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Behind the Name: Jervois Street

By Celia Lee 10 October 2023

Header image courtesy of Herostratus (via Gwulo)

If you already know all about Hong Kong’s major landmarks, you will be interested to learn that the vibrant history of the city is often hidden in plain sight, surrounded by high-rises interspersed with traffic-packed streets.

With the best-kept historical secrets woven into the fabric of everyday life, location names are a big part of our rich cultural landscape, revealing some of the most interesting aspects of the past. From local pirates to a royal visit, our “Behind the Name” series explores a whole host of places in Hong Kong with fascinating stories behind their names.

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Jervois Street and its surroundings after the fire. Photo: Herostratus (via Gwulo)

Jervois Street (蘇杭街/乍畏街)

The history of Jervois Street goes back to a fateful day in 1851. On 28 December, a great fire raged around Sheung Wan Market, claiming at least 30 lives and devastating hundreds of Chinese-style houses in the surrounding area. In the aftermath, William Jervois, the then-commander and lieutenant governor of Hong Kong, was tasked with redeveloping the fire-torn district, thus constructing Jervois Street, phonetically translated as 乍畏街 (zaa3 wai3 gaai1) in Cantonese. (Presumably, the man named the street after himself to commemorate his good deed.)

Once Jervois Street was revived, it became a place for merchants from mainland China to sell their goods to local and Western customers. One of the main products for sale was silk from Jiangnan, threads, and other embroidery essentials. Apart from silk, most goods came from Suzhou and Hangzhou, and so locals often referred to the street as “Su Hang Street” (蘇杭街; sou1 hong4 gaai1).

Since the phonetic translation of “Jervois”—“乍畏”—not only sounds coarse to the listener, but the linguistic phrase also means “frightened,” which is considered bad luck by many Cantonese-speaking locals, the official Cantonese name of Jervois Street was changed to “Su Hang Street” in 1978.

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Celia Lee

Staff writer

Born and raised in Hong Kong and educated in the UK, Celia is passionate about culture, food, and different happenings in the city. When she’s not busy writing, you can find her scouting for new and trendy restaurants, getting lost in a bookstore, or baking up a storm at home.