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Hidden Hong Kong: A history of Hong Kong’s shifting coastlines and land reclamation

By Ngai Yeung 24 July 2020 | Last Updated 27 May 2022

Header image courtesy of Peter J. Sterkenburg (via Wikimedia Commons)

If you were riding the tram on Hong Kong Island just a century ago, you would be seeing a stunning sea view. The trams marked the coastal line back then before further land reclamation expanded the shore to where it is today. And it’s not just on the Island—over the past 170-plus years, land reclamation has been an essential force in transforming Hong Kong from a sleepy fishing village to a sprawling metropolis.

Around a third of the city’s population resides on reclaimed land, and as much as 70 percent of Hong Kong’s commercial activities take place on it, too. In total, reclaimed land in Hong Kong takes up 7,000 hectares of land, which is half the size of massive Lantau Island. Chances are that where you live or where you go to work five days a week may have been part of the ocean just a few decades ago. Let’s take a deeper peek into this overlooked force shaping and transforming the topography of Hong Kong.

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A drawing of Victoria Harbour by Thomas Bernard Collinson in 1845. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Streets of ash and rubble

Ironically, it was an act of destruction that triggered Hong Kong’s history creation. In December of 1851, a huge blaze ravaged the Sheung Wan district, burning down hundreds of houses. Instead of getting rid of the rubble, the colonial government combined it with leftover debris from nearby hill slopes and dumped the sludge into the Victoria Harbour to build a road by the waterfront. By 1859, the Queen’s Road and Bonham Strand of today were formed, the latter of which was named after the governor who oversaw the project.

The fire was a tragedy, but it was also the perfect chance to rebuild the area and solve the problems that came with tenements that were packed much too tightly. As Victoria City (today’s Central District) continued to flourish as a trading port, the government looked to coastal reclamation to accommodate the growing population and business. 

However, many merchants were surprisingly opposed to it; you’d think that they would want more space to do business on, but the seaside traders were afraid of losing their docking rights and the waterfront views of their buildings. The stalemate was broken when the government proposed a cunning payment plan that guaranteed companies ownership of any land they paid to have reclaimed, and reclamation resumed without a hitch.

Des Voeux Road in the late nineteenth century. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Leaving a lasting legacy along the coastline

This also explains why a number of streets on the Island’s coast have foreign names. Many are the names of governors and firm taipans in charge of the reclamation that formed the street: Des Voeux Road was named after the governor Sir Des Voeux, and Chater Road was named after Sir Paul Chater of the Hong Kong and Kowloon Wharf and Godown Company.

A host of commercial and other important administrative buildings were erected on the coast as the city prospered, and the reclaimed land held many classic colonial-style buildings of the Central District, such as the High Court, the Statue Square, and the General Post Office, buildings that continue to exist today. In this manner, the coast from Kennedy Town all the way to Causeway Bay kept on expanding from 1851 all the way to the early twentieth century.

Sha Tin in development in the 1980s. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

New town, who dis?

Land reclamation projects paused briefly during World War II but resumed with renewed vigour shortly after as immigrants from mainland China poured into the city. It was no longer enough to slowly reclaim small bits of the waterfront—instead, entire towns needed to be built quickly to meet the need for housing and improve living conditions.

This led to a spate of new towns under the New Town Development Programme beginning in 1973. Soon, six towns—Tsuen Wan, Sha Tin, Tuen Mun, Tai Po, Tseung Kwan O, and Tung Chung—were built on the reclaimed land, with a common method being to extract parts of a nearby mountain and dump the debris into the sea, creating a flatter terrain to develop on.

Chep Lap Kok. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

But perhaps the most notable land reclamation project in public memory is the new Hong Kong International Airport at Chep Lap Kok, which opened in 1998. 250 million cubic meters of material were dredged to fill up 1,248 hectares in just three years, and the island is built almost entirely from scratch. Even now, more land is being reclaimed for a third runway, set to be completed in 2030.

Built in 1957, the Edinburgh Place Ferry Pier was demolished half a decade later to make way for reclamation. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Reclaiming heritage in the face of progress

Public attitude towards reclamation grew sour at the turn of the century, just as the city was preparing for its handover to China. The Victoria Harbour has shrunk to almost half its original size by now and, strengthened by a heightened consciousness of the Hong Kong identity, the public clamoured to preserve the natural heritage. The Protection of the Harbour Ordinance was then passed in 1997, but by then, the Central and Wan Chai reclamation project was already well underway.

S3 Central and Wan Chai reclamation project. Photo: Civil Engineering and Development Department

Modern landmarks such as IFC, the Hong Kong MTR station, the government headquarters at Tamar, and the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre at Wan Chai were all built on newly reclaimed land, but none were as controversial as the establishment of the new Central Ferry Piers. Locals and conservationists alike protested against demolishing the old Star Ferry Pier at Central—Edinburgh Place Ferry Pier—and its signature clock tower, but to no avail. After servicing thousands of commuters daily for half a century, the historic building was demolished to make way for land reclamation, which nibbled away at Hong Kong’s heritage.

Photo: Lachlan Dempsey (via Unsplash)

Cities are bound to evolve, and while not all heritage can be preserved in its full form, pieces may be kept in a museum. Failing to conserve the surrounding natural environment, on the other hand, is often an irreversible choice. The land can never return to its natural state after reclamation, and the part of the ocean and its habitat is forever lost.

Dredging techniques where mud is dragged from the seabed to lay a foundation pollute the water as well, harming the sea life in it. For example, Mickey Mouse was accused of killing seven million fish when land was being reclaimed to build Hong Kong’s Disneyland, and the Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge was blamed for a 60-percent population decline of the endangered pink dolphins in Hong Kong.

Grey marks reclaimed land; red marks projects that have been proposed or are under development. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

What comes next?

In a hilly, space-strapped city, land reclamation seems vital for urban development and meeting social needs. The government must carefully weigh accompanying issues of environment and heritage conservation, so it’s common for projects to be in the works for decades as it goes through rounds of funding approvals for land surveys and studies before starting the actual construction.

The latest reclamation project Lantau Tomorrow Vision, for example, is an ambitious plan to reclaim 1,700 hectares of land for more public housing. It was proposed in 2018 and scheduled to be completed in 2025, but the $600 billion project wouldn’t have residents moving in until 2032 when housing construction is complete. Thus, whether reclamation projects are worth it and proper allocation of government funds are other pressing consideration, too.

That being said, Hong Kong would not be nearly what it is today without the inconspicuous yet influential force of land reclamation. So the next time you’re out and about, think about the land you’re standing on, and how you might be drowning if you were in the same spot just a couple of decades ago.

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Ngai Yeung


Ngai was born and raised in Hong Kong and is currently studying at university in the United States. You can find her wandering around the city, experimenting with egg recipes and nerding out about the news.