Header image courtesy of 昔日香港 (via Facebook)
Many people don’t realise that MTR station names do not always accurately reflect the area it’s built on. But because we’re so reliant on Hong Kong’s quintessential metro system, we end up calling places by the MTR station it’s the closest to anyway. So how do MTR stations get their names, and what do they really mean? Take a look at the stories behind these familiar MTR stations.
If you looked at the MTR’s earliest route map proposal way back in 1967, you’d see a “Garbage Bay Station” near the end of the Tsuen Wan line. How did the MTR come up with such a garbage name? Also named Gin Drinker’s Bay, turns out the place was once a deserted area that the British treated as a garbage dump. Contractors would sail to the area and dump 20 to 30 tonnes of trash into the sea each day, though they’d just dump it all on the land if the seas were stormy.
Nevertheless, as Chinese immigrants and refugees inundated the city in the 1960s, the government began to develop the area to build more housing estates. By the time the MTR route map was being finalised, Kwai Fong Village was close to completion, and so the station name was wisely amended to become the Kwai Fong station of today.
Everyone knows Sunny Bay as the final stop before Disneyland. Its very name and station design seem to echo Disney’s promise of a bright and magical day, what with swaying indoor palm trees and all—and it’s designed that way. For aside from the station itself, Sunny Bay does not exist.
The Lantau area it’s in is called Yam O (陰澳), which was turned down as the station name because it literally translates as “Cloudy Bay.” Perhaps you’d recognise “yam” (陰) in Yam O by its Mandarin name “yin” (阴), the embodiment of all things dark and negative in the dual yin and yang concept of ancient Chinese philosophy. The bright folks at MTR, therefore, came up with Sunny Bay (欣澳) instead, whose pronunciation in Cantonese is only slightly different from Yam O.
Yau Ma Tei Station was formerly known as Waterloo Station, having been built on the intersection between Waterloo Road and Nathan Road. Its neighbour Mong Kok similarly housed the Argyle Station, named after Mong Kok’s Argyle Street. All was well until around 1985 when rumour had it that the French people in the city were not pleased with the constant reminder of their historic defeat against the Brits at the Battle of Waterloo. They had a point, as Waterloo Station’s interior was even washed in white with red and blue stripes after the colours of the French flag!
The station was then duly renamed as Yau Ma Tei Station, the transliteration of the Yau Ma Tei area that it’s situated at. After a renovation in 2005, the station’s tricolour French hues were replaced with a lacklustre grey so that nowadays, nobody would have guessed the story behind the place. A bit of a tragedy, really.
Was it a very pretty hill? Or perhaps it housed an opulent community? The answer is neither: Diamond Hill used to be a very poor neighbourhood, with swathes of squatter dwellings up and down the hill. Instead, the name came from a nearby stone quarry. You see, “diamond” in Cantonese (鑽石) sounds exactly the same as “drilling rocks,” but who would want to be a stickler for facts when there’s such a pretty alternative? Commuters today can admire the place’s shining legacy, where scintillating specks of white stand out in the station’s otherwise black mosaic, imitating the diamond’s sharp sheen.
Can you believe it? Tai Po Market Station has been around since more than a century ago in 1910! But it didn’t used to be the Tai Po Market Station we know now: When Hong Kong’s very first railway network, the Kowloon-Canton Railway (KCR), began operations in 1910, one of the stops was at Tai Po Market. The station’s building is unique among the many KCR stops due to its indigenous Chinese architectural style. It soon became a gathering spot for many in the market town.
When the KCR was electrified in 1983, the station relocated to the location it’s in today just 10 minutes’ walk away. The old spot is now home to the Hong Kong Railway Museum, where you’d still see the old station tracks and building, replete with life-sized models of old trains. Trains aside, Tai Po is named so because—as the most popular saying goes—people in the area once had to walk quickly because they were scared of the wild beasts in the rural area. This earned the place the name of “big strides” (大步) in Cantonese, which is pronounced the same as Tai Po (大埔).
When the Tung Chung line was being built in the 1990s, Olympic Station and the adjoining residential complex did not exist. In its place was Tai Kok Tsui Station, squat in the middle of the Tai Kok Tsui area. However, property developers baulked at the name: Tai Kok Tsui was a working-class neighbourhood and they wanted to attract a wealthier clientele.
Inspiration for another name struck when in 1996, windsurfer Lee Lai-shan won the first-ever Olympic gold medal for Hong Kong. In that same year, Hong Kong also won five gold medals at the Paralympics for fencing and relay. Developers struck a deal with the MTR and the Olympics Committee, giving birth to the Olympian City of today. Technically, it’s still part of Tai Kok Tsui, a place that is fading in Hongkongers’ memory as the more visible Olympic Station is used instead to refer to the area.
The consecutive trio of Mei Foo, Lai Chi Kok, and Cheung Sha Wan on the Tsuen Wan line seem put together until you step outside the station. Why on earth is Lai Chi Kok Park in Mei Foo? And Cheung Sha Wan Bus Terminus in Lai Chi Kok? What do you mean, the Cheung Sha Wan Government Offices is in Sham Shui Po???
The geographic schizophrenia has its origins in 1970 when MTR was preparing to launch its first services. Mei Foo Station back then was named Lai Chi Kok, Lai Chi Kok was Cheung Sha Wan, and Cheung Sha Wan of today was called So Uk Station. MTR realised belatedly that So Uk Station was too far from So Uk Estate to be named so, but because they had no idea what else to call it, they got rid of the name So Uk and shifted the names by one station. Thus, So Uk became Cheung Sha Wan Station, Cheung Sha Wan became Lai Chi Kok Station, and Lai Chi Kok became Mei Foo Station. Now you know what’s up the next time you’re at the lychee-red Lai Chi Kok station, going up the exit to Cheung Sha Wan Plaza!