Header image courtesy of The University of Hong Kong Libraries
Of the three regions of Hong Kong, none is richer in history than Hong Kong Island. Even after colonial rule, it remains the economic and political centre of the city today, with bits and pieces of history left untouched in the many street names that reflect the city’s maritime background, prominent British figures, and Chinese folklore. Come along as we dissect the stories behind the weird and wonderful street names of Hong Kong and take a peep into the past.
Hollywood Road might stick out like a sore thumb in one of the city’s oldest districts: what’s this American doing here among all the British street names? That’s right—“Hollywood” here isn’t referring to California’s glamorous dream factory, which only grew popular with the rise of cinema in the 1900s. Instead, Central’s Hollywood Road was built all the way back in 1844, one of the first after Hong Kong became a colony. The road may have been named after the family home in Bristol of Sir John Francis Davis, the second Governor of Hong Kong, while another popular theory attributes it to the holly shrubs growing on both sides of the road, so dense that they form a wood.
Today, the street is home to a number of antique shops and showcases the best of Hong Kong’s “East Meets West” spirit by hosting both the first police station of the city and the historic Man Mo Temple.
Next to Hollywood Road are two streets—Upper Lascar Row and Lok Ku Road, which was previously known as Lower Lascar Row—whose combined name is Lascar Row. In British English, “lascar” denotes the Indian and South Asian sailors who served in the British Merchant Navy. The area is right by the sea in Sheung Wan and was once filled with rows of lodging where lascars stayed when their ships docked at the port city, hence the name. However, the Chinese back then mistook the sailors to be the Muslim Moors (摩囉), so that the Chinese name of the street is a mistranslation that reads “Moor Street” (摩羅街).
In 2010, some politicians petitioned the government to give thought to the city’s minorities and change Lascar Row’s Chinese name, but the government rejected citing inconvenience, historical value, and the neutrality of the Cantonese term.
Sure, High Street is really steep and high up, but that’s not why it was named so. This street in Sai Ying Pun is right above Third Street, which is on top of Second Street and First Street; so why not just name it Fourth Street? That’s because “four” in Chinese sounds like “death,” so the inauspicious number tends to be avoided whenever it can be helped. This doesn’t stop locals from calling the place’s landmark Victorian building “High Street Ghost House” (高街鬼屋), however, as what is now the innocuous Sai Ying Pun Community Complex used to be a mental hospital where ghost sightings have been reported.
Perhaps you’re expecting another ghost story. Well, you won’t find one despite its ominous name, as “possession” here refers to the mundane kind. When the British navy landed in Hong Kong in modern-day Sheung Wan on 25 January 1841 to claim the city as per the Convention of Chuenpi, they named the place “Possession Point” because they, well, possessed it. There, a flag-raising ceremony a day after the British landed marked the beginning of 150 years of colonial rule. Possession Street was later built over Possession Point, though its Chinese name (水坑口街) is named after the stream that ran beside it.
Tsat Tsz Mui Road translates to “Seven Sisters Road” in English, but the siblings’ story takes a dark turn from the usual big happy family narrative. According to urban legend, there used to be a village of Hakka people around this area in modern-day North Point, and in the village were seven sisters who vowed to never get married. When one of the sisters was forced into marriage, she was so heartbroken that she decided to take her own life. The other six discovered her plan and—true to their vow—jumped into the sea together, committing mass suicide the day before the wedding. The next morning, seven boulders appeared along the coast and remained visible until the land was reclaimed in the 1930s.
Another street plagued with mistranslation—albeit a more subtle one—is Power Street in North Point. In place of the housing estate that stands there today was the North Point Power Station, which caused the road along its entrance to be renamed as Electric Road, while the street next to it became Power Street. But instead of its meaning of electrical power, the Chinese translation took the word quite literally and used two words that mean “big” (大) and “strong” (強) so that Power Street (大強街) now has a much more impressive ring to it.
It’s easy to pass by this street in the Mid-Levels and chalk it up to just another weird British surname, but if you looked closely, you’d notice that Rednaxela is Alexander spelt backwards! One of the most famous mistakes in Hong Kong street name history, Rednaxela Terrace is not a mistranslation but an erroneous transposition. While English is read left to right, Chinese was traditionally read the other way round from right to left, so what was probably supposed to be Alexander Terrace received this peculiar name instead.
The busy triplets of Wan Chai—Canal Road East, Canal Road West, and the Canal Road Flyover—actually used to be part of a serene canal instead of a trio of major thoroughfares. Before it was covered up in the 1970s, small boats used to drift along the stream, and there was even a bridge over it that carried trams across. The canal was so narrow that it resembled a gooseneck, earning the nickname Ngo Geng Kiu (“Gooseneck Bridge” in English).
To this day, locals still call the Canal Road Flyover overhead by this same nickname, and if you wander under the flyover, you could pay the old ladies who hang out there for their “villain hitting” services, an intangible cultural heritage where they hit pieces of paper that represent your enemies.