Between April 2021 and March 2022, land sales have generated an HK$91.6 billion (US$11.7 billion) income for the Hong Kong government, out of which HK$50.8 billion (US$6.5 billion) came from a 47,967 sq.m lot at Central Harbourfront, the prestige waterfront in the city’s financial district. Like many business areas in the city, this land is created from a massive land reclamation project. Every time a massive reclamation project along Victoria Harbour is completed, the government would increase its land supplies and potential sources of income. The city’s iconic skyline would undergo another phase of transformation, and the harbour would once again get narrower. This new piece of land comes from Phase 3 (2003 – 2018) of the Central and Wan Chai Reclamation project, the last major plan (first initiated in 1985) that altered the waterfront between Central and Wan Chai. Land sale has always been a major revenue source for Hong Kong ever since early colonial times. Due to the limited land supply and continuous growth of the population and economy, reclaiming land from the sea was a cost effective way for urban expansion given the city’s rocky and mountainous terrains. Since 1840’s, about 7000 hectares (70 sq.km) of land has been reclaimed. Compared to 59.1 sq.km of Manhattan Island, 70 sq.km is a decent piece of land housing 27% of Hong Kong’s population and 70% of its businesses. While the search of flat land has always been a challenge, voices against land reclamation among the public has gained momentum in recent decades. Given the negative impact to the environment and Victoria Harbour, many now consider land reclamation as an unsustainable solution that would likely do more harm than good.
Victoria Harbour is a vital component for the economic success of Hong Kong since the founding of city. It is a safe, all-weather and deep harbour, a perfect place to establish an international port as history has proven. Yet, 180 years of land reclamation has narrowed the water to such a great extent (distance between Wan Chai and Tsim Sha Tsui has been halved) that the natural potentials of Victoria Harbour has been diminished. On the other hand, many began to recognize the significance of waterfront planning and its impact on shaping the city’s identity. Up until 1980’s, the harbour was developed mostly for the purposes of infrastructure, with wharfs, piers, godowns, warehouses, and dockyards occupied most of the harbourfront, leaving only pockets in Central and Tsim Sha Tsui for public and commercial uses. Under such context, the Protection of the Harbour Ordinance was passed in 1997 to recognize that Victoria Harbour is more than just a safe port. The law acknowledges that “the harbour is to be protected and preserved as a special public asset and a natural heritage of Hong Kong people, and for that purpose there shall be a presumption against reclamation in the harbour.” First covering only the waters around Central, then expanding to the entire harbour in 1999, the law basically put a stop to land reclamation in Victoria Harbour. If the law is here to stay, then the HK$50.8 billion land at Central Harbourfront would be one of the last available plots of waterfront land in Central. Meanwhile, plans for creating a more accessible harbourfront for all to enjoy have begun to realize, with the completion of various waterfront promenades on the Island’s north coast in recent years. Also from the Phase 3 of Central and Wan Chai Reclamation, the lot east of the HK$50.8 billion lot remains unoccupied in the past decade. Designated as Central Harbourfront Event Space, this land has been a vital public space at the heart of the city, hosting events from music festivals and sporting events, to large scale art installations. After this lot is developed, would the 180 year transformation of Central Harbourfront can finally call it a day, or would the Protection of the Harbour Ordinance be reverted one day due to economic and political pressure? The future is anyone’s guess.
Smell of the sea fills the air between concrete building blocks along both sides of Des Voeux Road West. In the midst of busy traffic, wholesale workers quickly unload truck loads of dried seafood and large plastic bags of herbs at curbside and trolley them to different nam pak hongs (南北行), skillfully avoiding pedestrians, trams and buses along the way. Watching these hectic actions from the upper tram deck as a child, I used to dislike all the disorder on the Street of Dried Seafood (海味街). Revisit these streets three decades later, my feelings have completely changed. What I considered chaotic in the past actually looks full of life and energy to me now. What I saw as untidy now seems to be a precious connection to a bygone era, when the bustling docks at the Triangular Pier area was just right around the corner. Not to mention that I now find the natural odour of dried scallops and mushrooms smell much better than the artificial fragrances in shopping malls. The Triangular Pier and other Sheung Wan/ Sai Ying Pun piers are long gone. Where the shore once was has become an arterial road and concrete overpass. It is amazing to see that after a century of urban transformations, the seafood shops and nam pak hong wholesale companies are still thriving. Time may have changed, but the demands for traditional taste seems to have passed on.
Since the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) in China, a large group of merchants, mainly from Chiu Chow (潮州) in Eastern Guangdong, have migrated to various locations in Southeast Asia. The growing diaspora communities generated a great demand of Chinese goods in Southeast Asia, while there is also a strong demand in China and elsewhere for rice, spices and other products from Southeast Asia. As a free port situated right in the middle between China and Southeast Asia, Hong Kong was the perfect place for Chinese merchants (especially Chiu Chow businessmen) to set up their trading companies. These have become the original nam pak hongs (南北行), literally means ”south north companies). Situated in Sheung Wan and Sai Ying Pun, these nam pak hongs were the most influential Chinese businesses in the first century of colonial Hong Kong. With fleets of junk boats and aid of the monsoon winds, these companies established Hong Kong as a hub in the midst of trading routes. Some of their shipped products, such as dried seafood, were also sold by wholesale and retail shops in Sheung Wan and Sai Ying Pun. Clustered in several streets near the former Triangular Pier, many of these shops survived till the present day and have been promoted as the famous Street of Dried Seafood and Tonic Food (海味參茸燕窩街). As time goes by, some of their merchandises have also evolved to cater for modern lifestyle, but dried seafood, herbs, and traditional tonic food (such as ginseng) still remain popular along locals, especially as gifts during Chinese New Year.