ultramarinus – beyond the sea

TRIANGULAR PIER (三角碼頭): The Lost Port of Victoria Harbour, Sheung Wan (上環), Hong Kong

Tucked in a small street less than 20m off the busy Des Vouex Road West (德輔道西), Coffee & Laundry, a hybrid cafe/ self laundry shop is hardly noticeable from the main street. At the shop, we specifically picked up a bottle of cold brew coffee with a label designed by local artist Don Mak (麥東記). On the label, the artist illustrates the nearby street intersection of Des Voeux Road West and Wing Lok Street (永樂街), with a tram making a right turn towards Connaught Road West (干諾道西) before reaching the highway overpass. What really interesting about the label was its hidden backside, visible only when the bottle was emptied. The hidden picture depicts the same street intersection based on a 1925 photo, long before the overpass construction and land reclamation that erased the historical waterfront. Beyond the road bend stands a pier structure with a sign that says “Hong Kong, Canton and Macao Steamboat Company”, a British shipping company that has long dissolved. This was Wing Lok Pier (永樂碼頭), or more commonly known as the Triangular Pier (三角碼頭). Among the dozen or so cargo piers lining along the waterfront between Sheung Wan (上環) and Sai Ying Pun (西營盤), Triangular Pier was one of the largest.

Almost as soon as the British set foot on Hong Kong Island back in 1841, this relatively unknown island was declared a free port, a hub of the British Empire for international trading at the Far East. Their aim was to turn this scarcely populated fishing island into a port city and gateway into China. For the next hundred years or so, Triangular Pier and its adjacent piers had played crucial roles in establishing Hong Kong as an entrepôt between the West and East, and setting the basic economic and logistic infrastructure for the later development of manufacturing, servicing and finance sectors. In the 19th century, Hong Kong was a trading hub for tea, silk, and most important of all, opium. Between 1845-49, just a few years since the founding of the city, Victoria Harbour was already handling three quarters of opium from British India to China. Next came the export of Chinese laborers to Western countries, especially during the gold rushes in United States and Australia. From the Triangular Pier and its adjacent docks, 320,349 Chinese workers departed for their oversea destinations between 1851 and 1872 alone. In the next few decades, more Chinese went through the piers, either as temporary workers with 3-year contracts, or as immigrants who would eventually settle in the West. In the end, over one million Chinese had left their homeland from the piers of Sheung Wan. Triangular Pier also served as the entrepôt between the five global trading networks: China, Southeast Asia, India, Britain/ Europe, and the Americas. In 1899, more than 40% of China’s trade was handled in Hong Kong. Because of the piers’ success, many local and overseas (Chinese and Western) merchants chose to set up their offices in Hong Kong, establishing all kinds of trade related businesses, from the obvious shipping and trading companies, to banks, insurance offices, hotels, retail, ship builders, and the Nam Pak Hongs (南北行), trading companies that served as middle person between China and the outside world, namely United States, Australia and Southeast Asia. Entering the 20th century, Hong Kong was promoted as a tourist destination. Apart from cargo shipping, the Sheung Wan piers also emerged as a popular terminal for passenger steamships serving regional coastal cities, and as a stopover port for ocean liners between Asia and the West. In 1930 alone, 1,509,557 passengers traveled by ship between Hong Kong and the outside world. As air travel gained popularity after WWII, the opening of the Kwai Chung container port in 1972, and further land reclamation works along the north shore of Hong Kong Island, the story of Triangular Pier had officially come to the end.

Despite their vital roles for the city’s development, memories of Triangular Pier and other Sheung Wan/ Sai Ying Pun piers are fading fast in Hong Kong. After series of land reclamations, pedestrians would find no traces of the former piers. The only major pier remains is the Hong Kong-Macau Ferry Terminal (港澳碼頭), providing regular turbojets to Macau and ferries to Zhuhai and Shenzhen in China. While ferry services between Macau and Hong Kong has been departing from Sheung Wan since early colonial times, the current terminal at Shun Tak Centre (信德中心) was completed in 1985, beside the former Sheung Wan Gala Point (上環大笪地), the biggest night bazaar in the city before its closure in 1992. Highly popular with locals, Gala Point offered a variety of affordable entertainments and services, including outdoor eateries, street performances, storytelling, fortune telling, puppet shows, kungfu display, etc. Across the street from Hong Kong-Macau Ferry Terminal, the majestic North Block of Western Market proudly occupies an entire city block since 1906. Known as the oldest market building in Hong Kong, the four-storey Edwardian-style building is perhaps the only remnant left from the times of Triangular Pier at Sheung Wan waterfront today.

A bottle label by artist Don Mak (麥東記) depicts the current scenery of where the former Triangular Pier was located. [2020]
The back of the label depicts the Triangular Pier in early 20th century. [2020]
Taken in 1920, the aerial view shows the business district of Central on the left, and the densely built up areas of Sheung Wan and Sai Ying Pun to the right. The Triangular Pier and other piers of Sheung Wan are located at the right hand side in the photo. While Central was the main business districts dominated by Western companies, Sheung Wan was the main hub for trading firms established by Chinese merchants. [public domain]
Busy cargo piers at the waterfront area near the Western Market. [Photograph by Underwood & Underwood, 1900’s. Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/98507421/%5D
Workers unloading cargo from a freight boat in 1910’s. [Photograph by Eleanor Mitchell, est. 1912-17. Image courtesy of E.G. France Historical Photographs of China Mi01-066, University of Bristol Library (www.hpcbristol.net), (CC BY_NC_ND 4.0)]
On 20th October 1906, Paddle Steamer Hankow at Canton Steamer Wharf in Sheung Wan after a fire that claimed 130 lives. [Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain]
Around one million of Chinese emigrants and labourers departed from the piers in Sheung Wan for destinations such as the Straits Settlements (Penang, Singapore, Malacca, and Dinding), North America and Australia. Many would transfer money back to their home in China through banks in Hong Kong. [Chinese miners in the Colorado School of Mines’ Edgar Experimental Mine near Idaho Springs, Colorado, US. Photograph by James Underhill, Public Domain.]
Today, the skyline of Sheung Wan is as dense as ever, with the red and blue twin towers of Shun Tak Centre and Hong Kong-Macau Ferry Terminal standing out at the waterfront. [2020]
The former Triangular Pier was located at the intersection of Des Voeux Road West, Wing Lok Street and Connaught Road West, while the original waterfront is now occupied by a vehicular overpass. [2020]
The area of the former Triangular Pier is still occupied with nam pak hongs, the trading companies specialized in food merchandises from China. [Intersection of Queen Street and Connaught Road West, 2020]
Triangular Pier was also named Wing Lok Pier. From the site of the former Triangular Pier, Wing Lok Street stretches from the western end of Sheung Wan towards the business district in Central. [Intersection of Wing Lok Street and Des Voeux Road West, 2021]
In 1932, Wing Lok Street (永樂街) was home to a number of small banks, including Tianxiang bank (天祥銀號) on the left, and Five continents bank (五州銀號) on the right. [Photograph by Hagger F. Image courtesy of Historical Photographs of China FH01-150, University of Bristol Library (www.hpcbristol.net), (CC BY_NC_ND 4.0)]
Today, the small banks of Wing Lok Street might be gone, but the old nam pak hongs trading companies remain. [Wing Lok Street, 2021]
The famous Dried Seafood Street and Tonic Food Street actually refers to a group of streets: Des Voeux Road West, Wing Lok Street and Bonham Strand West, where nam pak hongs offer both wholesale and retail of dried seafood, herbs, and Chinese medicine. [Wing Lok Street, 2021]
Near the Hong Kong-Macau Ferry Terminal, the former waterfront during the time of Triangular Pier is now occupied by the overpass of Connaught Road West. [2020]
Located at the waterfront of Sai Ying Pun and Sheung Wan, Sun Yat Sen Memorial Park (中山紀念公園) sits on reclaimed land outside the former Triangular Pier. [2021]
Sun Yat Sen Memorial Park commemorates Sun Yatsen, father of Modern China, who had spent time as a student in the Central and Western District in Hong Kong. [2022]
A large lawn at the heart of Sun Yat Sen Memorial Park provides decent open space for the public. [2021]
200m east of Sun Yat Sen Memorial Park stands the twin towers of Shun Tak Centre and Hong Kong-Macau Ferry Terminal. [2020]
During the Covid pandemic, turbojet journeys to Macau are largely cancelled. [2020]
The Macau Ferry Bus Terminus is where the former Sheung Wan Gala Point (上環大笪地) night bazaar was situated. It was closed down in 1992 for the new waterfront redevelopment master plan. [2020]
Beyond Macau Ferry Bus Terminus, the waterfront promenade a pleasant spot for runners. [2020]
Across the street from Hong Kong-Macau Ferry Terminal, the historical North Block of Western Market is the oldest remaining market building in Hong Kong. [2020]
After renovation, the former Western Market has become a rather quiet shopping complex. [2020]

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