Header image courtesy of John Thomson. Image taken in 1869, colourised by Chris Whitehouse (via Wikimedia Commons)
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.
The tale of Praya adds a layer of mystique to Hong Kong’s history. Derived from the Portuguese word praia (meaning “beach”), Praya used to be a waterfront road along the north-facing coast of Hong Kong Island, stretching between present-day Shek Tong Tsui and Admiralty. Although the origin of this Portuguese influence on Hong Kong is unclear, many sources point to the geographical proximity to Macau.
Residents of Kennedy Town may have noticed that two roads in their neighbourhood have the word “Praya” in their names today: the coastal—and aptly named—New Praya, and Praya, Kennedy Town, located next to the Belcher Bay Park. While these two roads have been in use since the founding of the neighbourhood in the 1880s, they were not officially named until the early 1900s, and thus are not directly related to the original Praya.
While these modern streets carry on the legacy of “Praya” in their names, the original waterfront road once known as Praya no longer remains, nor is it still located near the coast. Private land reclamation commenced along the coastline as early as the 1850s, when merchants and traders who had secured land lots along the harbour-facing road expanded their portion of the narrow coast by building out to sea, usually adding their own private piers for docking cargo ships.
The northwestern coastline of Hong Kong Island remained jagged until the official Praya Reclamation Scheme took place in 1868 under then-governor Sir John Bowring, which not only straightened out the coastline but also allowed significant new land to be built for commercial activities. This first project altered the original shape of the coastline so much that Praya was disconnected after its completion, and the governor took it upon himself to rename both portions of the road: Bowring Praya West and Bowring Praya Central.
A second project took place in 1890 under governor Sir William Des Voeux, extending the coastline even further north into Victoria Harbour and shaping the island into its current familiar shape. Praya and its Bowring variants were eventually renamed into today’s Des Voeux Road Central for the portion running along Central and Sheung Wan, while its western end was aptly named Des Voeux Road West.