A Landmark in the Act of Disappearing – The Guardian of Sik On Street
Alice Choi Wing Sze
My memories of life on Sik On Street are always connected to the old banyan tree, the stray cats, and the friendly neighbours.
The unique landscape of the street is the result of its geographic location. Sik On Street is a staired alley inaccessible to vehicle traffic. As such, it tends to escape the notice of taxi drivers and even many people who have been living in Wanchai for years. To find it, you first arrive at the junction of Queen’s Road East and Sik On Street, and then walk down an alley until you reach a big banyan tree which stands at the bottom of a long staircase. It is a tranquil place, starkly contrasting with he bustle of the main road behind you.
For decades, Sik On Street’s landmark banyan tree endured to give us shade and shelter from the rain. Occasionally one of its branches would be chopped off after wandering too far onto a balcony or against a window of a nearby flat. The tree would bear the pain in silence, standing like a monument, protecting the serenity of the community.
Sik On Street was once a haven for stray cats. During the eight years I lived there, my neighbours and I had collaboratively fed five of the animals. Mr Choi and his family, who lived upstairs, always kept a packet of dry food handy in his letterbox for feeding the cats at any time.
Everywhere and everyone on the street was the cats’ territory. When they were hungry, they would come to my studio for food. Afterwards, they would stretch out and bask in the sunshine or take a catnap on the grass. If they were in good mood that day, they would greet you with a warm welcome. One of the cats was particularly fond of a retired gentleman living next door who always put on his best outfits when he went out. Although he never fed the cat, the little one enjoyed his company. I could not forget the faint smile on the old gent’s face as we talked about the cat after it had returned to nature.
We moved into Sik On Street after the outbreak of SARS 10 years ago. In those days, urban redevelopment in Hong Kong was still in its infancy. Sik On Street was a shabby little street – a few old buildings opposite to a piece of abandoned land which still bore traces of an old squatter settlement that had been demolished years before. The street only had four shops: a curtain workshop at number 16, two printing workshops at numbers 14 and 12, and at number 10, Arthome, the studio run by my husband and me. This modest landscape changed over time as our neighbours moved out one by one. No-one is immune to fate, and it was finally our turn in September 2012.
On 18 September 2013, Lot 9049 of Sik On Street (the former squatters’ settlement) with an area of 2,239 square-feet (or approximately 11,194 square-feet of construction floor area) was sold for $139.9 million to Sino Land – an average of $12,498 per square-foot. Even this quiet, barely noticed little street won’t escape urban redevelopment. Recently there have been noises that the developer is considering keeping the old banyan tree. Could this tree continue its mission as the guardian of Sik On Street, or like the stray cats, will it simply disappear silently as the city develops? Everything becomes nostalgic and could only exist in the good old days.