In Canada, there has long been a debate of tearing down the elevated Gardiner Expressway in Toronto waterfront. Maintaining the deteriorating and somewhat underused infrastructure has become a burden for the city. As the trend of urban sprawl reversed in recent two decades, land in downtown Toronto, especially along the waterfront of Lake Ontario, has become precious asset for the city. Since 1960’s, the Gardiner has been a prominent barrier that cut off the city from its waterfront. The uninviting wasteland underneath the expressway has prevented most pedestrians walking to the waterfront especially at night. Since 1990’s, studies have been made for replacing the expressway, such as turning it into a tunnel or an urban park like the Highline in New York. Despite all the studies and debates, most of the Gardiner Expressway still remains in Toronto waterfront today. On confronting an aging waterfront expressway that hinders urban development and pedestrian connection, Toronto wasn’t alone. Negative aspects of these waterfront expressway are quite universal: poor waterfront access, wasteland below the structure, discontinued harbourfront, undesirable air ventilation, unattractive streetscape, high maintenance cost, etc. Since 1990’s, a wave of waterfront revitalization projects and demolition of elevated expressways have sprung up across the globe. Double decker Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco was torn down in 1991, and so did Rio de Janerio’s Perimetral Elevated Highway in 2014, and Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct in 2019.
In Hong Kong, sections of elevated expressways flank the Victoria Harbour in Western Kowloon and Eastern Hong Kong Island. The idea of building an expressway in Eastern Hong Kong Island was brought out in 1968 to tackle the traffic problems of King’s Road. It wasn’t until 1980’s that an elevated expressway, namely Island Eastern Corridor (東區走廊), was erected between Causeway Bay at the centre of Hong Kong Island and Chai Wan (柴灣) at the eastern end. The expressway includes a viaduct along the harbour between Causeway Bay (銅鑼灣) and Quarry Bay (鰂魚涌), passing by North Point (北角) along the way. East of Quarry Bay, the expressway shifts slightly inland from the coast, leaving a strip of waterfront promenade between Quarry Bay and Shau Kei Wan (筲箕灣). Designating the waterfront for public enjoyment was never the top priority in the 1980’s. From Causeway Bay to Quarry Bay, there are only a few boat landings and viaduct pillar supports where the public can walk out to have a peek of the harbour. In 2008, the authority proposed to construct a waterfront promenade between Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter and Shau Kei Wan. In the past decade, stretches of waterfront promenades have been built to connect the harbourfront from Central to Causeway Bay, up to East Coast Park Precinct. East of Causeway Bay however, the waterfront promenades remain fragmented. After years of speculations, boardwalk constructions under the expressway have finally commenced in North Point. If the works can really deliver a continuous walkway below Island Eastern Corridor, then sooner or later we can walk along the north coast of Hong Kong Island all the way from Central Pier to Aldrich Bay Promenade (愛秩序灣海濱花園) in Shau Kei Wan, via a 9.5km pedestrian path. Then the barrier that separates the harbour from Eastern Hong Kong Island would finally be broken.
At the east end of Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter (銅鑼灣避風塘) sits one of the hottest attractions in recent months. Officially opened on 25 September 2021, East Coast Park Precinct is one of the several projects aiming to enhance the waterfront experience along Victoria Harbour. The main feature of the park is the 100m long breakwater that marks the eastern end of Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter. Unlike most harbourfront promenades in the city, the majority of this breakwater is handrail free to avoid interruption to the seaview. At its tip stands a cylindrical structure spiraling up two to three storey high. The strange looking tower is actually a vent shaft of the Central-Wanchai Bypass East, constantly bringing fresh air into the submerged tunnel. East of the breakwater, a harbourfront promenade may not be the biggest open space in the city, but it offers an inviting and safe space for skateboarders and roller-skaters to practice their tricks and socialize with each other. Unlike most parks in the city, there aren’t that many restrictions at this space, not a piece of lawn that cannot be stepped on, or planter edges tilted to prevent people sitting down, or signs prohibiting people to eat and drink. Although not a big park, at least East Coast Park Precinct is easily accessible and welcoming in design, drawing large crowds of visitors, either for the skyline views, or for the recreation spaces.
Compared to most big cities in the world, Hong Kong is particularly problematic on the issue of public space. Worse than residents of Tokyo, Singapore or Shanghai, a 2018 study shows that urban Hongkongers have only 2.7 sq.m of open space per person, which is slightly larger than a toilet cubicle. In comparison, New Yorkers enjoy over 10 sq.m of public space per capita. Furthermore, these open spaces are not evenly distributed across the city. For some of the most vibrant and busy districts, such as Mongkok and Causeway Bay, the number drops to 0.6 to 1 sq.m per person. Many studies around the world have shown that having access to open spaces can bring great health and social benefits to people. Perhaps there is great opportunity for Hong Kong to tackle the open space issue today. As many old godowns and piers along Victoria Harbour become obsolete, expanding the extent of public promenade along the harbour is definite a good move to enhance the well-being for everyone.
One stop east of Causeway Bay (銅鑼灣) brings us to Tin Hau, a small MTR station that serves the easternmost neighbourhoods of Causeway Bay. At the station, it is not uncommon to see girls putting a big smile on their faces and taking selfies in front of the station name sign. In Chinese, “Tin Hau” (天后) literally means “heavenly queen”. The term is often used to name a famous diva or female pop icon. Yet for the station, “Tin Hau” actually refers to a small Tin Hau Temple at the foothill of Red Incense Burner Hill (紅香爐山). This Tin Hau Temple of Causeway Bay is one of the 100+ temples in Hong Kong dedicated to Tin Hau the Heavenly Queen, a Chinese sea goddess also known as Mazu (媽祖). Tin Hau is worshipped in the coastal regions of China, Taiwan, and among Chinese communities in Southeast Asia. The goddess is originated from the legendary shamaness Lin Mo (林默) in Fujian province of China dated back to the 10th century. Since Lin’s death, the shamaness of a local fishing village was somehow deified into Tin Hau, and spread wide beyond her home region.
At the site of an original temple dated back to 1747, the present Tin Hau Temple of Causeway Bay largely maintains the layout and appearance from its extensive renovation in 1868. Legend has it that local fishermen (some say a Hakka family from Kowloon Bay who often came to Causeway Bay to harvest grass) found a red incense burner in Tung Lo Wan (Causeway Bay), the former bay covering the area of today’s Victoria Park and parts of Tin Hau. They believed the incense burner was a representation of the deity Tin Hau, and thus constructed the first shrine at the temple site (previously by the shore). As believers and donors grew, the shrine soon developed into the temple that we saw today. Similar stories of fishing communities and their Tin Hau Temple are commonly found across the city, revealing the early history of Hong Kong before the British arrived.
Despite there are many Tin Hau temples in Hong Kong, there is only one Tin Hau MTR Station. After the station’s opening in 1985, the surrounding neighbourhood was soon named as Tin Hau as well. Adjacent to the shopping district of Causeway Bay, Tai Hang, and North Point, and encompassing half of Victoria Park, Tin Hau has been developed into an affluent residential area today. Most visitors come to Tin Hau either for Victoria Park, or for the restaurants along Electric Road (電氣道) and Tsing Fung Street (清風街). Named after photos depicting a Swedish lake taken by photographer Kim Holtermand, a touch of Scandinavian minimalism has been introduced to Tsing Fung Street in 2015 at TUVE Hotel. The hotel’s rustic interiors made of grey bricks, textured concrete, timber, white marble, oxidised metals and raw brass is like a world apart from the busy streets of Tin Hau and Causeway Bay, inviting visitors to experience the beauty of simplicity and tranquility at the heart of a bustling city.
Wandering the most popular shopping streets of Causeway Bay, it is impossible not to stumble upon streets or places that are named after either a tai-pan (business executive 大班) of Jardine Matheson (怡和洋行) or the family of Lee Hysan (利希慎). Paterson Street (百德新街), Jardine’s Bazaar (渣甸街), Jardine’s Crescent (渣甸坊), Yee Wo Street (怡和街), Percival Street (波斯富街), Matheson Street (勿地臣街), Keswick Street (敬誠街) all refer to the former executives of Jardine Matheson, the giant enterprise that is involved in almost all major business sectors one could think of in Hong Kong; while Lee Garden Road (利園山道), Hysan Avenue (希慎道), Lan Fong Road (蘭芳道), Hysan Place (希慎廣場), Lee Garden One to Six (利園一至六期), and Lee Theatre Plaza (利舞臺廣場) can be traced back to the family of Lee Hysan, the biggest landlord of today’s Causeway Bay. And, what did Jardine Matheson and Lee Hysan had in common apart from owning most of Causeway Bay for the last 180 years? The answer is OPIUM.
No matter we like it or not, the founding of Hong Kong is inseparable with the opium trade. It was the consequences of the two Opium Wars that Hong Kong Island and Kowloon were ceded to Britain. It was the opium trade that first brought wealth to the city. It was the opium trade that brought in investments to develop Hong Kong as the most efficient port city in the region. Soon after becoming a British colony, Hong Kong emerged as the world’s official hub of opium trading and processing. By mid 19th century, three quarters of Indian opium were being handled in Victoria Harbour, and 40,000 chests of opium (worth 16 million pounds sterling at that time) were stored in the city on average at anytime. Due to the trade of opium and other products such as tea and silk, there was a large demand for godowns (warehouses) along the harbour. On 14 June 1841, less than 6 months since the British began their rule, the first lots of land were sold in Hong Kong. For 565 pounds sterling, Jardine Matheson & Co. (怡和洋行) bought 5,309 sq.m of land in East Point to set up their first offices and godowns in the colony. Their office was set up at Lot No. 1, where the former Excelsior Hotel (怡東酒店) stood in modern days. Formed in 1832 by William Jardine and James Matheson, Jardine Matheson traded tea, cotton, silk, and also opium in the Canton area. After settled in Hong Kong, it soon grew to become the largest foreign trading company in the Far East. In the following decades after purchasing their first lots of land, the company continued to expand their headquarters in the area, building godowns, wharves, offices, factories, houses for ships and crews, and infrastructure across Causeway Bay. In 1872, Jardine Matheson ended its involvement in the opium trade after acquiring enormous profits. In the next 150 years, the company continues to diversify itself into the present Fortune Global 500 company, with a huge business portfolio both in Hong Kong and abroad: shipping, railway, real estate (Hongkong Land), hotels (Mandarin Oriental), ice and dairy (Dairy Farm), Hongkong Tramway, Star Ferry, aviation management (Jardine Aviation Services), motors (Jardine Motors, Jardine Cycle and Carriage, Astra International), export and import, banking, cotton spinning, textile manufacturing, sugar refinery, construction (Gammon), food industry (Maxim’s Caterers, Pizza Hut HK), retail (7-Eleven HK, IKEA HK), engineering (Jardine Engineering Corporation), insurance, beer brewery, cold storage… and the list just keeps on going.
Seven years after Jardine Matheson stopped their opium trade, Lee Hysan (利希慎) was born in Hawaii in 1879 into the family of Lee Leung-yik (利良奕), a businessman who obtained great wealth in the Hong Kong’s opium trade. After working as a teacher, interpreter, bank staff, timber factory owner, and shipping company manager, Lee Hysan took over his father’s business, and became a highly successful opium trader, earning him the nickname Opium King. In 1923, Lee Hysan bought the land of Jardine’s Hill (East Point Hill) from Jardine Matheson for the sum of HK$3.8 million. Roughly defined by today’s Percival Street, Lee Garden Road, Yun Ping Road, Leighton Road, and Lee Theatre, this huge piece of land was named Lee Garden (利園山) and intended to host a series of opium refinery facilities. Soon international opium trade was banned, Lee and his family turned to other ideas for the land. In 1925, Lee Garden Amusement Park (利園遊樂場) opened its doors on East Point Hill, becoming the first crowd puller of Causeway Bay. But it was the adjacent Lee Theatre (利舞臺) at 99 Percival Street that proved to be the crowd’s favorite. Opened in 1927, the 2000 seats theatre soon became the city’s primary venue for Chinese operas, and later for movies (first being Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator in 1940), concerts, and live shows such as the Miss Hong Kong Pageant. After screening Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the iconic theatre was demolished in 1991 to make way for Lee Theatre Plaza (利舞臺廣場), a 25-storey retail and restaurant complex. Apart from theatre and amusement park, the Lee family also established Lee Garden Restaurant, Lee Garden Hotel, and a number of residential and office developments in the area, after blasting away the rocky East Point Hill bits by bits since 1953. The last bit of flattening work was completed during the construction of Hennessy Centre (興利中心), the former 41-storey office complex where Mitsukoshi (三越) Department Store was located. The site was redeveloped again in 2006 and reopened as the new 40-storey landmark called Hysan Place (希慎廣場). Today, many developments at Lee Garden are still under the Lee family’s control, including commercial complexes Lee Garden One to Six, Lee Theatre Plaza, and Hysan Place.
East Point was the heart of Hong Kong’s opium trade and almost became home of the city’s biggest opium refinery facility. But as the story unfolded, it eventually evolved into the city’s most well known shopping district: Causeway Bay, and become one of the world’s most expensive retail market. With four prestige Japanese department stores anchoring the lands of Jardine Matheson and Lee Hysan, Causeway Bay was nicknamed “Little Ginza” in 1980’s. Today, hardly any Hongkonger could connect their beloved shopping paradise with the lucrative trade of poppy tears.
Despite staying in nearby Tai Hang (大坑) for five years and have regularly taken walks in the adjacent Victoria Park (維多利亞公園), we hardly cross the busy Gloucester Road to visit Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter (銅鑼灣避風塘). Only twice during evening walks did we cross the footbridge from the park to get a closer look at the yachts and fishing boats. Two years ago, in a late summer afternoon, I made a visit to the shelter when there was still light to project beautiful reflections on the placid water. Half an hour after sunset, feature lights of distant skyscrapers lit up one by one, both on the Island and Kowloon side. Near Tin Hau (天后), I walked out to one of the concrete bases of Island Eastern Corridor (東區走廊) via a few wooden planks, to get a little closer of the boats. To my surprise, on one of the fishing boats there were two elderly making dinner on the boat deck. They seemed to have no interest in me, nor anything onshore. It seemed that the boat deck was their living room and kitchen, and the typhoon shelter, their safe haven in the city.
Typhoon shelter (避風塘), a cove separated from the sea with a breakwater and a narrow passageway, can be found in a number of places in Hong Kong. The shelters protect fishing boats and yachts from stormy weather, especially during the typhoon season. In the old days when fishery was still a vital industry for Hong Kong, many fishermen would actually live on their boats. Apart from the time out in the sea, the fishermen would call the typhoon shelters home. Most of these fishermen were known as Tanga (蜑家) or simply the “boat people”. Often referred as “sea gypsies” in the past, the boat people were a group of nomadic people who spent most of their living on boats. They were originated from a minority ethnic group in Southern China over a thousand years ago. Throughout centuries, the boat people spread along the coastal regions and river deltas in China. They had their own customs, rituals, beliefs, cuisine, and dialect. Due to the decline of fishery, poor living conditions, and high illiteracy rate, the boat people of Hong Kong have largely relocated onshore in 1990’s by the colonial government. As descendants of the boat people assimilated into mainstream Hongkongers, their unique culture has gradually faded, except some of their cuisine that still appear on restaurant menus as ”Typhoon Shelter style” dishes.
The city’s first and probably most famous typhoon shelter is Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter. Situated at the eastern limit of the historical Victoria City (維多利亞城), the name “Causeway Bay” is literally derived from the bay with a causeway going across at present day’s Causeway Road (高士威道). The Chinese name “Tung Lo Wan” (銅鑼灣) refers to a bay that shapes like a bronze gong, a percussion instrument dates back to about 200 BC in China. The former shoreline can still be traced from the alignment of Tung Lo Wan Road (銅鑼灣道), the street that separates Causeway Bay and Tai Hang. In 1880’s, the heavily silted bay was reclaimed up to Causeway Road. Beyond Causeway Road, the city’s first typhoon shelter was established in 1883 to serve the surrounding fishing communities. In 1953, another massive phase of land reclamation converted the 30 hectare typhoon shelter into probably Hong Kong’s most well known park, Victoria Park, and pushed the typhoon shelter further north to the present location. Construction of the Cross-Harbour Tunnel (紅磡海底隧道) in late 1960’s and the Central-Wan Chai Bypass in 2009 further defined the boundary of today’s typhoon shelter. Today, not only does the typhoon shelter offer protection to boats of the former fishermen and adjacent Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club (香港遊艇會), it also becomes a popular retreat for anyone who seeks a moment of serenity from the sometimes suffocating shopping scenes of Causeway Bay.
Before the pandemic, Hong Kong was a highly popular tourist destination in Asia, ranked among the top cities in the world for the number of international visitors. Just like many tourist cities around the globe, tourism in Hong Kong has suffered enormously during the pandemic. The numbers of foreign visitors have plummeted, and the once crowded sights across the city have been largely tourist free. Despite the loss of tourist activities, this situation is prompting the return of Hongkongers to places they would normally avoid before the pandemic. Apart from popular museums, beaches, amusement parks, and shopping centres, waterfront promenades along Victoria Harbour, especially in Tsim Sha Tsui at the tip of Kowloon Peninsula, has always been packed with tourists before the Covid. Just like our childhood years, today we can once again wander freely on the Avenue of Stars or linger in the shadow of the Tsim Sha Tsui Clock Tower without bumping into aggressive tourist groups. At night, the undulating reflections of neon lights, LED billboards, and glittering building facades in the water provides the perfect foreground for the skyline of Central, backed upon the silhouette of Victoria Peak. For decades, this postcard perfect Harbour panorama has served as the impeccable visual representation of Hong Kong’s prosperity and vibrancy, illuminating the legend of a city that never sleeps. Beyond the charming skyline on both sides of the water, the busy Victoria Harbour has much more to offer than just its visual glamour.
In Feng Shui, the traditional Chinese practice that harnesses the energy of surrounding environment, the element “water” is often associated with wealth and fortune. For Hong Kong, this water element can be definitely identified as the Victoria Harbour. From founding of the trading port, to the establishment of Far East’s finance and servicing hub, Victoria Harbour, the 41.88 km2 stretch of sea between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon Peninsula, has always played a vital role. The Harbour is indeed where the story of Hong Kong begins. Known for its deep and sheltered water, the natural landform of the Harbour was one of the main reasons why Hong Kong was chosen by the British in 1841. Since the mid-19th century, the British put a great deal of effort to establish Hong Kong as their subtropical metropolis in the Far East and commercial gateway into China. The Harbour and its waterfront developments have been at the centre stage of Hong Kong’s evolution every since. To sustain population and economic growth, major land reclamation projects have never ceased to transform the urban extent of the city ever since 1840’s. More office towers, residential complexes, hotels, shopping centres, government buildings, museums, convention centre, stadiums, cruise terminals, promenades, piers, etc. would be erected after each reclamation scheme, redrawing the urban coastline at least once in every generation.
For many neighborhoods in the city, Victoria Harbour is always just a few blocks away. Exploring the everchanging waterfront areas is an interesting way to understand the past, present and future of Hong Kong. Our next series of posts will do exactly that.
The fire dragon dance happened over three consecutive nights in the Tai Hang neighborhood. On the night of the Mid Autumn Festival, and the second night of Tai Hang Fire Dragon celebration, the performance would take place in both Tai Hang and Victoria Park, where the annual lantern festival was held. After the fire dragon performers left Tai Hang for Victoria Park, the residents and local business owners in Tai Hang continued their celebration by taking over the streets in small groups, doing barbecue, having a few rounds of beer, playing with glow sticks and lanterns, and mingling with neighbors and new acquaintances under the flickering candle light.
In the Victoria Park, visitors packed the football fields to attend the lantern festival, taking photos in front of the large lantern displays. At the other side of the park, families, children, couples and friends gathered in small groups on the grass field, having picnic, playing with lanterns, and marveling at this year’s super full moon (tradition of Mid Autumn Festival since ancient times).
After the fire dragon dance was over in Tai Hang, Wun Sha Street, the main street in the neighborhood, was left quiet again.
Community celebrations continued on the laneways after the fire dragon left Tai Hang.
Barbecue was popular for celebrating the Mid Autumn Festival among local businesses in Tai Hang.
In the good old days, playing with candles and paper lanterns on the street was popular among kids.
The street became a secret garden for kids playing with their colourful glow sticks.
Adults and kids had different ways celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival.
This ice-cream store offered special mooncake flavour ice-cream.
At the entrance to the Fire Dragon Path was a large sign for celebrating the 136th Tai Hang Fire Dragon Festival. The Fire Dragon Path connects Tai Hang with the Victoria Park.
A full moon rose between clouds over Fire Dragon Path.
The festive Lantern Festival at Victoria Park included large lanterns and a fair selling traditional snacks and local crafts.
When the fire dragon dance entered Victoria Park, the lights dimmed and all eyes were at the dragon performance.
Traditional red lanterns were hung over the football fields of the Victoria Park.
Many large lanterns were on display at the lantern festival, and this one made by traditional craftsman was the centerpiece of the show.
Families and friends gathered on the grass field,
Illuminating a paper lantern is wonderful way to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival.
Everyone had their own design for their little moon viewing spot.
Despite the fact that there were thousands of people celebrating together on the green field, there was a sense of tranquility in the dark embraced by the soft light from candles and colourful glow lights.
Across the street from Victoria Park, the traditional signage of Tai Hang’s Fire Dragon Dance Festival reminded everyone that the dance would be held again the following night.