapidly growing distant from China in the 1950s. 

I wonder what was in Chien’s mind after 1956. His designs became modern and functional in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Did he bury his passion for Chinese style deep in his heart? Or was he simply more interested in modernism? I hope to find answers to these questions in the future.

lumin

Ayako Fukushima, Ph.D
assistant professor, Kyushu University

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