Header image courtesy of “An Illustrated History of Hong Kong” by Nigel Cameron (via Wikimedia Commons)
With reporting from Janice Lam.
With our fast pace of life and the international perception of Hong Kong as a cyberpunk-esque city, it’s easy to forget that our hometown is actually full of history. From long-forgotten shoot-outs to the dark etymology behind certain place names, here are nine of our favourite lesser-known historical factoids about Hong Kong’s neighbourhoods.
While this tidbit is not that obscure—having happened within recent history—younger Hongkongers and newcomers to the city may be surprised to discover that Admiralty was once home to a large military compound. Constructed during the mid-1800s, Victoria Barracks was bound by Kennedy Road, Cotton Tree Drive, and Queensway. Along with Admiralty Dock—the naval dockyard that gave Admiralty its name—and Murray and Wellington Barracks, the four sites formed a large British military zone across Central and Admiralty called the Military Cantonment.
The site comprised of over a dozen blocks, most of which were used to house military staff and their families—though there was a large explosives magazine with a laboratory, part of which is now AMMO. For most of Hong Kong’s remaining colonial history, Victoria Barracks stayed intact, and was used by the Japanese during the 1940s occupation—even seeing the construction of a Shinto torii gate at the entrance of Colvin House (where the British Council is now located). After the site was fully returned to the Hong Kong government in 1979, a government-appointed committee published a report on how to best redevelop the land, preserving historically significant buildings and green areas, allocating some buildings to various associations, and redeveloping the rest.
In the barracks’ place, we now have Pacific Place and its related hotels, the Asia Society, the British Council and Consulate General Complex, and most importantly, Hong Kong Park. Vestiges of the barracks can still be seen throughout the park, with buildings like Flagstaff House, Rawlinson House, and Cassels Block now being used as Lock Cha Teahouse, the Cotton Tree Drive Marriage Registry, and the Hong Kong Visual Arts Centre, respectively.
Meanwhile, if you happen to pass by the junction of Queen’s Road East and Queensway, keep your eyes peeled for the stretch of road immediately west of Pacific Place Three, directly opposite 6 Queen’s Road West—there is a brick wall with three curious-looking protrusions just behind the zebra crossing. Those are actually (closed-off) entrances to a network of underground tunnels connecting the barracks with the police headquarters and Government House!
Walking through Poho nowadays, you would never know that the quaint, artsy little neighbourhood above Sheung Wan proper had ever been the site of a natural disaster—but it was, almost exactly a century ago. Prior to the development of the government’s modern landslip prevention measures, storms in Hong Kong were far more lethal than they are today. On the morning of 17 July 1925—around 9 am, to be exact—a retaining wall on In Mi Lane, a small lane beneath Caine Road, near Blake Garden, collapsed after days of heavy storms, with a total of 404 millimetres of rain falling across the city. Besides huge amounts of debris, the subsequent landslide also swept away seven four-storey houses (12–16 Po Hing Fong) containing 30 families, killing a total of 75 people.
As a well-to-do neighbourhood, many of the dead were rich and powerful individuals—including Chau Siu Ki, an insurance and shipping tycoon who also sat on the Legislative Council. It is the deadliest single landslide in Hong Kong history and remains one of the deadliest rainstorms in Hong Kong history, second only to the storm on 16 to 18 June 1972, which caused citywide landslides that killed at least 156 people.
If you read our article about Hong Kong’s historical taipans, you’ll know that Sir Paul Chater had an outsize influence on the city—from the legislature to the electrical grid and even the very terrain of Hong Kong Island itself. But at the end of his busy days being “the father of Hong Kong,” Chater would go have to go somewhere—and after 1904, that “somewhere” was Marble Hall, a magnificent mansion at 1 Conduit Road constructed from the finest European marble. Designed by Leigh & Orange—the same architectural firm that built such iconic local landmarks as the Ohel Leah Synagogue, Old Dairy Farm Depot (now the Fringe Club and Foreign Correspondents’ Club), and the stunning Main Building at HKU—it was widely regarded as one of the finest architectural achievements in Hong Kong.
His grand estate included a gatehouse and many gardens—which, being perched 500 feet above sea level, provided beautiful views of the city and harbour below. Inside the house (which spanned an estimated 62,000 square feet), visitors would be greeted by a grand staircase of polished marble, teak, and mahogany, while the list of amenities read like the facilities of a swanky modern clubhouse—verandahs, a drawing room, a card room, dining and billiards room, and much more, all outfitted in handsome mahogany and teak.
In his will, Chater bequeathed Marble Hall and everything inside—including his extensive painting and porcelain collections—to the city. Following the deaths of Chater and his wife Maria Christine Pearson in 1926 and 1935, respectively, ownership was transferred to the government, which allocated the residence to the naval commander-in-chief and renamed it “Admiralty House.” Marble Hall was then commandeered by Japanese troops in the 1940s, but just under a year after it was finally returned to the Hong Kong government, the entire house burned down in a cruel twist of events. The fire, which was caused by an electrical fault, left nothing but the gatekeeper’s lodge intact. The ruins were abandoned for seven years, during which time anything of value was scavenged from the wreckage, and the government finally demolished Marble Hall in 1953. The site was then developed into a residential estate for civil servants, with its name—Chater Hall Flats—being a nod towards the man who used to reside at its address.
Nowadays, Tiu Keng Leng is a relatively quiet residential neighbourhood, with notable points of interest including the gorgeous Tseung Kwan O waterfront and avant-garde Hong Kong Design Institute building. But did you know it was once home to a gigantic mill capable of producing 8,000 bags of flour every day?
Established by Canadian business Alfred H. Rennie in 1905 in partnership with Sir Paul Chater and Sir Hormusjee Mody, the presence of the Hong Kong Milling Company in Tiu Keng Leng led the area to be dubbed Rennie’s Mill. However, following the business’ failure in 1908, Rennie drowned himself. His death, which was erroneously reported as a hanging, led Cantonese-speaking locals to change the area’s name from Chiu Keng Leng (照鏡嶺; “Mirror Reflection Ridge”) to the similar-sounding Tiu Keng Leng (吊頸嶺; “Hanging Neck Ridge”).
Unsurprisingly, this name was deemed inappropriate and morbid, leading officials to change the name to its current name, Tiu Keng Leng (調景嶺; “Changing Scenery Ridge”) instead. The English name, however, stuck around for much longer, with “Rennie’s Mill” staying in use until the handover of Hong Kong in 1997.
While newcomers to Hong Kong may get a kick out of bringing up Wan Chai’s long-running history as a red-light district, there are far more interesting factoids about this historical neighbourhood. For example, Gresson Street—now a peaceful, plant-filled open-air market—was the site of a bloody gunfight over 100 years ago.
On 22 January 1918, four armed robbers raiding a tenement building on Gresson Street faced off against the police, resulting in a shoot-out that killed two suspects and four or five police officers, while wounding six more officers and another suspect.
The final suspect barricaded himself inside the building, leading to the first time a governor of Hong Kong—former Captain Superintendent of Police Francis May—personally negotiated with a suspect. As a result of the robber’s unwillingness to surrender, the force dispatched the Royal Garrison Artillery to “bomb [him] out.”
We take the existence of public housing for granted these days, walking through or passing by sprawling housing estates without question, or even staging photoshoots at the prettiest, most visually striking ones. Of them all, the most historic housing estate by far is Shek Kip Mei, which also provided the impetus for the public housing programme.
It all started in the 1950s, which saw a wave of mainland Chinese refugees flee to Hong Kong and settle in cramped shanty towns dotted throughout the hills of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. Not only were the conditions cramped, but many of the houses were built with wood and scavenged metal sheets, and residents used flammable materials like twigs, cardboard, and kerosene for cooking and lighting. On Christmas Day 1953, one such shantytown in Shek Kip Mei caught fire and burned for six hours, rendering its 53,000 inhabitants immediately homeless.
In response, then-governor of Hong Kong Alexander Grantham spearheaded an emergency resettlement programme for Shek Kip Mei’s residents, with the goal of speedily accommodating as many people as possible in as small (and structurally sound) a footprint as possible. As a result, we got the iconic high-rise H-block—so named for its H-shaped plan—with 24-square-feet allotted per adult, and 12 per child. One of Hong Kong’s last remaining H blocks, Mei Ho House, has been preserved and converted into a museum-slash-youth hostel.
Present-day Shek Tong Tsui is a cute (if sleepy) neighbourhood with a hint of small university town vibes, but you may be surprised to learn that it was once a thriving entertainment district known for its density of brothels catering to sailors, businessmen, and workers from the local granite quarry. (Fun fact: Shek Tong Tsui’s name, which translates to “Stone Pond Mouth,” is derived from this very same quarry.)
The area was at its most vibrant and bustling from 1903 to 1935, after a fire destroyed several brothels in Sheung Wan, leading the businesses to relocate to Shek Tong Tsui, where they operated until the government outlawed organised prostitution in 1935. A number of glamorous opera theatres, high-class restaurants, and opium dens were founded to cater to the bountiful clientele, leading to a “golden age” of Shek Tong Tsui that inspired Lilian Lee’s novel Rouge (on which the famous Anita Mui film is based).
We all know that Hong Kong’s history as a colony was rooted in Britain and Hong Kong’s twin appetites for tea and opium—but did you know that Causeway Bay, home to the costliest real estate in the world, was also shaped by drug peddlers?
Soon after the British Empire acquired Hong Kong, it began hawking swathes of land, with “East Point”—modern-day Causeway Bay—being sold to opium-ferrying merchant house Jardine Matheson for the princely sum of £565 in 1841. (You may also remember Jardine Matheson from their appeal to Britain to wage a little something called the First Opium War.)
Jardine Matheson turned East Point into a thriving commercial area, teeming with shipyards, warehouses, shops, and factories—including Hong Kong’s first sugar refinery and ice factory. Though the firm sold East Point Hill to another opium trader in 1923, its history in Causeway Bay can still be seen everywhere, from the Noonday Gun to Jardine’s Crescent, Jardine’s Bazaar, and Yee Wo Street (it’s the Chinese name for Jardine Matheson).
Side note: That opium trader who bought East Point Hill was called Lee Hysan—as in, Lee Gardens, Hysan Avenue, and Hysan Place—and his original Lee Gardens was a hotel and amusement park with circus-type entertainment and Cantonese opera.
Chances are, you will have heard of the trendy new gallery-café Artzbrew. While it technically resides on Queen’s Road West, the uphill slope it is perched on is known as Bird Bridge among those who grew up in Sai Ying Pun (and knowledgeable cabbies!). It is believed that Bird Bridge was originally built as a breakwater. In the 1840s, the road led up to a naval hospital (which moved to Wan Chai and became Ruttonjee Hospital).
You may be wondering why it is called Bird Bridge, as the road seems to have nothing to do with the flying creatures. Well, there is actually no conclusive answer to that. Some say it was because, at dusk, flocks of birds would return to the hills near the bridge—a visually stunning but audibly appalling scene. Others believe the name came from bird vendors that once did business here, as the bridge was in proximity to a theatre and several Chinese tea houses where people would bring along their birds—basically the predecessor of the Bird Market in Mong Kok.
Look at it now, and you will see five blocks along the wall that look like sealed-up holes. Once, there was a public toilet underneath Bird Bridge, and these were the windows for ventilation in the toilet. Although Bird Bridge is not listed as a historic building, it is definitely regarded as a unique fixture of the Sai Ying Pun neighbourhood.