"Public Baths Are The One Salvation:" The Second Street Bathhouse
Updated: Mar 18
For many of us, the outbreak of COVID-19 has transformed the way we think and feel about our sanitary habits. Masks have become so much a part of everyday life in Hong Kong that I often forget to take mine off upon arriving home. Constantly washing one's hands and packing a trusted bottle of hand sanitizer are now simple parts of everyday life. The global pandemic has forced us to adjust our daily habits as a form of survival. As unusual as this feeling is, it is not the first (and probably not the last) time that the Hong Kong population has had to overcome different measures of adaptation.
In 1894, the outbreak of the Bubonic plague sent shockwaves through Hong Kong and indeed the world. The Colonial government scrambled as hospitals rapidly filled and the death toll grew. The epicenter of the epidemic, Tai Ping Shan (now wedged between Sai Ying Pun and Sheung Wan), was a dense and overcrowded slum. One of the main urban Chinese Settlements in the City of Victoria (under the colonial system of racial segregation), the tenement area predominately housed working-class Chinese families. As British soldiers stormed the tenements' long, grimy, and dimly lit corridors to disperse crowds and relocate them to safer and cleaner areas, the Government sought plans to improve sanitary conditions for the surrounding areas.
The series of photos depict the Whitewash Brigade disinfecting, and in some cases, destroying plague-ridden homes. Dead bodies were, of course, immediately removed. Chinese traditions surrounding burials were continually violated in a frenzied hurry to remove bodies. (Such rituals involve an intact body and the provision of a coffin, believed to ensure good fortune in the next life). Many attempted to shield their deaths from inspectors, fearing that their deceased relatives would not receive a traditional burial. In one case, soldiers found a plague victim propped up against a table, staged to look as if he was playing a game of Mahjong.
There is no denying that Hong Kong was a strongly disease-ridden place. Shortly before the plague outbreak, Osbert Chadwick, a British practical engineer, was appointed by the Colonial Office to review the sanitary conditions and the efficiency of the city's sewage and drainage systems. Chadwick listed his findings in a thorough study, widely known as "The Chadwick Report of 1882." The report exposed the appalling living conditions of Chinese tenements and (unfairly) labeled them as a sanitary nuisance. Additionally, it identified several damaging issues with the design and engineering of the city's sewage - describing the "pail system" as "offensive." Chadwick found that the population of urban Hong Kong, totaling around 106,000, occupied 6,402 houses. That amounts to 16.6 persons per house.
Additionally, live pigs and chickens often roamed freely and slept in these cramped living quarters. After investigating the Tai Ping Shan area, it became clear to Chadwick that these tenements were not anomalies. In hindsight, we can speculate that it was only a matter of time until a plague of such magnitude ensued.
Something needed to change, and fast. In his report, Chadwick concludes:
"Public latrines are the most valuable means of sanitation. They should be acquired by Government, improved, their number increase, and they should be thrown open to the public gratis, in towns having narrow streets, complete scavenging is of the highest importance."
Although Chadwicks detailed notes were taken seriously and were the crux to transforming Hong Kong's drainage and plumbing infrastructure, it would be another 22 years until the first public bathhouse opened in Hong Kong. Established in 1904 on Pound Lane, it served enough space for 28 men and 10 women.
Public bathhouses were a new phenomenon in global terms; New York did not open its first public toilet until 1901. Hong Kong followed the Chinese practice called the "pail system," whereby human excrete (referred to as night soil) was removed by hand. In European houses, water closets were directly connected to town drains. At the turn of the century, around 25 public latrines were available to the native population and owned by private persons. Oddly enough, while the Government supervised their construction and management, the latrine owner derived profits from the sale of the manure collected and from fees (including paper and cigarettes) by those who used them. Chadwick described the existing bathrooms as "offensive and a nuisance." The night soil was removed daily in covered junks and transported to Lap Sap Wan.
Throughout the early 1900s and into the '20s, the concept of bathhouses became increasingly popular. What followed was significant pressure from newspapers and the public to establish more bathhouses around the City of Victoria and elsewhere. One newspaper wrote that Hong Kong was at a "crossroads:"
"There is only one course open if citizens hope to safeguard themselves and their children against so many of the vile, if not fatal, diseases which lurk about on our streets. Public baths are the one salvation."
Although the sanitary benefits made public bathhouses extremely desirable, especially from a government perspective, Chinese populations welcomed the bathhouses from a holistic and practical view. Residents particularly pleaded that the bathhouses provide separate sections for men and women, digressing that a "lack of bathroom facilities in…tenement houses…[was] causing considerable inconvenience." One report detailed that the kitchen was the only place to bathe in most tenement houses. Others complained that "when [men] return from workshops, factories and dockyards they cannot bathe themselves at their dwellings as the kitchens are...fully occupied by housewives." Interestingly, Chadwick had written something similar in his report in 1882, stating: "public bathhouses are much wanted for the use of the Chinese laborers. It is the custom of these people to sponge themselves over with warm water daily after their work is done. Elaborate baths are not required only places where hot water can be obtained." As the photo below depicts, we can be sure that they were indeed not "elaborate."
From a sanitary perspective, one newspaper suggested the introduction of specific incentives for individuals to use the baths. "These baths could be set up, and each coolie that uses them could, as a special inducement, be given some reward such as a ticket entitling him to a free bowl of rice." The article also suggests, perhaps ironically, introducing a ticket system to prevent men or women from taking baths all day long. However, quite rightly, the report highlights, "this is not much, but it is surely an improvement compared to a lifetime in which the only time a soaking is enjoyed is when the victim is unexpectedly caught in a rainstorm."
Perhaps what is striking and undoubtedly reflective of 19th-century societal expectations are the suggestions of managing the public bath. Chadwick himself suggested:
"[In order to] introduce habits of cleanliness to detect and remedy evils, an organized, sanitary staff is required, operating under the personal direction of a responsible European officer. That either the Colonial Surgeon or the Surveyor General should be required to exercise the necessary personal supervision is incompatible with their other duties."
In the same way, one newspaper suggested that - perhaps as one would treat an animal - the employment of a Chinese or European physician to watch as individuals enter the bath for those potentially carrying contagious diseases; "they could be picked out and treated." As one can probably derive from the above text, the story of the introduction of public baths brings to light the racism and biases of the Colonial government at the time. A 1933 article writes:
"It is almost impossible to obtain clean streets in the slum districts of Kowloon...it would help immensely in maintaining a high standard of health if some way could be introduced to promote personal cleanliness among the coolie class."
Another article suggests that:
"The underdeveloped coolie mind will never be able to understand how such things as clean clothes, clean hands, and clean dwellings can save him from much misery."
Nearly every newspaper article concerning a need to expand the number of bathhouses in Hong Kong justified their arguments through a need to "civilize" the Chinese working class. Instead of blaming the low sanitary standards in tenements on the pitfalls of the class system, newspapers took a racial stance, holding Chinese laborers responsible. Then, the ultimate goal of the bathhouse was to "[install] into the minds of the laboring class...[the] Europeans and people of high standards of civilization...personal pride [toward the] cleanliness of the human body."
A bathhouse was recorded on Second Street as early as 1904. A 1904 Hong Kong Government Gazette report indicates that hot water tanks and bathhouses were established on Second Street for the "purpose of promoting cleanliness among the poorer Chinese and thus mitigating or preventing the spread of Plague among them." The bathhouse was extended in 1922, and due to its popularity (frequented by approximately 30,000 residents in the first month), it was rebuilt to its current structure, opening in 1925. The baths proved so popular that in 1929 alone, the four existing public bathhouses, Second street, Sai Ying Pun Pound Lane, Tai Ping Shan, Cross Lane Wanchai, and Pakhoi Street, Yaumati, were frequented by 1,144,277 people.
The building itself is fascinating. Towered over by 21st Century constructions, the structure is rather eye-catching with its bright pink exterior. The color highlights its role as a public toilet/bathhouse. Without modern ventilation techniques, as the picture on the left depicts, exterior shutters were constructed in place of windows to ensure the rapid elimination of heat and humidity. The baths are located on the second floor for the same ventilation reasons. However, perhaps the most significant indicator of the building's age is the granite stone that makes up its foundation.
Another not-so prominent feature of the 100-year building is that it once housed a coal-fired boiler. The Victorian invention involved the back-breaking task of shoveling the coal by hand into the furnace. The room is sadly not open to the public. The water was later heated with diesel fuel and is now heated with gas.
The bathhouse continues to serve the public. It is open Monday through to Sunday, 7-9:00 am and 4.30-8:30 pm.