Header image courtesy of “An Illustrated History of Hong Kong” by Nigel Cameron (via Wikimedia Commons)
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 five of our favourite lesser-known historical factoids about Hong Kong’s neighbourhoods.
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.