A visit to the American Club, Tai Tam
Whoops! I accidentally hit the publish button a little too early on this entry and a half-completed version was visible for a while, so many apologies for that. All done now though, hopefully you’ll find it a bit more coherent this time.
A while back I wrote an entry about Palm Villa (now demolished and redeveloped, in part, into the American Club) in Tai Tam, ‘owned’ by M.W Lo. You may remember that the house had several adjacent tennis courts stepped down the hillside towards a small cove and this location served as the on-screen representation of Han’s Island in Bruce Lee’s Enter The Dragon.
Since that post, and because they knew my interest in the place, I received an invite to the club from a friend who is a member. Of course I jumped at the chance to take a visit, sample the lunchtime buffet and take a good old wander around the grounds to see what remnants (if anything) of the old estate still exist. The answer is: more than I thought, but not as much as I’d like
Okay, first off I should say that although I took many snaps inside the club grounds I gave my word that I wouldn’t use them on this website – these are the club rules and I have no intention of jeopardising my friend’s membership (and our friendship) by sticking them up here.
It doesn’t matter to relay the information I want to I can use what I already have, you’ll just have to take my word for it. If you are a Bruce Lee fan and you want to see inside the club grounds then just wait for the official release of John Little’s location documentary and you will see plenty of footage inside the club (for which he received permission to use, I might add). If you can’t wait then buy the unauthorised/premature French release that is already out and get your hands on additional material that may or may not be in the final release.
The reason I can’t use the snaps is because it seems that the club is not very keen on advertising its part in cinema history. They really don’t take too kindly to members of the general public – specifically Bruce Lee fans on a location pilgrimage – turning up to try and take a peek. In fact, it seems that the club isn’t really too interested about any aspect of the area’s previous history – something my friend is currently trying to rectify.
The first thing I need to rectify is that I used M.W Lo in the title of the other blog entry because he is the one associated with the property at the time the film was made in 1973. However, it seems as though it was his older brother – M.K – who was responsible for purchasing the land (in 1919?) and then building the villa circa 1929. Unfortunately, M.K passed away in 1959 and it is currently unclear how the villa’s ownership seemingly bypassed his next of kin and went into the hands of M.W. This is something that may be cleared up by some documents currently held at the Public Records Office. I’ll update as and when I find out. All I know is it was M.W who was using the tennis courts with his children and he was the man who gave Bruce Lee the nod to use the estate for the filming of Enter The Dragon.
When the estate was eventually sold to the American Club in 1982 (along with the adjoining Stanley Lodge) it was essentially carved up into three separate plots. The main plot consisted of Palm Villa and its immediate grounds (as well as Stanley Lodge) and this became the main site for the American Club. The second plot consisted of the three stepped tennis courts and an adjoining garden – this land was sold to Sun Hung Kai and developed into the Pacific View apartments. The third plot is a strip of undeveloped land between the American Club and Pacific View that has reverted to Govt ownership but is leased by the American Club on a rolling 3-month basis. The why’s and what-fors I have no idea but what I can say is that this small strip of land is earmarked for the rerouting of Tai Tam Road at some point – perhaps to straighten out the dangerous curve next to Pacific View? – but it seems as though it will never happen.
It is on this sliver of land that a public pathway has been constructed leading down to the bay at the bottom of the hill – the same bay seen on the film and the same bay where the stone jetty is. See below (taken from the American Club).
And here is the gate on Tai Tam Road, next to Pacific View, that gives you access to the beach and the jetty – and if you are a World War Two buff it also leads you down to Pillbox #29. Don’t be shy, it’s a public right of way.
It is from facing this gateway, when looking to your right, that you will see the outer wall of the American Club. I’ll explain about this wall later but will say now that it is the original wall demarcating the extent of the current club grounds and the extent of, what used to be, the villa’s private garden. In this wall there is an arched doorway (now bricked up) which used to provide access to the top-level tennis court and the rest of the grounds. You can try and walk through it today but you may break your face…
Essentially you are now standing on the land that used to be the upper tennis court, but you won’t recognise it because even this ‘undeveloped’ part of land has been extensively excavated and turned into a slope, now heavily overgrown.
Just to put that into context, here is a grab from ETD. The area I have ringed is the area that can still be seen (minus the steps) from the vantage point of the existing pathway.
Remember I said earlier that the club management weren’t too interested in remembering the area’s use as a film location? Well, it seems someone does have an interest after all because the plaque (a new edition it seems) reads:
The American Club
In 1973, scenes from the Bruce Lee epic
Enter The Dragon were shot at this location;
including some of the most famous
kungfu fights in movie history.
I sent a picture of the plaque to John Little and he confirmed the thing wasn’t there when he filmed in 2009 – so perhaps it was his recent filming that motivated the club to get this plaque put up? Who knows? But the fact remains that the plaque is inaccurate, at least the last two lines are. Here’s why.
All of the fights filmed on the estate were shot on the now obliterated tennis courts (mainly the middle one) that Pacific View now sits on top of. What I will say is that some of the night time sneaky-beaky scenes – when Lee attacks various guards as he wanders around Han’s Island – were shot at various parts of the estate, including the old private garden area I keep mentioning.
Oh well, 10/10 for effort but only a 5/10 for execution I’m afraid. Still a plaque is better than nothing, right? I guess so but the fact still remains that it’s inside the club and visible only to club members (and their guests )
Anyway – back to the small sliver of land between the two developments again. As mentioned, the steps seen on the earlier screen grab do not look as though they exist anymore. Nothing exists other than the outer wall and even that has been rebuilt a bit – I will explain why that happened in a short while. For the time being though imagine drawing a line (in the screen grab above) from the wooden shelter on that upper tennis court down to the small brick hut on the left (this hut is on the tennis court that saw most of the action in the film) and that is pretty much the line that the current path takes down to the bay. On the tennis court side of that land now stands nothing but Pacific View, on the other side is a gradually dropping overgrown slope.
On a side note, and as a fan, you may be interested to hear that the scene where Bruce jumps up into a tree to avoid being seen by another guard (okay, I know it was filmed in reverse) was filmed in a small garden that separated the upper and middle tennis courts.
He jumps up just after this shot. Here is the part of the estate used for that particular scene.
Sadly, this piece of land is also now sitting under Pacific View. It’s the area on the right in the screen shot above – look carefully and you will see the middle of that piece of garden has the tree as a central feature (it’s more obvious on the aerial shots), and far right is a tall pine tree that remained standing until the whole place was demolished 10 years later (you can also see that in the very end picture of this post).
If you are a fan and under the illusion that these tennis courts still exist, even just partially – forget it – you are fooling yourself.
Back to that original external wall again – it has very distinctive irregular brickwork and still has its original curve. I’ve marked it on the aerial picture below.
The red line shows the original outer wall to the private garden. At the top end of this wall (near to the road) is the remaining bricked-up arched doorway and the newly added commemorative plaque. At the lower end, it curves around and the garden area inside now holds two side-by-side tennis courts.
Although a large portion of the wall remains in-situ, the rebuilt bit (mentioned earlier and can be seen from the public pathway) sticks out like a sore thumb because it has been done using different brickwork.
I am going to make a stab-in-the-dark about the reason for the large rebuilt portion. I believe it is a result of the club removing some large stone steps from the other side of the wall. You can just make them out in the next aerial photo (ringed in red) but are better seen on screen grabs from the film. You can see Bruce run up these steps in one of his nightime excursions just before he dispatches his first henchman in the shadows. Check out the following shots.
I believe these steps were ripped out to make way for the clubs new tennis courts and as a result part of the wall was damaged (severely judging by the extent of the rebuild). Hence the new brick work.
Another thing to note on the aerial shot is the small round building just to south of the curved garden wall. That place used to be an outdoor toilet and it still stands today – albeit on the Govt part of the land. Here is a snap of that building – I’m allowed to show this because it is on the other side of the wall and not on the club grounds :0)
This was a shot that took some grabbing because I was precariously balanced on a chair and leaning over the curved part of the wall in order to get a proper view. The blurred green thing at the left hand side of the shot is part of the mesh fastened to the top of the wall – the angle just wasn’t wide enough to get it out of frame. Anyway, suffice to say this small round building wasn’t seen on film – actually it was, but only the roof, see the screen shots below – and let’s face it, it’s the only intact part of the old estate left. You can actually reach it by cutting through the undergrowth from the path down to the beach.
What else can we see in the background of the film? Well, just after Bruce has jumped on Bob Wall’s neck, he turns around and looks over to Han and just above his shoulder you can make out the distant roofline of a neighbouring house called “Longview”. Here is the shot I am on about.
Now, had you visited the area a year or so ago you would have still be able to see Longview – at #45 Tai Tam Road. It was originally M.W Lo’s house, and according to various people may have had the very last remaining grass tennis court in the whole of the territory. Sorry to say the house has just recently been torn down and is to be replaced by two houses – the property grounds are also significantly large, but not as large as Palm Villa was. You can also see this building in the bottom right hand corner of the B&W aerial shot above.
As far as I know the land it is on was leased by MW in 1941 – just before the Japanese invasion – but I have no idea when the house was built. When MW died in 1986 it was sold on and eventually acquired more recently by a company called National Electronics Holdings Limited. They are the people who have just ripped it down. Big shame because it was a lovely looking house.
So, all-in-all a very fruitful trip to the club. I finally got to go down to the stony beach and check out the stone jetty – although part of the concrete platform has collapsed and needs fixing. I got to see the remaining walls inside the club and finally put some context into what I have seen on screen and most of all finally got to see for myself that those famous tennis courts that have been ingrained on my mind since I was 12 are well and truly eradicated.
I’ll leave you with an obliquely angled aerial shot of the estate (and neighbours) just prior to them being torn down circa 1982.