Jun 28, 2017

Hong Kong’s Iconic Castles

Sadly, many of Hong Kong's most iconic old buildings are now long gone, to be replaced by steel and glass monstrosities. Amongst the most famous of these are the three castles built in the 1930’s by the eccentric tycoon Eu Tong Sen who made his early fortune in rubber and tin in what was then Malaya.

Eu Tong Sen

Eu Tong Sen

Eu's father was a Chinese who emigrated to Malaya from Foshan, near Guangzhou where he acquired monopolies from the British authorities for tax and revenue farming. In the early 1880s the tin trade began booming and he bought up land for mining purposes. He then branched out into manufacturing and dispensing Chinese herbal medicines as a strong substitute for opium as a cure for aches and pains.

Eu, himself, was born in 1877 and became heir to his father’s estates at the tender age of 13. He opted to continued his schooling and after graduating took over the business from his father’s attorney and partner, Grant Mackie, aged just 21. By 30, he'd become one of the richest men in the region and had expanded the business many times over. 

As the tin industry started to decline, he moved into farming rubber and the remittance business assisting his Chinese employees to send their earnings home, in much the same way as Filipinas in Hong Kong use Western Union today. In 1920, he created the Lee Wah Bank with operations in Guangdong, Malaya and Singapore catering specifically to the local Cantonese communities.

He moved to Hong Kong in 1928 and began to control his business empire, now spanning a large swathe of Southeast Asia, from here. This prompted his building quest. Rumours abound that a fortune-teller once warned that he would die unless he kept on building. This probably had more to do with the practicalities of housing Eu’s five wives, 34 official children and countless concubines than any consideration for his health. Ironically, he passed away at just 63 from a massive heart attack in 1941. 

He ended up building three stunning castles in different parts of Hong Kong. Best known was Eucliffe at the western end of Repulse Bay, close to the Kadoorie's Repulse Bay Hotel. Another, Euston, was on Bonham Road commanding a glorious view of Hong Kong harbour and Kowloon, and finally there was Sirmio near Tai Po – his New Territories’ getaway.

Eucliffe situated at the western end of Repulse Bay

Eucliffe, probably the most notable, was the scene of many splendid social extravaganzas in the 1930s. Its sheer opulence attracted Hong Kong’s elite of the day and its was well-known for exceptional hospitality and scrumptious food. It boasted a stunning collection of western armour and stained glass windows, along with lush gardens, swimming pools and tennis courts. Sadly, with the fall of Hong Kong in late 1941 the Japanese tortured and killed some 54 prisoners in the gardens at Eucliffe and tossed them over the cliffs. With this it became the most ill-omened property in Hong Kong and was shunned as a place of death and misery. It became relegated to serving as a movie and television set for much of the rest of its life.

Euston, where Euston Court now stands, on Bonham Road

Euston, like Eucliffe, was a very imposing structure also built in a style that paid homage to English castles of the 14th century. Also like Eucliffe, it was a repository of collected antiques from Eu’s many overseas travels.

Sirmio, nestled in the hills over-looking the Tolo Harbour, resembled a fairy-tale German schloss and was named after an ancient Italian village on the shores of Lake Garda – a place that Eu must have once visited on his travels. It was the least written about of all the residences.

The German schloss-like Sirmio in Tai Po

Eu had wanted to leave sufficient assets in his legacy to ward off family discord amongst his many descendants. Lamentably, this was not the case and after his death law suits began to fly – the last of these was finally settled in late 1996. By the end of the 1970s, all these glorious edifices had been sold off and, sadly, demolished during the 1980s.

Eucliffe is now a very high-end residential development with phenomenal views over Repulse Bay while Euston is the site of Euston Court. No one quite knows what has happened to the area where Sirmio once stood. A very interesting part of Hong Kong’s colourful heritage and the legacy of this enigmatic tycoon have unfortunately passed into the history books – what little was eventually recorded about them. So sad!

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