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Hidden Hong Kong: A history of Hong Kong amusement parks

By Anna Li 28 August 2020

Header images courtesy of Hysan and Alchetron

Fireworks in falling stars. Delighted cries from tents of curiosities and rides through the skies. A sweetness in the air you can almost taste, of sugar melting on the tip of your tongue, the promise of candy floss. 

Dashes of wonder and excitement have drawn visitors to Hong Kong’s amusement parks since the early 1900s, generation after generation, making them destinations that are held in the fondest of memories. We visit these memories and the parks that live in them, at a time when amusement parks and what can be found within are out of reach behind closed gates. Read on to discover the long history of Hong Kong’s amusement parks and what set them apart from others in the world.

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Oxford St Giles in 1900. Photo credit: National Fairground and Circus Archive (via The University of Sheffield)

The beginning

The elaborate amusement parks of today have humble roots in early European fairs, exhibitions, and pleasure gardens—temporary events to look forward to over long spans of time, and public spaces where people gathered for scant entertainment. With the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and a boom in population growth from the mid-1700s onwards, the increasing need for public entertainment and technology brought modern amusement parks to fruition.

In the late 1800s, the first modern permanent amusement parks opened in America and England in response to the post-revolution attitude towards leisure. New York’s Coney Island was received with unprecedented success. It was in their footsteps that Hong Kong, then a British colony and deeply influenced by trends of the Western world, soon followed.

Yue Yuen, also known as Happy Retreat. Photo credit: @hfsiu (via Gwulo)

Early 1900s: Four gardens, one mansion

It is hard to say when exactly the earliest amusement park opened in Hong Kong; in fact, there are controversies over the claims to this particular title. What is certain, though, is that around the same period in the early 1900s, five amusement parks of considerable fame stood on Hong Kong Island. Together, Yue Yuen, Cheng Yuen, Ming Yuen, Lee Yuen and Tai Pak Lau were known collectively as the “Four Gardens, One Mansion”—yuen being the Chinese word for garden and lau for mansion.

Photo credit: @moddsey (via Gwulo)
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Yue Yuen (The Happy Retreat)

Yue Yuen, or the Happy Retreat, is commonly believed to be the first of the five. Property of local banker and revolutionary Yu Yuk-chi, Yue Yuen opened in Happy Valley no later than in 1898. It consisted primarily of a Western-style mansion and its sprawling grounds, in which there were hybrid gardens, a shooting range, a Ferris wheel, swings, and later a menagerie. With its firework displays and music performances, the park presented a whole new form of entertainment to Hongkongers.

Though Yue Yuen, with its handful of attractions and simple catering, was less an amusement park than a pleasure garden by modern standards, it was wildly popular with the upper-middle class at the time for being the sole example of its kind in the city—so much so that for a time, the Happy Valley tram stop was named after the park itself. It was a matter of time before other parks emerged in its wake.

Keep scrolling for the rest of the list 👇

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Cheng Yuen

Groves of camphor trees, planted for insect-repellent purposes, gave Cheng Yuen its name. Businessman Lam King-chou’s private gardens opened to the public in around 1915, also in Happy Valley, complete with Cantonese opera performances, chess games, and the famous Chim House, a Chinese-culture-centred venue for scholarly discussions. As it began as a place where its owner entertained his friends, so it remained a place for gathering, especially for intellectuals.

Minimalistic down to the food and drinks, Cheng Yuen’s slice of the early amusement park industry was rather different from its neighbour’s, yet the two shared the same fate in the aftermath of the 1918 Happy Valley Racecourse Fire. Long afterwards, the area lived under the shadow of the large-scale damage and casualties it left behind. Yue Yuen and Cheng Yuen were among the businesses that suffered a heavy blow, and both eventually closed in 1922.

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Tai Pak Lau

If the fire was the final nail to the coffin for Yue Yuen and Cheng Yuen, the competition posed by Tai Pak Lau was at least one of the other causes. Between 1915 and the 1920s, the Kennedy Town park thrived under owner Li Po-lung, son of the then richest Hong Kong Chinese.

Named for Li’s admiration for poet Li Bai (also known as Li Tai-pak), Tai Pak Lau had no lack of idyllic scenery worthy of poetry with its Chinese pavilions, artificial lake, and harbour views. Its carousel, acrobatics, and magic performances, on top of what its predecessors offered, gave it an edge over the other parks—not to mention its convenience for customers from the nearby Shek Tong Tsui red-light district.

Photo credit: ‘A Century of Hong Kong Island Roads and Streets’ by Cheng Po-hung
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Ming Yuen

At the other end of the tram line, Ming Yuen opened in 1918 using Shanghai’s Great World amusement park as a blueprint. Ming Yuen’s North Point location allowed it to boast not just the standard amusement park features its competitors had, but also a roller-skating rink, cycling facilities, and most importantly, a harbourside swimming shed where annual dragon boat events took place.

Such was these events’ weight that even the governor attended. In later years, Ming Yuen had to convert to film set business due to fierce competition and accessibility issues, leaving but an impression of amusement parks’ social influence.

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Lee Yuen (Lee Garden)

Lee Yuen, better known as Lee Garden, brought that influence to new heights. In 1925, “Opium King” and land development tycoon Lee Hysan opened the amusement park on Jardine’s Hill in lieu of the opium factory he originally had in mind. While similar to the other parks in terms of types of entertainment it provided, Lee Garden surged to the head of the “Four Gardens, One Mansion” with its newer facilities, affordable prices, and the fact that its prime location in Causeway Bay meant it was easily reachable by tram.

The favour Lee Garden enjoyed from social elites—the governor included—was only more generous than what Ming Yuen had. Often a venue for social gatherings and important functions for the upper class up until 1931, Lee Garden no longer exists, as the hill on which it once stood was levelled after the war. Its name, however, lives on today in the same area in Causeway Bay and laid the scene for the many amusement parks to come.

Keep scrolling for the rest of the list 👇

Lai Chi Kok Amusement Park (Lai Yuen). Photo credit: Alchetron

Late 1930s to post-war years: The park boom

Hong Kong amusement parks from the late 1930s onwards were places that many still remember from their childhoods. Particularly in the post-war years, amusement parks bloomed in response to a population growth brought about by a high birth rate, the influx of mainland refugees, and a renewed demand for entertainment. Amusement parks in this new wave were in every sense much closer to the conventional modern model and occupied centre-stage of the older generation’s leisure life.

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Tiger Balm Garden

The Tiger Balm Garden had neither inventive rides nor crowd-pleasing shows—in this, it was an exception. That said, for most of the sixty-some years it entertained visitors, it was one of the only Hong Kong amusement parks that was built around a distinct theme.

In 1936, the Burmese-Chinese tycoon brothers Aw Boon-haw and Aw Boon-par opened the extended gardens of their private Tai Hang residence to the public. For its namesake—the Aw brothers’ winning product, Tiger Balm—the tiger motif was ever-present on the gardens’ Chinese Renaissance-style grounds.

But impressive as its Chinese pagoda was, the Tiger Balm Garden’s real highlights were the whimsical, sometimes macabre statuary that spoke of Buddhist and Confucian morals. The “Eighteen Levels of Hell” wall relief, an expansive piece depicting the tortures of the Chinese mythical underworld, was a major attraction. It made the Tiger Balm Garden somewhat the Hong Kong “haunted house” of its time.

What remains of the original Tiger Balm Garden grounds are displayed with the attached Haw Par Mansion, now a revitalised Grade I historic building, to the delight of adults who grew up with the place’s unusual sights.

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Luna Park

Decades after the fall of Ming Yuen, a new amusement park came in to take its place in North Point. Similarly modelled after Shanghai’s Great World, Luna Park opened in 1949, claiming to be “the largest and most fabulous” in Hong Kong history, as well as the first in multiple aspects in the Far East.

The joint venture between American and Chinese businessmen was indeed unrivalled in its earliest days. Luna Park’s huge entertainment complex included a rollercoaster, “dragon ride”, mechanical swings, and a children’s playland that had motorboat and train rides among others—most of which were never-before-seen in this part of Asia.

Circus acts, theatres, and the extravagant Sky Room night club, where live orchestral music accompanied dancing, enriched the variety of entertainment available. In the “Little Shanghai” community that blossomed in post-war North Point with immigrants, Luna Park was a pearl of the cityscape—one that contributed to the area’s Shanghai entertainment lifestyle until the 1950s.

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Lai Yuen (Lai Chi Kok Amusement Park)

Once in Lai Chi Kok, there was a castle, the entrance and symbol of a local amusement park long before Hong Kong Disneyland came into being. The blazing neon sign of Lai Yuen represented a generation’s collective memory of the Lai Chi Kok Amusement Park, now synonymous with the golden days of old Hong Kong entertainment.

Opening mere months before Luna Park, the two competed for the title of the largest Hong Kong amusement park in the first few years. Lai Yuen started business with the typical stall games, but soon had a rollercoaster, teacup rides, bumping cars, a zoo, and an air-conditioned theatre in its arsenal.

In time, Lai Yuen did not just earn many Hong Kong firsts in terms of hardware. The first ice rink, first artificial snow facility, and first ancient Chinese-themed park matched Lai Yuen’s performing stages, on which many local stars—Cantopop diva Anita Mui and action star Jackie Chan included—made their debuts.

Following Ocean Park’s grand opening in 1977, Lai Yuen went into an irreversible decline that resulted in its permanent closure in 1997. The end of Lai Yuen was also the end of an era that saw amusement parks open up all over the city instead of just on Hong Kong Island, with the Kai Tak Amusement Park in Kowloon East, the Happy Dragon Recreation Park, and Tsuen Wan Amusement Park in the New Territories, and many more.

Keep scrolling for the rest of the list 👇

Photo credit: The University of Hong Kong Libraries

1970s to present: The two-park dominance

The Hong Kong amusement park scene has never been quite the same after the 1970s. Mixed with nostalgia for Lai Yuen and other older parks was a new excitement for the game-changers that they failed to compete against. In their stead, the present generation of amusement parks opened doorways to the global market, showing variety in their own ways.

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Ocean Park Hong Kong

Few could have thought Ocean Park Hong Kong would become what it is now when it first opened in 1977 on the site of New Paris Farm, an old pleasure farm in Wong Chuk Hang. Backed by the government and funding from the Hong Kong Jockey Club, Ocean Park was initially intended to be a hybrid between an aquarium and an amusement park, with a few marine-themed performances.

It took little time to prove Ocean Park as a force to be reckoned with. Its cable car system, then the only in Hong Kong, soon led to a multitude of rides uphill that shared the same expansive view of Deep Water Bay. In a rapid series of development projects in the 1980s, Ocean Park acquired a water park and a number of exotic animal exhibits and shows. For two decades, the signature Ocean Theatre, still starring dolphins and seals, boasted a killer whale in its cast that visitors returned for time and again.

Over the years, Ocean Park gradually re-oriented itself to be not just a marine theme park, but one dedicated to conservation purposes. At the same time, alongside the pandas and stingrays were festive events that made it a centre of celebration during Halloween and Christmas in particular. The park’s success both locally and internationally cemented its leading position the industry—it is “the Hong Kong amusement park,” a unique Hong Kong brand recognised worldwide.

Photo credit: Hong Kong Disneyland (Facebook)
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Hong Kong Disneyland

In 2005, the Hong Kong Disneyland joined Ocean Park as the second major park in the city. As the fifth branch of the transnational Disneyland chain and the first in Asia, the Penny Bay park remains the only Hong Kong amusement park of an overseas brand and was constructed as an act to further boost Hong Kong tourism.

The Hong Kong Disneyland, maintaining the classic Disney formula in terms of layout and types of entertainment, introduced traditional Chinese concepts such as feng shui and festivities for Chinese holidays to cater to local tastes. Thus began status quo in which Ocean Park and Disneyland dominate the Hong Kong amusement park market, while the smaller Snoopy World in Sha Tin and Noah’s Ark in Ma Wan did their parts—albeit to a smaller extent—drawing visitors to their own attractions.

Keep scrolling for the rest of the list 👇

Fifteen years later, one might ask: where to? On one hand, the main players in the field have not changed; on the other, the recent deficit problems in both Ocean Park and Disneyland have become even more pronounced after being hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Hongkongers have yet to find a way back into its amusement parks and those that still stand, having been unable to operate for months, are still seeking ways out of financial difficulties and switched-off lights.

Perhaps the storm will blow over. And perhaps the entertainment business model will emerge retooled. Amidst talk of Ocean Park’s potential liquidation, we nurture a hope that in one way or another, extravagant firework displays will light the skies again above a captivated crowd.

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Anna Li

Contributor

A fresh university graduate drawn to stories, Anna is often found looking between pages and with an ear out for what the city’s lanes and alleys have to tell. Books, theatre, and almost-forgotten windows to the past hold the keys to her heart. Sometimes, she feels the need to put them all into words.

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