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Serving the people for 106 years: Hong Kong’s YMCA Bridges Street Centre

Serving the people for 106 years: Hong Kong’s YMCA Bridges Street Centre
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YMCA Bridges Street Centre is a 106-year-old, red-brick edifice that stands at the end of the 300-metre-long thoroughfare in Sheung Wan on Hong Kong Island that gave the building its name.

While few buildings in Hong Kong can lay claim to that lifespan, fewer still have continuously served the same purpose for that amount of time.

The Bridges Street Centre is special in that sense. For as long as it has been standing, it has provided space for Hong Kong’s social development and welfare.

The building was erected in 1918 as the first headquarters of the YMCA’s Hong Kong chapter, nearly 17 years after the local arm of the worldwide youth organisation was founded. The reason for the delay is difficult to imagine today: the city could not muster the funds.

The then Chinese YMCA headquarters in Bridges Street in the 1940s. Photo: Chinese YMCA

The Bridges Street Centre was the Chinese YMCA headquarters in Hong Kong until the 1960s, when the headquarters moved to Kowloon. Photo: Jonathan Wong

Two YMCA members in Chicago generously donated 75 per cent of the cost. The rest was financed by 185 prominent Chinese businesspeople in Hong Kong.

They were among the earliest wave of local Chinese that had made it in colonial Hong Kong, such as Kwok Lok, the co-founder of Wing On, the second Chinese-owned department store in Hong Kong, and Wu Ting-fang, the first Chinese member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council.

A basketball game in the YMCA Bridges Street Centre’s gym draws a crowd. Photo: Chinese YMCA

The YMCA basketball teams pose for a group photograph in the gymnasium. Photo: Chinese YMCA

Keep in mind that this was at a time of unapologetic colonial racial segregation, when laws such as the Peak District Reservation Ordinance, which largely disallowed Chinese locals from residing in the Victoria Peak area, were still in force.

The stone plaque upon which all 185 names of the Chinese donors are carved is still displayed on the ground floor of the Bridges Street Centre.

The lives that have been touched here have changed over the years.

In the beginning, the building provided cutting-edge facilities – such as the city’s first indoor swimming pool, a wok-shaped elevated running track, a gymnasium and an assembly hall – that met the local population’s educational and recreational needs.

And Hongkongers were enthusiastic users of the sports facilities. Records show that in the first 70 days, 1,557 used the fitness room, 730 the swimming pool and 1,557 the shower facilities.

The first indoor swimming pool in Hong Kong was at the YMCA Bridges Street Centre. Photo: Chinese YMCA

People did not just get physically stronger there, though. Many gathered here to exchange progressive ideals that reflected the zeitgeist of the time.

The ground-floor assembly hall in particular played an important role as one of the city’s first large-scale gathering spaces.

In 1922, a group of people held the first annual meeting to discuss ways to rid the city of the inhuman custom of mui tsai, which saw young girls from poor families sold off as servants.

In 1927, more than 600 people attended Chinese writer Lu Xun’s speeches to learn about the New Culture Movement that advocated modernising the turbulent Republic of China.

The upper floors were dormitories that provided affordable accommodation to young people who came to Hong Kong to study or work.

Over time, the YMCA grew and in the 1960s, the organisation relocated its headquarters to a new building in Yau Ma Tei, in Kowloon. The Bridges Street Centre’s once cutting-edge facilities were no longer a rarity in the affluent city.

In 1995, the building started to serve another pivotal function, however, when part of it was converted into a hostel for intellectually disabled members of society.

A shot of the centre’s wok-shaped elevated running track. Photo: Jonathan Wong

The assembly hall at the Bridges Street Centre. Photo: Jonathan Wong

The passage of a century has left various traces. The worn-out tiles on the staircases have lost their once-vibrant colours.

Each stair is uniquely dented by the accumulated footprints of countless individuals who have climbed up and down the structure’s six storeys.

Today, part of the building is still used for public recreation services.

In 1995, the government converted part of the YMCA Bridges Street Centre into a hostel for intellectually disabled members of society. Photo: Jonathan Wong

The centre has dormitories for hostel residents. Photo: Jonathan Wong

Inside a dormitory at the YMCA Bridges Street Centre. Photo: Jonathan Wong

The centre’s dormitories continue to provide safe shelter for the hostel residents, while the assembly hall and sports stadium are workplaces that give them a sense of belonging and a means to contribute to society.

And with youngsters still learning to swim in the pool, it would seem the Bridges Street Centre is ready to serve the next generation of Hongkongers.

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