It is no coincidence that Hong Kong was able to establish itself as an international shopping destination. Without sales tax and tariffs on most goods, geographical proximity to China and other manufacturing Asian countries, decades of expertise in sourcing, trading and global logistics, large demand on products from all over the world and at every price ranges, all contribute to the relatively low consumer prices and high merchandise variety in Hong Kong. Bilingual with English and Chinese also help to cement Hong Kong as a popular shopping paradise for international tourists, receiving over 65 million visitors a year (2018). To talk about the development of the retail scene in Hong Kong, it is impossible not to touch upon Causeway Bay, the city’s prime shopping district. And to talk about the emergence of Causeway Bay, the story should trace back to 1960.
On 3rd of November 1960, thousands of spectators arrived at the intersection of Great George Street (記利佐治街) and Paterson Street (百德新街) to witness a 4000-guest cocktail party for the grand opening of Daimaru (大丸). Back then, little people would foresee that a new upscale Japanese department store in the warehouse dominated East Point (東角) would rapidly and dramatically transform the urban landscape into a vibrant shopping hub that we now call Causeway Bay. It is no exaggeration to say that the arrival of Daimaru was revolutionary to most Hongkongers: 400 staff trained in Japanese etiquette, row of staff bowing at entrance to greet customers, customer-first services, fixed prices, delivery services, split payments, trial eats, attractive displays, soft background music, facial care services, 60% products made in Japan, and even ladies dressed in kimono to serve customers for trial makeups. These may sound no big deal today, but in 1960 the innovative shopping experience has become an instant legend, drawing almost 100,000 customers on the second day of business. After Daimaru, the next two decades saw another three Japanese department stores arriving in Causeway Bay. In its heyday, over 500,000 sf of retail space in Causeway Bay were split among the four department stores: Daimaru (大丸 1960 – 1998), Matsuzakaya (松坂屋 1975 – 1998), Mitsukoshi (三越 1981 – 2006) and SOGO (崇光 1985 – present). From then on, Causeway Bay has become the most essential shopping district in Hong Kong nicknamed as Little Ginza. The Japanese department stores have become synonymous to fancy home appliances, trendy fashion, delightful toys and mouthwatering food-hall, just as Daimaru has become synonymous to Causeway Bay, where public minibuses designated to the area would simply put Daimaru’s Chinese name dai yuen (大丸) as the destination.
Japan’s “Lost Decade” economic stagnation in 1990’s and the shift of consumer culture towards shopping malls significantly affect the Japanese department stores. After 38 years, Daimaru ended its business in Hong Kong in 1998, the same year when Matsuzakaya also closed its store at Patterson Street. Mitsukoshi was doing fine in Causeway Bay, generating 40% of its overseas earning from Hong Kong alone, but was forced to exit the city in 2006 due to demolition of its host building, Hennessy Centre, to make way for the much taller Hysan Place Shopping Centre. Thanks to a takeover by a local billionaire, SOGO remains as today’s anchoring landmark at the iconic street crossing that defines the very heart of Causeway Bay. With Asia’s largest LED screen installed in 2017, SOGO and the little triangular patch of pedestrian entrance forecourt remain as the most popular meeting spot in the area. Apart from financial crisis and change of consumer taste, one of the biggest issues behind the department stores’ inevitable demise was probably Hong Kong’s skyrocketing real estate price and retail rent in the past two decades, especially in Causeway Bay. In 2011, a 1000 sf (plus 600 sf mezzanine) noodle shop near Times Square was sold for a whopping HK$100m (US$ 12.7m). Without factoring in salary and utility expenses, the shop would need to sell 500 noodle bowls each day for 19 years in order to see the same HK$100m on their balance sheet. Eight years later in 2019, the same retail space changed hands again for HK$180m (US$ 22.9m). 2019 also saw Causeway Bay having the world’s most expensive retail rent for the sixth time since 2013, at US$2,671/ sf annually. In comparison, Upper 5th Avenue in New York was at US$2,250, London’s New Bond Street at US$1,744, Paris’ Avenue des Champs Elysées at US$1,519, Milan’s Via Monte Napoleone at US$1,466, and Tokyo’s Ginza at US$1,219. At such rate, not many shops, especially a multi-level department store, can manage a consistent revenue to commit a long term lease. Interestingly, the rent has dramatically dropped in recent years due to the pandemic.
From the rise of Daimaru, to establishing Causeway Bay as a shopping paradise and the world’s highest retail rental market, to the declining retail scene due to overinflated rents and recent pandemic, a cycle might have come to a full circle. Not only did the Japanese department stores help to define the development and urban landscape of Causeway Bay, they also contribute on establishing Hong Kong’s consumer culture that worth US$5.2 billion a month (2016), and successful build up Hongkongers’ common interest on Japanism, from consumer products and hospitality to food and culture. A generation has gone by since the closure of Daimaru, Japan remains as the no. 1 travel destination for Hongkongers, even for youngsters who have never experienced Little Ginza in Hong Kong.
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.