Former site of M.W Lo’s Tai Tam Mansion
This blog isn’t just about the stuff you can visit today, every now and again I find a snippet of information that relates to the history of a place. Apologies for these sudden bouts of nostalgia but I can’t help myself. It’s often the case in HK that the most innocuous looking building has some amazingly rich history, or if not the building, then at least the location. More so the latter because innocuous looking buildings are usually knocked down to be replaced by less innocuous looking ones with a higher rental yield *sighs*. One such place is the American Club in Tai Tam Bay.
Since I have been researching the Bruce Lee locations (apologies if this stuff is getting boring), I’ve manage to delve into HK’s more recent past (in this case from the 1950′s to the 1970′s – missing out the majority of the 60′s) and found some interesting stuff. One of the better things I have done is visit the Lands Department mapping office HQ in Quarry Bay, and had a browse through some of their aerial photos from various dates. Basically, once every few years and aerial survey is done of the territory and the photos, which I assume are used for cartographic purposes, are stored at HQ and available for purchase/perusal.
The American Club has interested me for a while because I was told it was where the main filming took place for “Enter the Dragon”. It wasn’t until the US/Canadian documentary crew came over to do some filming that it was necessary to really nail the spots used. The outcome was quite surprising but still interesting anyway even if you’re not a fan. Actually, films such as this are a great way to see how HK used to look.
Anyway, back to the American Club. Some background. This rather exclusive members only club has a long history in HK dating back to at Ruttell House on Duddell St, before moving to Alexandra House (the previous incarnation) in 1936 and eventually to the HSBC HQ. As membership grew over the years, it was agreed that some outdoor recreational facilities were in order and potential ‘out of town’ sites were looked into before the current site in Tai Tam bay was secured in 1982. Construction completed a couple of years later and since 1984 the club is the only member-owned to have two sites in HK. The other one, the town club that is, is located at Exchange Square Two in Central.
But what about this Tai Tam site, what was there before the Club moved in? Well, this part of Tai Tam was (and still is) a very exclusive part of the Island and has some very expensive and large properties. The land where the American Club now sits was occupied by several large mansions and their extensive grounds, owned by some of the more influential (read: wealthy) members of HK society, including Stanley Ho and M.W. Lo.
Stanley Ho shouldn’t need any introduction – he is world famous for owning the casino monopoly in Macau for many years, he also has interests in the Macau ferries, owns Jumbo Kingdom in Aberdeen as well as a multitude of other *ahem* businesses. Actually, there is an interesting connection between Bruce Lee and Stanley Ho. They share the same great-grandfather. Stanley Ho’s grandfather was the brother of Bruce’s grandfather, so they are distant cousins. Anyway, this isn’t about Stanley Ho, this is about the other property on the site owned by M.W.Lo whose tennis courts you can see on Enter the Dragon.
M.W.Lo ( Lo Man Wai was his actual name but his buddies just called him MW) was a locally renowned attorney with the family law firm Lo & Lo – set up by his elder brother, M.K, in 1925.
When MW wasn’t practicing law he was practising his backhand and was quite a dab hand it seems – winning several local tennis tournaments and even competing with MK and their sister in doubles competitions. In fact he is one of the enshrinees at the Hong Kong Tennis Association Hall of Fame.
It seems as though the Lo’s were property speculators as well (hey, this is Hong Kong – EVERYONE is a property speculator!) and as well as owning some truly magnificent townhouses on Robinson Road, MW also owned the palatial “Palm Villa” nestled on the foothills leading down to Tai Tam bay by the Red Hill Peninsula. The location was idyllic – reached by what was (and sometimes still feels like) a small coastal road, Tai Tam Road. The grounds of the estate were extensive and made full use of the gentle slope from the house that ended at the stony beach and peacock blue waters of the bay below. The grounds were large enough to support three full size tennis courts as well as a private garden or two. The rumour is that he had a court built for each of his children. Whether or not it’s true he certainly had his fair share and its no surprise that he was a a successful player.
FLICKR user Aetse has a fantastic collection of photos of old mansions from around HK, and he also has a picture of Palm Villa just prior to its demolition (as well as pictures of the Lo mansions on Robinson Road and Palm Villa’s neighbour – Ho Lodge).
So how did the estate end up being used for Enter the Dragon? Well, first off MW was a friend with Bruce’s father – Lee Hoi Chuen – and so there is already a family link (very important in Chinese culture). Lee Hoi Chuen was a famous actor and well-respected opera player and was well-known in HK. The rumour is that Bruce was visiting MW one day (although his father had long since passed away) and mentioned locations needed for his upcoming film. MW immediately offered the use of his estate to the film company for Bruce and as such entered into film legend. Whether this hearsay is true or not remains to be seen, but it’s interesting to note that MW’s brother (the aforementioned MK) was also the son in law to Robert Ho Tung. Remember that Ho Tung was one of the founding fathers of modern HK and was Eurasian to boot. He was also the brother of Bruce’s and Stanley Ho’s grandfathers. So another slight family connection there. It was this part of Bruce Lee’s Eurasian heritage, from his mother’s side, that caused a lot of trouble between him and his fellow Yip Man Wing Chun students.
It’s interesting to note that Lo & Lo were the original executors of Bruce’s estate upon his death.
Anyway, BL fans will be very familiar with MW Lo’s tennis courts – particularly the central one where all the main film fight scenes were filmed (including the legendary fight with Bob Wall), as well as the stone jetty on the beach used by the film as the disembarkation point from their junk.
So, what is left of this place? Well, Palm Villa and neighbouring Ho Lodge both stood where the American Club now sits. The famous tennis courts have made way for the neighbouring apartment complex called “Pacific View”. So, actually, there is very little left except for a tiny sliver of land that used to be MW’s private garden next to the mansion (I’ve marked it on the picture below). It looks like the American Club currently uses this space for some smaller courts – perhaps tennis? Maybe a member who reads this can confirm. Unfortunately, this particular area was never used in the film, so we have no record of what it used to look like.
Bruce Lee fans need not despair too much because the beach at the bottom of the hill is unchanged, as is the stone jetty seen on film when the fighters disembark from their junk to enter Han’s Island. Actually, this place by the beach is EXACTLY as it was in 1973.
On an aside, Pillbox 29 is also situated right here too, next to the stone jetty. So war buffs also have something to wander down and have a look.
Anyway, see the pic below for some context. Including some ETD screen shots. I’ve doubled it up so you can see it without the text. The area marked Garden is immediately adjacent to Palm Villa and is the only piece of land that has escaped total redevelopment. Ho Lodge is to the left of Palm Villa (in reality this would have been south).
This “Enter” shot shows the middle (bottom left) and upper courts (top left) at Palm Villa. The area on the right was a garden containing what looks like a fountain. All the main fights occurred on the middle tennis court (look closely and you can see the lines marking out the court).