In 1997, the first Standard Charter Hong Kong Marathon attracted 1,000 runners. As love for the sport grows universally, the annual event in Hong Kong has gained popularity and attracted about 70,000 runners (pre-pandemic) from around the globe, defying the humid conditions to run in the subtropical heat. Despite the dominance of East African runners in the race, local participants have increased in both numbers and results in recent years. In fact, the sport has become so popular in Hong Kong that more and more running related shows are broadcasted on television, and more and more sports equipment shops have popped up in busy commercial neighbourhoods in recent years. Runners are everywhere: on sidewalks and waterfront promenades, or in parks and on trails in the countryside.
Some run for health benefits, while some run just to loosen up their minds after a long day of stress. For people who have had enough time sitting in air conditioned offices, doing an evening run is a decent alternative for going to the gym. For a city as dense as Hong Kong, it might be surprising to find that pleasant running routes are never far away. For residents on the Island side, many choose Bowen Road in Wan Chai, or Lugard Road at Victoria Peak, while on the Kowloon side, West Kowloon Art Park or Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade are the obvious choices. In recent years, the government put efforts to transform the once out of limits harbourfront areas on the north shore of Hong Kong Island into public promenades. These promenades have become instant hits for local runners. Harbourfront scenery is particularly pleasant between Central Piers and the Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai when the urban skyline lit up after dusk. With such amazing backdrop, there should be no excuse for anyone not to put on their running shoes and headphones, take in the lovely views and seaside breezes, and burn some calories.
I first learnt about the swimming sheds from my father, who used to explore the waters of Sai Wan (西環) at the westernmost area of Hong Kong Island in his childhood. Back in 1950’s and 1960’s, sea swimming was not necessary a half day journey to a beach far away from the city. Hongkongers could instead hop to one of the ten or dozen of swimming sheds along Victoria Harbour after work for a quick dip in the sea. This swimming culture originates in 1911, when the first swimming shed was built at Tsat Tsz Mui (七姊妹) in North Point. It became a hit and soon expanded to seven sheds in the area. Taking the tram to the swimming sheds was the most popular pastime back then. A newspaper in 1929 estimated that each day there were about 5000 swimmers visiting the swimming sheds. These sheds were constructed of bamboo and timber, housing changing rooms, lockers and showers facilities, and a series of decks on stilts to enter the water. At its peak, some big establishments even had eateries, boat rentals, and arena for roller-skates. Back then, limited transportation options kept many Hongkongers away from more faraway beaches, while the water of Victoria Harbour was still relatively clean.
As beach facilities and public swimming pools became more accessible to common people, the degraded water quality of the Harbour, and most important of all, land reclamation and waterfront redevelopment projects have basically nailed the coffin for all swimming sheds in 1970’s. In 1988, Chung Sing Swimming Shed (鐘聲泳棚) reopened at the western end of Kennedy Town, where lush green Mount Davis slopes down to the sea. This remnant from the past, with about 20 members, has become the last operating swimming shed in Hong Kong. The membership of the swimming shed is far from its heyday decades ago. But the relatively secluded Chung Sing Swimming Shed, which commonly known as Sai Wan Swimming Shed (西環泳棚) nowadays, has been offered a second life. Photos of the lovely sunset over tranquil water at Sai Wan Swimming Shed has become an Instagram sensation in the recent decade.
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.
In 1888, the same year when Peak Tram began operating up the slope of Victoria Peak, “Kowloon Ferry Company” was also established for managing the first regular steamboat services between Kowloon Peninsula and Hong Kong Island. Soon, the company expanded to a fleet of four ferries, and was renamed to “Star Ferry Co Ltd” (天星小輪), the name that is still in use today. Named by National Geographic Traveler as one of the “50 Places of a Lifetime” and topping the list of “Top Ten Most Exciting Ferry Rides” by the Society of American Travel Writers, it is no doubt that Hong Kong’s Star Ferry has been on the radar of international travelers for quite some time. For about HK$4 (US$ 0.50), anyone can enjoy a moment of peace crossing Victoria Harbour. In the past century, as a series of land reclamations have shortened the distance between Kowloon Peninsula and Hong Kong Island, piers in Central and Wanchai have been moved numerous times, and ferry rides across the Harbour have become shorter. No matter how short the ride has become, the star ferry experience still offers some of the most rewarding views of Hong Kong’s skyline. To have a moment of relaxation, we always prefer taking the ferry to Tsim Sha Tsui on the Kowloon side when time allows. The ride is particular lovely at sunset and night.
In 1888, Indian Parsee businessman Dorabjee Naorojee Mithaiwala established Kowloon Ferry Company and operated the first regular ferry service between Hong Kong and Kowloon, taking bread, cargo and passengers with his steamboat Morning Star. In 1890, three more boats, Evening Star, Guiding Star and Rising Star joined the service. Upon retirement, Mithaiwala sold his ferries and company to another British-Indian businessman Sir Paul Chater’s (遮打), one of the first business mogul who was responsible and involved in establishing many large corporations in Hong Kong, including Hongkong Land (置地), Hongkong Electric (港燈), Dairy Farm (牛奶公司), Kowloon Wharf (九龍倉), etc. In the 20th century, the fleet of Star Ferry continued to grow as different generations of ferry piers were erected in Central, Wanchai and Tsim Sha Tsui. Today, the Star Ferry has eight boats in total, with an average age of 58 years old. Since the completion of Cross-Harbour Tunnel in 1972 and the Harbour crossing Mass Transit Railway (MTR) in February 1980, Star Ferry is no longer the main means of public transportation between Hong Kong and Kowloon. It does, however, carry a sense of history and collective memory of the bygone era. For both locals and tourists, the ferry also offers arguably the best way to enjoy the skyline of Hong Kong. Taking the MTR or driving through the Cross Harbour Tunnel, one can hardly notice the famous harbour.
After an isolated retreat at Siwa Oasis, I once again headed back onto the road. This time, the destination was my home in Toronto. The journey from the Egypt’s Western Desert to Canada took me first to Alexandria and Cairo by land, and then Athens and Zurich by air before touching down on the North American soil. I took an 8-hour night bus leaving Siwa at 22:00, and arriving Alexandria in early morning the next day. I sat beside a friendly old lady who kept on offering me peanuts. After some snacks and chat, I felt asleep with my headphone music. When I get up, Alexandria was just minutes away.
Founded in 331 BC by Alexander the Great, Alexandria is the largest city by the Mediterranean and the second largest city in Egypt. In the Classical era, the city was well known for the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and its Great Library, the largest library in the Classical World with 400,000 scrolls. The city itself was once the largest city in the western world before overtaken by Rome. Alexandria remained as the capital of Egypt for a thousand years from Ptolemaic Egypt, throughout much of the Roman and Byzantine era until the Muslim conquest in 641 AD, when the political centre of Egypt was shifted to Cairo. By that time, the magnificent city that once rivaled Rome and Constantinople was already largely plundered and destroyed. In the modern age, Alexandria regained a part of its former glory as an important port of international trading, connecting Egypt and its products (such as Egyptian cotton) to the outside world.
Ma Shi Chau (馬屎洲), which literally means “horse excrement island”, is a tidal island off a traditional fishing village Sam Mun Tsai (三門仔) at the northeastern New Territories near Tai Po (大埔). Facing the Tolo Channel opposite from the dam of Plover Cove Reservoir (船灣淡水湖), Ma Shi Chau belongs to the UNESCO Geopark network in Hong Kong. The remote tidal island is famous for its unique rock formation and outcropped strata dated back to the Permian Period (280 million years ago).
Ma Shi Chau is accessible via Ma Shi Chau Sand Bar (馬屎洲橫水渡). A short hike on known as Ma Shi Chau Nature Trail will bring visitors to walk along the southeast coast of the island. Along the coastal areas, unique and colourful rock formations are visible everywhere. Millions of years ago, Ma Shi Chau was a basin in which surrounding waters continuously to deposit sediments such as sand and gravel. Over the years as water level changed and so as the kinds of sediments accumulated. Sedimentary rocks were formed after the process of lithification. Vaults and folds are also visible on Ma Shi Chau as tectonic movements caused by volcanic activities transformed the rock surface. Like many parts of Hong Kong, granite is also present at Ma Shi Chau as a result of magma intrusion during the Jurassic Period. Other than rocks, views of the Pa Sin Leng Mountain (八仙嶺) to the north, and the new town of Ma On Shan to the southeast across the Tolo Harbour (吐露港) are equally impressive.
Sam Mun Tsai (三門仔) is a small fishing village inhabited mainly by former boat people (fishermen families who lived on their boats in typhoon shelter).
From Sam Mun Tsai, a short walk brought me up to a hill dotted with graves. On the high point, fish farming nets in the waters of Plover Cove.
The trail continued to wind through the ridge of a hill dotted with graves.
The trail then went downhill to the Ma Shi Chau Sand Bar (馬屎洲橫水渡), a natural sand bar that originally would be submerged in water during during high tide. Over the years, villagers put boulders and sediments on the sand bar, so that it would be exposed above water even during high tide.
Today, the Ma Shi Chau Sand Bar is a convenient venue for a leisure stroll and water activities such as sea kayaking.
The Ma Shi Chau Sand Bar is also the gateway to the Ma Shi Chau Special Area, part of the Hong Kong Geopark.
On Ma Shi Chau Island, there is a short trail called Ma Shi Chau Nature Trail (馬屎洲自然教育徑) bringing visitors to a number of coastal woods and rock beaches. Giant Golden Orb Weaver, one of the largest kinds of spiders in the world, are quite common in the woods. Some of these are about the size of a human palm.
Visitors are usually fascinated by the rock formations when arriving at the first open coastal area.
Vaults and folds are visible at Ma Shi Chau due to prehistoric tectonic movements caused by volcanic activities.
Many of the outcropped strata and rock formations are colourful and eye catching.
Details of interesting rock formation on Ma Shi Chau.
Details of interesting rock formation on Ma Shi Chau.
Details of interesting rock formation on Ma Shi Chau.
To the northeast of Ma Shi Chau across the Plover Cove (船灣海), the 2km dam of Plover Cove Reservoir (船灣淡水湖) is only a few hundred metres away.
To the southeast across Tolo Harbour (吐露港), the new residential developments below Ma On Shan (馬鞍山) look like a bunch of toy blocks.
Construction of the new town of Ma On Shan began in 1980s, including private residential developments and public housing estates.
Fishermen may still test their luck in the Tolo Harbour.
In late afternoon, Pa Sin Leng Mountain (八仙嶺) north of Ma Shi Chau looks gorgeous.
Under the shadow of Pa Sin Leng Mountain (八仙嶺), the tiny island of Yeung Chau and the fish farms in the Plover Cove (船灣海) look like a peaceful picture.