There was a Bubonic plague outbreak in Hong Kong in 1894. The colonial government wanted to stop spreading the disease and hence free bathhouses were provided to the local population to improve hygiene levels and providing a desirable public health environment.
Under the British in the late 19th century, the urbanised area that included present-day Sai Wan, Sheung Wan, Central and Wan Chai was named “City of Victoria”.
It was not until 1925 public bathhouses were built beyond the Hong Kong Island. As of today, there are over 25 public bath houses still in use in Hong Kong of which 6 on the HK island. You can have a look at the list of public baths on the HK island here: https://www.fehd.gov.hk/english/pleasant_environment/cleansing/list_of_bathhouse.html?district=HK.
Public Bath: Kowloon
Many Hong Kongers, find their existence to be unnecessary but these public bath houses serve some of us even today like seniors, especially those living in some older districts with poor housing accommodation.
The first public bathhouse was constructed in Wan Chai in 1903 following which a number of public bathhouses serving the poor working Chinese were built in the City of Victoria. In the CWD, the public bath house on Pound Lane in Sheung Wan was the first built in 1904.
Since Sai Ying Pun is where the local Chinese people aggregated, the colonial government rented "Tong Lau's"or Chinese buildings usually 2-3 storey tall and renovated it as public bathhouse for mixed use (used both by men and women). It was established in 1922. This bathhouse which still stands at the junction of Second Street and Western Street, was served 30,000 times by the residents in its first month alone!! Due to the very high utilization of the bathhouse, government closed it and rebuilt the bathhouse at the same site in 1925. It’s characteristic pink outer walls remain unchanged for almost a century and the interior design is also well preserved.
Public Bath: Pound lane, Sheung Wan
We went to the bathhouse to get a glimpse and noticed that funnily each cubicle in the female bath house was larger than the male one. We were told that this was because in the olden days, the custom was that women folks took care of the household and it was a women’s job to bring along children to take shower.
Public Bath: Sai Ying Pun
Another interesting find was that hot water supply isn’t available all year long. The hot water supply we found out is dependent on the temperature in November each year. If the first day/week of November is below a certain temperature, the bathhouse will have hot water supply and vice versa. So basically the timing of the supply is decided by the Chinese god of weather!! In case, you are planning to get a public bath experience in the Public bath house especially in the coming cooler months, we advise you to check the notices in the entrance in the bathhouse…
From our visit we concluded that although the bath house favours functionality over privacy over the years, visiting the bath house is an experience and we got a peek of what it was like living in the old Hong Kong!