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Behind the Name: Shau Kei Wan / Aldrich Bay

By Celia Lee 18 January 2024

Header image courtesy of Aspiration + Creativity (via Wikimedia Commons)

If you already know all about Hong Kong’s major landmarks, you will be interested to learn that the vibrant history of the city is often hidden in plain sight, surrounded by high-rises interspersed with traffic-packed streets.

With the best-kept historical secrets woven into the fabric of everyday life, location names are a big part of our rich cultural landscape, revealing some of the most interesting aspects of the past. From local pirates to a royal visit, our “Behind the Name” series explores a whole host of places in Hong Kong with fascinating stories behind their names.

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One thing you may not know is that the Chinese name for Shau Kei Wan (筲箕灣; saau1 gei1 waan1) directly translates to “Winnow Basket Bay.” In ancient China, a winnow basket was a common household item used to wash rice, and it could be found in almost every home. Before land reclamation in Hong Kong, the bay in the Shau Kei Wan area had a shape similar to that of a winnow basket, and therefore, it was named as such. While the bay was known by its Shau Kei Wan alias to local fishing communities, in the early days of British occupation, it was officially renamed Aldrich Bay after colonel Edward Aldrich, the colony’s first commanding royal engineer.

While both “Shau Kei Wan” and “Aldrich Bay” appellations can be found on records from dynastic China and colonial maps, yet another moniker is often attributed to the bay. Legend has it that in the eighteenth century, a group of British merchants were stranded on the northeastern shore of Hong Kong Island after their vessel was destroyed by a typhoon. Unable to find food, the band of merchants quickly starved, and the bay has subsequently been referred to as “Ngor Yan Wan” (餓人灣; ngo6 jan4 waan1; “Bay of Starving People”). Even then, this legend is contested: While “Ngor Yan Wan” can be found in several colonial records from the 1850s, the Cantonese phonetic spelling of “Ngor” is alternatively written as “餓” (“starving”) or “臥” (“laying down”). Furthermore, Ngor Yan Wan may have designated an area closer to the present-day Quarry Bay neighbourhood.

Photo: LN9267 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Shau Kei Wan was home to prosperous fishing communities over the centuries. Recognising that the area provided good shelter from storms and typhoons, the fishing population grew rapidly in the early eighteenth century, with many migrating from nearby Chai Wan. As the fishing population grew, an informal marketplace where locals traded goods and daily catches began to appear.

To facilitate the expansion of Victoria City in 1843, the colonial government set up quarries around the present-day A Kung Ngam village to collect construction resources. Consequential job opportunities attracted local fishing folk and Hakka people from Huizhou to settle in the area. As land and seafaring populations grew simultaneously, living and public hygiene conditions worsened in areas where housing was hastily built, and where no hygiene infrastructure was put in place. By the 1860s, the area had become so notorious for its lack of hygiene that the government decided to revamp the neighbourhood, putting in drastic urban restructuring efforts. Illegal housing was demolished, new and properly planned roads were constructed, and buildings were formalised into a proper community that resembles present-day Shau Kei Wan.

As the fishing industry declined, the government implemented a “landing” scheme for fishing folk, allowing them to settle on land. With the dwindling fishing population, the land was eventually reclaimed for residential purposes. In 1992, the present-day Aldrich Garden and Oi Tung Estate were developed. While Aldrich Bay has now been reclaimed as a housing area, the Shau Kei Wan Typhoon Shelter remains at sea and stands as a testament to the area’s fishing heritage.

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Celia Lee

Staff writer

Born and raised in Hong Kong and educated in the UK, Celia is passionate about culture, food, and different happenings in the city. When she’s not busy writing, you can find her scouting for new and trendy restaurants, getting lost in a bookstore, or baking up a storm at home.