Tong lau

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Tong lau
A structural drawing of a tong lau showing the stereotypical overhang over the lane in front. illustrated by O. Chadwick, 1882.
Traditional Chinese 唐樓
Ke lau
Traditional Chinese 騎樓
Nos. 600-626 Shanghai Street, in Mong Kok, Hong Kong HK ShanghaiStreet CantoneseVerandahTypePrewarShophouses.JPG
Nos. 600-626 Shanghai Street, in Mong Kok, Hong Kong

The term tong lau or ke lau is used to describe tenement buildings built in late 19th century to the 1960s in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Southern China, and Southeast Asia. Designed for both residential and commercial uses, they are similar in style and function to the shophouses with five-foot way (Min Nan Chinese : têng-á-kha) of Southeast Asia. Over the years, tong lau construction has seen influences of Edwardian style architecture and later the Bauhaus movement.



Tong lau (Cantonese) or tang lou (Mandarin) means "Chinese building" – Tong or Tang () refers to the Tang dynasty and is used as a term to mean Chinese, and lau () is a building with more than one floor. It is a general term for a type of building found in Hong Kong that also developed in Macau and Guangzhou (Canton) from traditional Southern Chinese townhouses.


Early 20th century Tong Laus on Dixi Road in Chikan, Kaiping European Style Street.jpg
Early 20th century Tong Laus on Dixi Road in Chikan, Kaiping

The early buildings were generally long and narrow with width of between 12 and 15 feet determined by the length of the wooden beams. [1] In Hong Kong's building regulations, it refers a building with any living space intended for more than one tenant. [2] It is essentially a tenement building for residential and commercial use. The ground floor is reserved for commercial use, mostly by small businesses like retail shops and food vendors. The upper floors were residential use and catered to Chinese residents of Hong Kong. Most early tong lau were 2-4 stories tall due to building regulations that initially limited the height of building to 1.25 times the width of the street with a maximum height of 35 feet. However, due to the influx of migrants from mainland China to Hong Kong in the 1950s, height control of buildings was relaxed in 1955, and some tong laus that were built after that may have 9 or more floors, and built without lifts. [3] The heyday of tong lau ended in the 1960s when population pressure resulted in many tong laus being demolished to make way for high-rise buildings and changes in building ordinance that allow for such high-rise buildings. [4]

Ke lau or qilou (Chinese : 騎樓 . meaning "riding building"), is a form of tong lau with an arcade running alongside the road for pedestrian use. The term was originally "qilou with feet" (Chinese :有腳騎樓; pinyin :youjiao qilou), which was first used in Guangzhou's building regulations in 1912, and referred to the columns forming the colonnade that supported the projecting floors that "ride" above. The qilou buildings developed in Guangzhou were influenced by local traditions and the shophouses with five-foot ways of Singapore, which were first built following the instructions of Stamford Raffles given in his town plan soon after the founding of the colony in the early 19th century. Qilous were built in Southern China (Guangdong, Guangxi and Fujian) starting in the early 20th century. Most of the qilous in Guangzhou were built in the 1930s until the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war, and few were built after that period. [5]


Early tong lau

19th century tong lau in Tai Ping Shan in Hong Kong. The terraced buildings used by the Chinese in the foreground are distinct from the larger buildings used by Europeans higher up in the background. Album of Hongkong Canton Macao Amoy Foochow 010.jpg
19th century tong lau in Tai Ping Shan in Hong Kong. The terraced buildings used by the Chinese in the foreground are distinct from the larger buildings used by Europeans higher up in the background.

Early Hong Kongese tong lau mainly consisted of two- or three-story structures built back-to-back in areas such as Tai Ping Shan. 19th century tong lau synthesized Chinese and European architectural features. While the Chinese component was based on building design from southern China, mainly that of Guangdong Province; European influences were usually Neoclassical. The tong lau roof used wood and/or Xieding tiles and iron was used for the balconies. The balcony's design was based on Cantonese styles. Windows used French styling and were made of wood and glass. The upper floors were supported by brick pillars and protruded out to the edge of the street.[ citation needed ]

Inside, the floors were connected by wooden stairs. Most floors ranged from 450 to 700 square feet with very high ceilings. Top floors were often living quarters for shopkeepers and their family.

Other architectural features of early tong laus:[ citation needed ]

Lui Seng Chun in Mong Kok, Hong Kong, was built in 1931. HK LSC Lui Seng Chun 2.JPG
Lui Seng Chun in Mong Kok, Hong Kong, was built in 1931.

In 1903, in response to an outbreak of bubonic plague, the Hong Kong government issued a set of new regulations for tong lau so as to improve the living condition of those in these buildings. New tong lau buildings needed to have a light well, have larger windows, and the buildings were limited to four floors so their residents can receive sufficient light. The frontage were set at 15 feet, and at the back there needed to have a 6-foot lane to remove back-to-back constructions. Roof tiles were also replaced by flat concrete roofs. [6]

In the 1920s, reinforced concrete began to be introduced as the main structural element, which allowed for a veranda as well as cantilevered or recessed balconies to let in extra light. [6] An example of early tong lau or Kee-lau is Lui Seng Chun, a building in reinforced concrete built in Hong Kong in 1931. [7]

Post World War II

Example of tong lau in Sai Ying Pun, Hong Kong. HK Sai Ying Pun Centre Street Chinese Building 01.jpg
Example of tong lau in Sai Ying Pun, Hong Kong.
The osteopathy clinic in the Blue House, in Wan Chai, Hong Kong. HK Blue Hse Stone Nullah Lane c.jpg
The osteopathy clinic in the Blue House, in Wan Chai, Hong Kong.

Tong lau built after World War II were simpler in design:

Iron balconies were replaced with concrete ones and later sealed with windows. Roofs were often flat with an open terrace and later renovated to allow for additional residential space. Wooden windows gave way to stainless steel windows. Air conditioning units were added to the windows in the 1970s and 1980s. Often clothes racks were added below the windows and hung above the sidewalk or street below. Signs were hung on the exterior walls and protruded onto the streets below.[ citation needed ]

Other features of the new tong lau included:[ citation needed ]

The postwar boom and influx of immigrants led to a shortage of housing in Hong Kong. Many tong lau were renovated to become rental units. In order to become spacious space, each unit was separated from adjacent units through brick party walls, is between 13 and 16 feet wide (about 4 to 5 m). [8]

The ground floor of a tong lau was used as shop space, but a cockloft was often built on the upper space in front of the partition wall of the kitchen, or utilized as working area. Rooms on the upper floors were divided into smaller rooms and sublet as units by owners; said rooms were only big enough to accommodate bunk beds. The middle of the floor was a common space for tenants to eat and use. Bathrooms and kitchens were also shared among the tenants of each floor. Tenants paid for electricity and water on a monthly basis. [8]

The sublet of floors in the tong lau led to changes in housing regulations in Hong Kong.

After the 1960s, many tong lau were demolished to give way to taller apartment and commercial buildings, especially new town or private apartment. Few tong Lau are relatively found in Hong Kong today. [9]

On 29 January 2010, No. 45J Ma Tau Wai Road, Ma Tau Wai, a five-story-tall tong lau of more than 50 years history, suddenly collapsed at approximately 1:43 pm. Four people were killed. Such spontaneous, cascading and complete building collapse in Hong Kong has been quite rare since the Second World War and the incident raised concern of the HKSAR Government and the Hong Kong public towards the safety of the aging tong lau in Hong Kong, especially those built with similar specifications 50 or more years ago. [10]


Mainland China

Shophouses on Paifang Street, Chaozhou Chaozhou tonglau.jpg
Shophouses on Paifang Street, Chaozhou
Shopping street in Guangzhou. Guangzhou-shopping-street-0539.jpg
Shopping street in Guangzhou.
Qilou in Xiamen. Streets of Xiamen, Peoples Republic of China, East Asia-2.jpg
Qilou in Xiamen.

Qilou styles varied from Chinese to European:[ citation needed ]


Southern China, namely cities in Guangdong Province, is the birthplace of tong lau and qilou. They were built by wealthy Chinese merchants in the cities like Guangzhou and, with the aid of overseas Chinese, in emigrant market towns like Chikan, Kaiping. [11]

Locations in Guangzhou with Qilou:

Hainan and Guangxi

As both Hainan Island and the eastern part of the Guangxi Province lie in the broader Cantonese sphere of linguistical and cultural influence and historically were part of Guangdong, several cities and towns also have this kind of architecture.


The city of Beihai lies on the coast in Guangxi. The Old Sheng Ping Street (升平街旧址) is lined with qilou architecture. Life and trade thrived here in the 19th century. Today it's full of restaurants, souvenir shops and adorned with sculptures and boards with information about local culture.


The historical Bo'ai Road area is located in the heart of the Hainan capital city of Haikou. Nearly all the buildings here are of tong lau style. Beginning in 2012, the entire area has been undergoing restoration. It started with Zhongshan Road, now completed and converted into a pedestrian zone. The restoration is currently expanding outward with the facades being replastered and painted. Lights facing toward the facades to illuminate them at night are now installed on many of the buildings. With road repair ongoing, and new, tourist-related businesses replacing the old shops, the entire area is being developed as a visitor attraction.[ citation needed ]


The southern part of the town of Chengmai, located in Chengmai County, Hainan, has an area adjacent to the Nandu River that consists of numerous, dilapidated tong lau buildings.[ citation needed ]


The tong lau buildings in the city of Wenchang's "Wennan Old Street" have been completely restored. Unlike Haikou's Bo'ai Road area, the facades are unpainted and are gray in appearance. The area is located downtown and is a visitor attraction.[ citation needed ]


An area within the town of Puqian, mostly consisting of a single street, is lined with tong lau buildings. This street is the main route from the port to the city center. However, the tong lau buildings here are in serious disrepair. In fact, many of them are structurally unsafe.[ citation needed ]


Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro in Macau. Macau Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro Chow Tai Fook shops.JPG
Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro in Macau.

Tong lau are also found in Macau on Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro near the Largo do Senado. They are better preserved in Macau, where they did not give way to newer buildings. Upper floors no longer house people and often reused for commercial use. tong lau here often feature Portuguese colonial architectural influences.[ citation needed ]

Hong Kong

The existence of tong laus was a culmination of a series of historic forces from economic development of Hong Kong, Second World War as well as the influx of Chinese migrants to Hong Kong. [12]

In 1898, the government introduced a building and public health ordinance which defined all the buildings including tong laus. In 1903, the government introduced a four-story limit as well as a maximum height per story of 9 feet (2.7 m). This explains the general appearance of tong laus. Yet, the ordinance changed in 1962 which became fully operative in 1966, and no tong lau was built later. [13]

Tong laus are mainly distributed in the following areas in Hong Kong: Cheung Chau, [14] Kennedy Town, [15] Shek Tong Tsui, [16] Sai Ying Pun, [17] Sheung Wan, [18] Central, [19] Wan Chai, [20] Causeway Bay, [21] Happy Valley, [22] Tai Hang, [23] North Point, [24] Quarry Bay, [25] Sai Wan Ho, [26] Shau Kei Wan, [27] Chai Wan, Aberdeen, [28] Tin Wan, [29] Ap Lei Chau, [30] Stanley, [31] Tsim Sha Tsui, [32] Yau Ma Tei, [33] Mong Kok, [34] Tai Kok Tsui, [35] Sham Shui Po, [36] Cheung Sha Wan, [37] Shek Kip Mei, [38] Hung Hom, [39] To Kwa Wan, [40] Ma Tau Wai, [41] Ho Man Tin, [42] Kowloon City, [43] Wong Tai Sin, [44] San Po Kong, [45] Lok Fu, [46] Tsz Wan Shan, [47] Ngau Chi Wan, [48] Kwun Tong, [49] Ngau Tau Kok, [50] Cha Kwo Ling, [51] Kwai Chung, [52] Tsuen Wan, [53] Tuen Mun, [54] Yuen Long, [55] Tai Wai, [56] Tai Po, [57] Luen Wo Hui, [51] Sheung Shui, [58] Sha Tau Kok, [51] Sai Kung Town, [59] and Tai O. [60]

There are a number of extant tong lau's in Hong Kong:

Hong Kong Island

HK SYP Xi Ying Pan Sai Ying Pun Di San Jie Third Street 17pm August 2020 SS2 07.jpg
Nos. 145, 147, 149, 151, 153 Third Street Shek Tong Tsui Nil [61]
HK Sheung Wan Des Voeux Road West 1 You Ji He La Wei Dian .JPG
No. 1 Queen's Road West Sheung Wan Grade III [62]
HK Central Queen's Road 176 Mok Sang Kee Jewellery shop Sept-2010.JPG
Nos. 172, 174, 176 Queen's Road Central / 123, 125, 127 Wellington Street Central Grade I [62]
HK SW Shang Huan Sheung Wan near Huang Hou Da Dao Zhong 306 Queen's Road Central Ji Bi Li Jie Cleverly Street June 2020 SS2 01.jpg
306 Queen's Road Central Central Not listed
Nos. 17, 19 Shing Wong Street Central Not listed
Nos. 1–12 Wing Lee Street Central Not listed [63]
HK CWB 23-33 Haven Street Li Yun Da Lou Lei Wen Court facade July-2014.JPG
23-33 Haven Street Causeway Bay Not listed
Huang Wu -1.JPG
Nos. 2, 4, 6, 8 Hing Wan Street aka. Yellow House Wan Chai Grade III [62]
HK Nos 60 to 66 JohnstonRoad 2010.JPG
Nos. 60–66 Johnston Road Wan Chai Grade II [62]
No. 8 King Sing Street Wan Chai Nil [62]
HK Wan Zi Wan Chai Mao Luo Jie Dong Man Ji Di Comix Homebase facade GreenHse carpark Nov-2013.JPG
Nos. 1–11 Mallory Street and 6–12 Burrows Street (Green House) Wan Chai Grade II [62]
Huang Hou Da Dao Dong 186Zhi 190Hao , 186-190 Queen's Road East, 2018.jpg
Nos. 186–190 Queen's Road East Wan Chai Grade III [62] [64]
Shi Zhao Yu Dao 6Hao 6 Stewart Road, 2018.09.30.jpg
No. 6 Stewart Road Wan Chai Grade III [62]
Blue House, Hong Kong.jpg
Nos. 72-74A Stone Nullah Lane (Blue House) Wan Chai Grade I [62]
No. 18 Ship Street 2012.JPG
No. 18 Ship Street Wan Chai Grade II [62]
Nos. 109 & 111 Lockhart Road.JPG
Nos. 109 and 111 Lockhart Road Wan Chai Grade III
Nos. 89, 91 Electric Road North Point Nil [62]
207 Des Voeux Road West 2012.jpg
207 Des Voeux Road West Sai Ying Pun Grade II


2012Nian 4Yue 25Ri De Lei Sheng Chun Jian Zhu Zheng Mian .jpg
No. 119 Lai Chi Kok Road (Lui Seng Chun) Mong Kok Grade I [62]
HK No 729 Nathan Road.JPG
No. 729 Nathan Road Mong Kok Grade III [62]
HK PlayingFieldRoad OldBuilding.JPG
Nos. 1, 3 Playing Field Road Mong Kok Grade III [65]
HK Nos 190-204 & 210-212 PrinceEdwardRoadWest.JPG
Nos. 177–179, 190–204, 210–212 Prince Edward Road West Mong Kok Grade II [62] [66]
600-626 Shanghai Street URA project site 201903.jpg
Nos. 600–606, 612, 614, 620–626 Shanghai Street Mong Kok Grade I [62] [66]
1166 & 1168 Canton Road.JPG
Nos. 1166 and 1168 Canton Road Mong Kok Grade III
No. 23 Argyle Street Mong Kok Nil
HK 45 Ma Tau Wai Road Ma Tou Wei Dao sidewalk shops facade evening.jpg
45 Ma Tau Wai Road Hok Yuen Not listed
HK Nos 1 and 3 Hau Wong Road.JPG
Nos. 1 & 3 Hau Wong Road Kowloon City Grade III
No187&189 Apliu Street.JPG
Nos. 187, 189 Apliu Street Sham Shui Po Grade II
(No. 189)
1235 Canton Road.JPG
No. 1235 Canton Road Sham Shui Po Grade III [62]
HK Nos 130 and 132 KiLungStreet.JPG
Nos. 130, 132 Ki Lung Street Sham Shui Po Grade III [62]
HK NamCheongPawnShop.JPG
Nos. 117, 119, 121, 123, 125 Nam Cheong Street Sham Shui Po Grade III [62]
58 Pei Hoi Street 2012.JPG
No. 58 Pei Ho Street Sham Shui Po Grade II [62]
Shen Shui Bu  - panoramio (7).jpg
No. 75 Un Chau Street Sham Shui Po Grade III
Shen Shui Bu  - panoramio (9).jpg
No. 142 Un Chau Street Sham Shui Po Not listed [62]
Jiu Long Shen Shui Bu Yi Ju Jie 170Hao .jpg
No. 170 Yee Kuk Street Sham Shui Po Grade II [62]
51-53 Yen Chow Street 01.jpg
Nos. 51, 53 Yen Chow Street Sham Shui Po Grade I [62]
HK No 269 271 YuChauStreet.JPG
Nos. 269, 271 Yu Chau Street Sham Shui Po Grade III [62]
96 Apliu Street.JPG
No. 96 Apliu Street Sham Shui Po Grade II
No. 62 Fuk Wing Street 01.jpg
No. 62 Fuk Wing Street Sham Shui Po Grade III
Castle Peak Road 301-303 201901.jpg
301 & 303 Castle Peak Road Cheung Sha Wan Grade II

New Territories

No. 46 - 48 Kat Hing Street, Tai O.JPG
Nos. 46, 48 Kat Hing Street, Tai O Tai O Grade III [62]
No. 31 Lee Yick Street.JPG
No. 31 Lee Yick Street, Yuen Long Kau Hui Yuen Long Grade IIDemolished
HK YuenLongKauHui No 33 and 35 NamMunHau.JPG
Nos. 33–35 Nam Mun Hau, Yuen Long Kau Hui Yuen Long Grade III [62]
ShaTauKok 2011 Sun Lau Street02.JPG
Nos. 1–22 San Lau Street Sha Tau Kok Grade II [62]
No. 233,234,242 Tai San Back Street.JPG
Nos. 233, 234, 242 Tai San Back Street Cheung Chau Grade III [62]

See also

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