Hong Kong’s Holey Skyline: Spirit Dragons or Aesthetics At Work?

Allow me to introduce you to Hong Kong’s magnificent skyline:

Hong Kong’s skyline. Image by bady qb on Unsplash.

Ah, the architectural prowess. The beauty of the fragrant harbour. Here’s a view of the skyline on the southwest side:

Bel-Air Residence, Hong Kong. Image via CNN.

Wait a minute, do those buildings have holes?

The Repulse Bay, Hong Kong. Image via CNN.

More holes?

Kowloon, Hong Kong. Image by Banter Snaps on Unsplash.

SO MANY HOLES?

Growing up in Hong Kong, I always noticed, but never questioned, the presence of holes in our skyscrapers. It wasn’t until I moved to Toronto for university that I noticed Toronto’s skyscrapers don’t have holes.

At first, I attributed this difference to mere architectural preference. Maybe Hong Kong was just ~fancy~ and wanted holes in their buildings for the ~aesthetic~. Or maybe, it was a way to cope with the raging typhoons that Hong Kong experiences every summer. Whatever it was, I brushed it off. They’re just holes. No biggie.

Recently, Vox published a video about these holes peppering the Hong Kong skyline as part of their Borders: Hong Kong video series.

Vox – How feng shui shaped Hong Kong’s skyline

Apparently, the holes aren’t just for decoration, and they’re not for typhoon preparation either. They, along with other architectural choices, supposedly exist because of feng shui.

So, what’s feng shui again?

Feng shui is an ancient Chinese theory about the relationship between people and their environments. The theory is built on a core belief that energy flows continuously between people and their physical surroundings. Feng shui (風水) literally translates to “wind-water”. The practice is indicative of a balance between these two elements: the wind’s energy and the water’s calmness combine to create harmony.

Feng shui principles are often applied to interior and exterior arrangements, designs, and architecture. Arranging furniture according to feng shui principles is said to maximize the flow of qi (氣) — positive energy. Qualities like shape, colour, and balance of objects affect the circulation of qi — for example, curved lines and bright colours encourage qi‘s flow, while harsh edges and dark colours block or disrupt it, resulting in sha qi (殺氣) — killing energy.

Maximizing the flow of qi is supposed to bring success, health, wellbeing, and happiness. Does it actually work? Well, that’s for you to decide. Some people swear by it; others laugh at the idea.

Back to the holes…

Vox (and many other news sites) posits that the holes in Hong Kong’s skyscrapers are known as “dragon gates”. They allow dragons (not real ones — think spirit dragons that carry qi with them) to fly from the mountains to the ocean and back again. Blocking the dragons means blocking positive energy, and Hong Kongers definitely don’t want that. Naturally, the buildings that feature these “dragon gates” are often located near the water (since that’s where the spirit dragons are trying to go).

Sounds cute and all, right? Unfortunately, we might be wrong about “dragon gates” altogether.

Fact or fallacy?

Raymond Lo, vice president of the International Feng Shui Association, completely dismisses the idea of “dragon gates”:

“This is nothing to do with feng shui. Those holes in the buildings are just gimmicks. When we are talking about dragons in feng shui, the dragon is the energy of the land. The energy of the land passes through the mountains, it passes through from underground – it doesn’t pass through any holes. A lot of people don’t actually understand feng shui and they just make up stories.”

Raymond Lo via The Guardian

Harsh.

Ann Tsang, a creative director, and Martyn Sawyer, group director of properties for The Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels Group, second Lo’s claims. According to them, the design of The Repulse Bay (pictured below) was chosen purely for aesthetic purposes.

The Repulse Bay, Hong Kong. Image from The Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels Group.

The Repulse Bay’s architecture shocked a lot of Hong Kongers — no one had seen a massive, deliberately-placed hole in a building before. From this shock emerged the “dragon gate” theory. Tsang suggests that the thought process looked something like this:

“It was like: ‘We’ve lost a colonial building, but look at this, it’s super contemporary — and by the way, it’s got this kind of mysterious, mythical aspect to it.'”

Ann Tsang via CNN

Another reason to create holes in buildings was to bypass the “wall-effect”. In order to maximize living space, minimize land occupation, and increase profit margins, developers built “wall-effect” properties that squeezed as many units possible into a small plot of land — hence the tightly packed skyscrapers crowding Hong Kong’s landscape.

Tin Fu Court, Hong Kong. Image from Wikimedia.

The increasing prevalence of “wall-effect” properties in the 1980s led to a surge of complaints. People in surrounding buildings criticized these buildings for blocking views and ventilation. The solution to these complaints came in the form of holes in buildings. According to architect Michael Chiang, governments will now ask developers to leave gaps between structures. But what happens in a lack of space?

“In the end, you come to a compromise and create a gap in the middle. You say: ‘I have opened up a hole, you have ventilation, there is still a view.’ That’s how you get around it.”

Michael Chiang via CNN

Other motivations to put holes in buildings come from aesthetic appeal and specific design intentions. Take, for example, the Central Government Complex in Admiralty. Rocco Yim, designer of the complex, uses open space to create “the visual metaphor of an open door”.

Central Government Complex, Hong Kong. Image from Wikimedia.

Raymond Lo (Feng Shui expert) even considers this design to have bad feng shui. The hollow middle represents a mouth, which indicates a lot of gossip that may lead to arguments. Lo considers this a “disaster design“.

So, there you have it. Holes in buildings likely have little to no relation to feng shui. I guess I was right about the idea that Hong Kong put holes in skyscrapers for the aesthetic appeal. Life lesson: don’t trust everything you see on the Internet.

But wait, there’s more!

If you were disappointed by the fact that spirit dragons don’t really fly through holes in buildings, here are a few specimens of Hong Kong architecture that have were designed to align with feng shui principles (and one that just happens to have good feng shui):

1. The HSBC Building

HSBC Building, Hong Kong. Image from Wikimedia.

See those cannon-like structures on the roof of the HSBC building? Those are said to defend against the bad feng shui of the Bank of China Tower (pictured below), which is located just beside the HSBC building.

Bank of China Tower, Hong Kong. Image from ArchDaily.

According to feng shui, the Bank of China Tower’s sharp angles create sha qi (killing energy). Apparently, in 1989 — just months after the completion of the Bank of China Tower — HSBC’s share price dropped to an all-time low. HSBC supposedly installed the two cannon-shaped service winches on the roof of the building in order to combat the incoming sha qi from the Bank of China Tower. After that, HSBC’s performance improved.

Other notable examples of feng shui used in the HSBC building include its hollow atrium and the bronze lion statues located on the first floor. The atrium allows wind to pass through and collects qi, while the lion statues bring prosperity and harmony.

2. The Cheung Kong Centre

Cheung Kong Centre, Hong Kong. Image by Baycrest – Wikipedia user – CC-BY-SA-2.5 via Wikimedia.

The Cheung Kong Centre is located right between the Bank of China Tower (which, as previously mentioned, is known for its bad feng shui) and the HSBC building. Designers of the Cheung Kong Centre carefully considered feng shui principles to protect against negative sha qi. They settled on a square shape, reflective glass exterior panelling, and very specific orientation to promote a smooth flow of qi around the building. The designers even limited the building’s height, in order to encourage harmony with the environment.

3. Jardine House

Jardine House (left), Hong Kong. Image by katie manning on Unsplash.

While Jardine House wasn’t designed with feng shui principles in mind, some aspects of the architecture still align with good feng shui. Jardine House’s iconic facade is covered with circular reflective windows. Said to resemble portholes, the circular windows reference the Jardine family’s maritime trading business. Aside from this reference, feng shui principles link round shapes to both coins and the sun — associated with wealth and heaven.


What are your thoughts on feng shui? What are the skylines of your city influenced by? Let me know in the comments!

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One thought on “Hong Kong’s Holey Skyline: Spirit Dragons or Aesthetics At Work?

  1. Hey Odette! I loved this blog post. I attended high school in Hong Kong and around these buildings, and now I have a new appreciation for their design and architecture. I loved the way you walked us through the assumptions and myths in the way that you might have learnt about it (with a few twists and turns.) The way you explain Chinese culture as well, is super approachable (for someone like me who is familiar with Hong Kong but not necessarily Chinese.)

    Liked by 1 person

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