As the tram turns into Shau Kei Wan Main Street East (筲箕灣東大街), all passengers are getting ready to hop off at Shau Kei Wan Tram Terminus, the easternmost tram stop in Hong Kong. Winding through Shau Kei Wan Main Street East where the original coastline used to be was like walking into an outdoor feast, with restaurants and eateries of all sorts lining on both sides. For some reasons, On Lee Noodle Soup (安利魚蛋粉麵) across the street from Tin Hau Temple (天后廟) is often the busiest. With so many options, it is often hard to pick a restaurant here. On the hill between Tin Hau Temple and Lei Yue Mun Park, thirteen blocks of 60-year social housing estate Ming Wah Dai Ha (明華大廈) awaits for their turn to be demolished and replaced by new highrise apartments. To the north, the foodie paradise Shau Kei Wan Main Street East abruptly ends as it reaches the overpass of Island Eastern Corridor. Beyond the elevated expressway, the view finally opens up to Victoria Harbour, where the reclaimed Aldrich Bay opens to Shau Kei Wan Typhoon Shelter (筲箕灣避風塘), one of the several last remaining typhoon shelters in Hong Kong. Outside the causeway, Victoria Harbour enters a narrow channel to the east, with a width at times no more than 500m. Known as Lei Yue Mun (鯉魚門), the sea channel signifies the eastern end of Victoria Harbour.
Despite fishery is no longer a dominant industry, the typhoon shelter is nonetheless full of boats. Right by the typhoon shelter, a historical temple known as Tam Kung Temple (譚公廟) reminds visitors that Shau Kei Wan was once a prosperous fishing village under the protection of sea deities such as Tam Kung (譚公) and Tin Hau (天后). That was exactly what the British found at Shau Kei Wan in 1841: storm shelter, fishing village, shrines of sea gods, and lots of fishing boats. Continuing east on Tam Kung Temple Road, a dozen or so small shipyards stand in between the sea and the road. These shops now serve mainly yachts for wealthy customers. Next to the row of shipyards, a monumental concrete shuttle lift tower appears out of nowhere against a lush green hill. The once essential fortification hill overlooking the harbour where guns were mounted and soldiers were stationed has been transformed into Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defense (香港海防博物館). Preserving military structures dated back to 1887, the museum is perhaps the most ideal place in the city to learn about the defense of colonial Hong Kong and Victoria Harbour. At both Kowloon and Hong Kong side of Lei Yue Mun Channel, numerous defensive structures were erected at places including Devil’s Peak (魔鬼山) at Lei Yue Mun in Kowloon, the hilltop Lyemun Barracks (now Lei Yue Mun Park) overlooking Shau Kei Wan, and the former hill fortifications at Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defense signified the crucial roles Lei Yue Mun played to protect Victoria Harbour. Out of all the military sites, perhaps the most interesting one is the former Torpedo Station (舊魚雷發射站). It was quite a shock to see an old torpedo on display in a vaulted cave right by the sea.
From the Sai Wan Swimming Shed in Kennedy Town to Shau Kei Wan, we have loosely follow Victoria Harbour along the north shore of Hong Kong Island in the last few months. Next we will cross the harbour to the Kowloon side.
In 1974, the master plan to redevelop 96 acres of Swire’s land in Quarry Bay was approved by the Hong Kong government. The proposal included converting Taikoo Sugar Refinery into the city’s second business hub that is now known as Taikoo Place (太古坊), and transforming 53 acres of former Taikoo Dockyards into Taikoo Shing (太古城). Literally translated as “Swire’s City”, Taikoo Shing contains 61 residential towers (12,698 apartment flats) and one of the island’s largest shopping and commercial complex known as Cityplaza (太古城中心). The development of Taikoo Shing led the dramatic transformation of Swire from an industrial giant into a real estate developer and business conglomerate.
After inheriting the family trading business Swire Group from his father in 1847, British businessman John Samuel Swire took the company overseas to expand his cotton and sugar trade in China. In Shanghai, he established Taikoo Sugar Refinery and later the shipping business China Navigation Company, laying the foundation for the modern Swire Group (太古集團). In 1881, John Samuel Swire selected a site at Quarry Bay (鰂魚涌) in Hong Kong, below lush green Mount Parker (柏架山) to establish his sugar refinery factory. The factory expanded rapidly to become the world’s largest sugar refinery in 1925. After John Samuel Swire died, the company further developed the adjacent land into a massive dockyard that serviced, repaired, and built vessels for their shipping business China Navigation Company. Completed in 1907, Taikoo Dockyard (太古船塢) constructed some of the world’s largest ships in early 20th century, along with its Kowloon counterpart Whampoa Dockyard (黃埔船塢). With the sugar refinery and dockyards, Quarry Bay emerged as the largest industrial district in Hong Kong before WWII. After the sugar refinery ceased production and the dockyard moved to Tsing Yi Island in early 1970’s, Swire Group looked to reinvent itself for the contemporary era, and to transform Quarry Bay into a new residential and business hub. The 1974 master plan opened up a whole new world for Swire, diversify the company’s profile with real estate, retail services, and hospitality.
Four decades have passed since Taikoo Dockyard was turned into Taikoo Shing, and Taikoo Sugar Refinery into Taikoo Place. After work, we would sometimes walk from our office to Taikoo Shing for grocery. The 20-minute walk along Quarry Bay Promenade Pet Garden (鰂魚涌寵物公園) is one of the most pleasant harbourfront walks in Eastern Hong Kong Island. Constructed in late 2012, the pet garden offers a great venue for pet dogs and people to mingle, and lookouts to enjoy the spectacular view of Victoria Harbour and East Kowloon. As the waterfront walk reaches Taikoo Shing, the decommissioned Fireboat Alexander Grantham, Hong Kong’s flagship fireboat that served the city between 1953 to 2002, was on display at the promenade. Built in early 1950’s by Hong Kong & Whampoa Dock Co. Ltd., the fireboat is a splendid reminder of the city’s shipbuilding history, the once thriving industry at the Victoria Harbour when Hong Kong has yet become a financial and business hub.
For several occasions a year, usually in summer, fiery red skies would blanket Victoria Harbour. People at both sides of the harbour would flock to the waterfront after work to take photos of the beautiful skies. For me, the closest harbourfront lookout is North Point Pier, a public ferry pier situated below the expressway Island Eastern Corridor (東區走廊) at the northernmost point of Hong Kong Island. Built in 1963, North Point Pier connects Hong Kong Island with Kowloon City, Hung Hom, and Kwun Tong in Kowloon. Together with the adjacent bus terminal and MTR station, the pier has established North Point as a transportation hub in eastern Hong Kong Island. But for many, North Point Pier is much more than just a transport interchange. It is also a community node where neighbours mingle, a dog park, a fishing spot for retirees, a dining destination, a seafood market, a venue for the controversial fish release ceremonies for Buddhist believers, and most recently, a hotspot for real estate investors. For us, North Point Pier is where we would hop on and off bus 23 to and from work, and have Japanese omurice or Vietnamese pho for lunch at the new Harbour North Shopping Centre (北角匯) below the luxury apartments of “Victoria Harbour” (海璇). Awkwardly, “Victoria Harbour” here is used as the name of the real estate development, the project that pushed up the record square foot rate of North Point to HK$65,846 (US$ 8,400) in 2018.
But North Point Pier was not always about money and luxurious living. Back in my childhood, North Point Pier was also home to North Point Estate (北角邨), a public housing estate comprised of seven 11-storey blocks with a total of 1,956 flats. Completed in 1957, the famous social housing complex was designed by architect Eric Cumine. With its convenient location at city centre, North Point Estate was a highly popular social housing estate back at its heyday. In late 1980’s, I often come to take lessons with Mr. Ip, a dedicated art teacher and traditional Chinese painter. I still remember walking in the open corridors and stairs of the housing complex where sea breeze would come all the way to the unit doors. Many residents would keep their doors open behind the metal gates so that sea breeze could reach their living spaces. Through the gate, I would count on seeing Mr. Ip’s paintings, images of Virgin Mary and photos of Mrs. Ip’s visit to the Vatican on the wall to ensure that I had arrived at the right flat for my art lessons. North Point Estate was cleared in 2002 and demolished in 2003. The land was subsequently sold to a local real estate developer and became what we now know as “Victoria Harbour”.
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.
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.
The first 130 or so small units of Kennedy 38, a new residential development in Kennedy Town, went on sell in November 2021 during the pandemic. Ranging from 229 to 332 sq.ft with an average price of HK$27,522 per sq.ft, 1400 interested parties registered as potential buyers, translating to about 10 bids for each available flat. A few days later, prices went up even higher for the upper floor units. A 287 sq.ft unit was selling for HK$10.24m (US$1.31m). While this may not match the most pricey developments in Hong Kong, US$1.31m for 287 sq.ft is not a friendly price tag either, especially for Kennedy Town, a neighbourhood that not long ago was still considered as Hong Kong’s de facto back-of-house. Today, things have obviously changed. Kennedy Town is now marketed as the up and coming neighbourhood on Hong Kong Island accessible by the mass transit railway (MTR), and a destination where the Harbour, Mount Davis and HKU are just minutes of walk away.
Gentrification has been happening in many parts of the city, but not that many places can match the 180 degree makeover of Kennedy Town, not only for its appearance, but also its identity. The westernmost settlement on Hong Kong Island was named after Arthur Edward Kennedy, the 7th governor of colonial Hong Kong in 1870’s who was responsible for substantial land reclamation and developments in Kennedy Town. Due to its considerable distance (3.5km, not that far in today’s standards) from Central, the city’s central business district, Kennedy Town was seen as an outpost in the early days. From late 19th century to the hundred years that followed, Kennedy Town was home to all sorts of the city’s undesirable but necessary supporting facilities: infectious disease hospital, mortuary, cemeteries, mental health hospital, poultry houses, depots for cattle, pigs and sheep, massive slaughterhouses, battery factories, waste incinerator, etc. From 1894 when the first slaughterhouse began operations, to 2007 when the demolition of Kennedy Town Abattoir and Incinerator finally took place, the impression that combines foul smell, animal whimpers, polluted air, and streets of blood and feathers on Kennedy Town have deeply imprinted in the collective psyche of many Hongkongers.
Then everything changed almost overnight on 28th of December 2014, when the MTR finally opened the Kennedy Town Station, bringing flocks of outsiders into the westernmost neighbourhood on Hong Kong Island. Then suddenly everyone realized that at only four stops west of Central, Kennedy Town is in fact a tranquil neighborhood where a less crowded waterfront and friendly old shops await for visitors to explore. Unsurprisingly, real estate developers were the first to arrive, tapping in the neighbourhood’s potentials by erecting blocks after blocks of luxury sea-facing apartments. Then came fancy restaurants, pubs, cafes, bakeries, cinema, lifestyle shops, etc. To maximize development potentials for the area, buildings in Kennedy Town associated with its dark past were all but wiped out. Shadows of the past have quietly faded away under collective oblivion. Yet if one looks careful enough, traces of the past are still visible in hidden corners and fenced off brown sites. Under the warm afternoon sun, the air is full of distant laughter from cafes, sport bars and waterfront promenade. Even a ruined slaughterhouse or a roadside tombstone of a 19th-century plague victim may not seem that spooky anymore.
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.