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Hidden Hong Kong: A history of Hong Kong’s postal service

By Beverly Ngai 10 August 2021

Header image courtesy of 昔日香港 (via Facebook)

From the history-laced stories held within the perforated borders of postage stamps to the tangible sentimentality of exchanging letters and parcels, the curious nature of postal service has long been a subject of fascination. Back in yesteryear, people relied on the post as their principal medium of long-distance communication; and though the advent of e-mails and modern technology has reduced our dependence on physical mail delivery, it nevertheless remains an indispensable part of our everyday lives. With the current General Post Office slated for demolition and nostalgia in full effect, let’s step back in time and take a retrospective look at Hong Kong’s postal history!

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Photo: Lord Jaraxxus (via Wikimedia Commons)

Hong Kong’s first post office and stamps

Hong Kong’s postal heritage dates as far back as 1841, when the city first became a British colony. Although Hong Kong was nothing more than just a cluster of rural fishing villages back then, the British were determined to transform it into a key trading port. One of the foremost priorities on their agenda was establishing a formal postal system in order to facilitate information flow and communications

In November of 1841—just months after the British declared sovereignty over Hong Kong Island—the first General Post Office in Hong Kong was unveiled. Situated on a slope just above modern-day St John’s Cathedral, the structure was small and built for functionality. Despite the post office’s intended use for military applications, its services wounded up extending to civilians as well, revolutionising long-distance communication for the general Hong Kong public. Mail was collected from red pillar post boxes dotted around the city, which were marked with the royal cypher “VR” for “Victoria Regina.”

In the early years, mail and letters bore no iconographic stamps. Instead, simple postmarks were used to indicate that a mailed item had been received and paid for. Make no mistake—the concept of stamps had taken off in Britain since 1840, soon after the world’s first postage stamp, “the Penny Black,” was issued. However, it was only two decades later in 1862 that these pictorial adhesives made their debut in Hong Kong, per the initiation of Sir Hercules Robinson, the fifth governor of Hong Kong.

Designed by French engraver Ferdinand Joubert, Hong Kong’s first set of definitive stamps came in a set of seven denominations, ranging from two cents to 96 cents. Similar to the design of their British counterparts, the local stamps were differentiated by colour and depicted the side profile of Queen Victoria.

Contrary to expectations, the emergence of these miniature graphic artworks was not met with immediate popularity. People were wary about having to pay before their mail was dispatched, when before, the customary practice required the recipient would settle delivery fees. However, local stamps eventually became the norm after they were made compulsory by law in 1864.

Photo: Marcus Lim Bk (via Facebook)

Frenzy for stamps

Soon after the colonial government mandated the use of stamps, Hong Kong found itself plunged into the curious world of philately (the collection and study of postage stamps). By the mid-1860s, local stamps were highly coveted by British collectors, who saw the labels as fascinating fragments of imperial history, since their designs were centred around the British royal family in the first sixty years. Yet by the same token, the cut-throat playing field of stamp collecting meant the seemingly innocuous pastime came with its costs.

In 1891, the first commemorative stamp was issued in celebration of the colony’s fiftieth anniversary. With only a small stock of 50,000 available, the limited-edition two-cent stamps were distinguished by the overprint of the text “1841 Hong Kong Jubilee 1891.” 

Prized for being the world’s first stamps with overprinting, all chaos broke loose over their procurement. On the first day of sale, unruly mobs swarmed the General Post Office, and the mayhem resulted in the death of three civilians, including two Portuguese customers crushed in the stampede and a Dutch sailor who was fatally stabbed. Shocked and distressed by the unprecedented bloodshed, the postal department did not introduce its next set of commemorative stamps until 1935, on the occasion of the Silver Jubilee of King George V.

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Trials and tribulations

Like many of the city’s other social infrastructure and systems, the postal system was dramatically shaken up during the turbulent years of the Japanese occupation in the Second World War. All British personnel working for the postal department were detained in concentration camps, and only a small number of Chinese workers were allowed to work for the newly set-up postal system.

The Japanese government issued some 20 definitives to replace British stamps and ordered local addresses to be changed into Japanese format. Amidst the large-scale re-naming of districts, streets, and buildings in Hong Kong, a great deal of confusion surfaced, which ultimately hindered postal operations. Delivery services were said to be lagged and inefficient during this time.

Following Japan’s surrender to the Allied Forces in August of 1945 and the British reclamation of Hong Kong, postal services resumed back to pre-war normalcy by the end of that same year. The fast bounce-back was aided by the fact that a large portion of existing British stamps was locked away and kept safe from Japanese occupiers. Postal operations continued to expand steadily after the war.

Photo: Metropop (via Facebook)

Metamorphosis of the General Post Office

Over the course of its 180-year history, the General Post Office has been through a whirlwind of changes. In 1846, just five years after being set in motion, the central post office outgrew its original address and moved to Queen’s Road Central opposite D’Aguilar Street. Two more relocations were subsequently made in 1911 and 1976, each iteration bigger than before to keep up with the rapid increase in postal volume, a result of Hong Kong’s fast-developing economic and social landscape over the past century and a half.

One factor propelling the repeated relocations of the postal headquarters was the city’s extensive reclamation projects. You’ll notice on the map that with each migration, the building is moved to a more frontier location, in step with the extension of the shoreline in Central. This is because the post office had to occupy a waterfront locale for the ease of loading and unloading mail from ocean liners, a vital means of conveying mail across international waters.

The third generation of the General Post Office was considered to be the most beautiful building in Hong Kong’s architectural history. Built in archetypical English Renaissance style, the granite-and-red brick behemoth was supported with exaggerated arches on every level and rusticated pillars aplenty. 

Further driving home the stupefying sense of grandeur are the pointed corner towers and heavily-gabled roof, which would have stopped passers-by in their tracks for a double-take. It was also during this generation that the General Post Office began diversifying its services, which expanded to issuing money orders, selling philatelic items, and renting out post office boxes for citizens to use.

Despite the protest among community activists, the architectural marvel was ultimately unable to escape its demise. After 65 years of service, it was razed to the ground in 1976 to make way for the Central station of the Mass Transit Railway (MTR). Various scraps and pieces from the former building were salvaged and reintroduced to its successor, including the wooden arched plaque which reads “As cold waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country.” The decorative arch now hangs in the lobby of the current headquarters.

Photo: LittleBoris InBritishhk (via Facebook)

After the handover

The handover in 1997 marked the transition of a new era for Hong Kong’s postal system. By the mid-1990s, British-themed stamps were being phased out and replaced with new stamps depicting Hong Kong’s coastline—and while the former was no longer valid for postage after the handover, the latter was allowed for postage as they carried no signs of British sovereignty. In recent decades, stamps have seen a clear shift in focus to Hong Kong’s local sights and scenes, and even celebrities.

Old cast-iron post boxes have been largely retained but re-painted green to conform with the practices in mainland China. In 2015, the Hong Kong Post made plans to cover up the British emblems on the remaining post boxes from the colonial era using metal plates, but the controversial proposal received great pushback. Many fought to preserve what was regarded as an important piece of local heritage, and the plan was ultimately abandoned.

While some vestiges of heritage live to see the future, others are inevitably swallowed up by the changes and transformations that feed our modern city. It comes as sad news that after serving the city for close to half a century, the current General Post Office is set to be demolished to pave way for commercial development, in spite of conservation efforts which have been made to retain the building on the grounds of its historical significance. What this will signal in the new chapter of Hong Kong’s postal history is still yet to be uncovered, but indications seem to go that Hongkongers will continue to hold our postal heritage with reverence and strive to cherish this strand of our collective history.

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Beverly Ngai

Junior editor

A wanderer, chronic overthinker, and baking enthusiast, Beverly spent much of her childhood in the United States before moving to Hong Kong at age 11 and making the sparkling city her home. In her natural habitat, she can be found baking up a storm in her kitchen, journalling at a café, or scrolling through OpenRice deciding on her next meal.

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