Header image courtesy of the Hong Kong Museum of Art (via Hong Kong Memory)
Although Hong Kong is a small city, it bears a rich and illustrious history from its unique blend of Chinese and British influences. With its colourful background as the Pearl of the Orient, there are many almost-forgotten tales embedded in Hong Kong’s DNA that might surprise even long-time residents. Here are eight obscure historical facts about Hong Kong you may not have known before, so take the opportunity to study up so you can win trivia nights and impress your pals at your next dinner party!
Have you ever looked up and wondered why so many buildings in Hong Kong are painted a pale shade of pink? Turns out, it has everything to do with cost and very little to do with aesthetics. Historically, red was the colour of choice for many public housing estates, as it is the most affordable of all paints. Stemming from red ochre, a compound that is readily obtainable at low costs, it is the cheapest natural pigment to use. However, due to the intensity of the colour, building developers considered that a bright red building might be too aggressive for residents and the public, so they settled on a softer colour of pink, inadvertently spurring the establishment of pastel-coloured public housing estates.
In Hong Kong today, there only around 60 colonial-era post boxes still in service. Before the Handover, all of the post boxes were painted red, in line with the established style that has become synonymous with the Royal Mail post boxes in the United Kingdom. However, when Hong Kong was formally handed over to China in 1997, so, too, were the unassuming post boxes, and they underwent a transformation. Some say they were painted green in order to distinguish them from their former connections.
All throughout Hong Kong, you will be able to spot these iconic and historical buildings with rounded corners. Most of these buildings with rounded corners date back to the 1950s and 1960s and are still fairly well-preserved today. Why are the corners rounded, you ask? One reason is to follow the shape of the pedestrian street corners and to enable pedestrians to see more easily. Another reason is that the rounded corners that projected views on the sidewalks were, in fact, originally the building’s balconies. As the balconies weren’t closed, contractors, developers, and owners did not have to pay a surcharge on the land. Over time, policymakers tolerated this problem of the enclosed balconies.
Admiralty was initially developed as a military area for the British Army. In the nineteenth century, there were a couple of barracks and administrative buildings, and a dock called Admiralty Dock. Admiralty was named “Golden Bell” in Cantonese as one of the barracks, Wellington Barracks, had a golden bell used to tell the time.
Founded in 1904, the Hong Kong Tramways is a public transport system that runs on Hong Kong Island starting from Shau Kei Wan and ending at Kennedy Town. While you may have ridden it plenty of times, what you may not know is that the tram is one of Hong Kong’s oldest public transportation systems, founded under British rule, and the largest double-decker tram system still in operation today.
Walking down Lyndhurst Terrace today, it’s difficult to imagine that this locale was where Hong Kong’s earliest brothels were established. Located in Central and intersecting with Hollywood Road and Wellington Street, Lyndhurst Terrace was named after John Singleton Copley Lyndhurst, who was a British politician and lawyer. Around the mid-nineteenth century, many Western prostitutes set up business on Lyndhurst Terrace, making it one of the earliest places for pleasure seekers. Chinese brothels, on the other hand, were located in the Tai Ping Shan area. Lyndhurst Terrace is also notable as the location where Hong Kong’s homegrown Tai Cheong Bakery (泰昌餅家) first opened its famed pastry shop in 1954.
Throughout the time that the British ruled Hong Kong, they attempted in multiple instances to draw up invisible lines to split up and zone people to different areas. An example of this could be seen on Hollywood Road in Central. During the late nineteenth to the twentieth century, Hollywood Road acted as an invisible border, which served its purpose to divide the lives of foreigners and Hong Kong locals. South of Hollywood Road was given to the expats living in Hong Kong, while the north of Hollywood Road was given to the locals. Although it happened in the past, it has left a lasting impact on the way in which people live now and how Hong Kong land was developed and managed.
Looking back on Hong Kong’s history from a fishermen’s village to a dazzling metropolis, it’s hard to imagine that it was not always smooth sailing. In fact, the historical colony of Hong Kong did not initially start off as a functional port. Although trade partnerships were already in place and companies such as Swire were already prospering, there were still a lot of societal problems that troubled the city. Difficulties such as fever, plague, droughts, and seasonal typhoons impacted daily life and the budding infrastructure. There was also an abundance of criminal activity, proliferated through a network of opium dens, gambling clubs, and brothels that flourished throughout the city.