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.
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”.
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.
Cutting through Happy Valley (跑馬地), Yellow Mud Stream or Wong Nai Chung (黃泥涌) once flowed past Morrison Hill (摩利臣山) and entered Victoria Harbour through an estuary in eastern Wan Chai, opposite to the tiny Kellett Island (奇力島/ 燈籠洲). In 1850’s, reformist Governor John Bowring (寶寧) allowed Chinese citizens to become lawyers, established the first commercial water supply system, ensured safer design for construction projects, and developed the river mouth of Yellow Mud Stream into an area known as Bowring City, or Bowrington (寶靈頓). At the heart of Bowrington lies Bowrington Canal (寶靈頓運河), where the water of Yellow Mud Stream was directed towards the harbour. Some locals found the narrow canal resembling a goose neck, and hence named it Goose Neck Creek or Ngo Keng Kan (鵝頸澗). First built in 1861, Bowrington Bridge or Ngo Keng Kiu (鵝頸橋) has become a landmark of Victoria City ever since. In 1970’s, the canal was covered and turned into an underground waterway during the construction of Canal Road Flyover (堅拿道天橋), connecting Cross Harbour Tunnel at Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter with Wong Nai Chung Flyover and Aberdeen Tunnel in Happy Valley.
Just as Kellett Island is no longer an island and Morrison Hill is no longer a hill, Bowrington Canal is no longer a canal, but only a historical reference to today’s Canal Road. Following today’s Canal Road Flyover and Wong Nai Chung Flyover would give us an idea where the original Bowrington Canal and Yellow Mud Stream once flowed. “Bowrington Bridge” (鵝頸橋) remains as a nickname referring to the intersection of Hennessy Road and Canal Road, despite the bridge was long gone. Many people, including me, who are too young to see the real Bowrington Canal and Bridge, would often mistake the concrete Canal Road Flyover as Bowrington Bridge. To many, the Bowrington Bridge intersection is the unofficial boundary between Wan Chai and Causeway Bay, and also the famous spot of traditional villain hitting or da siu yan (打小人). Performed by old ladies, villain hitting is an old folk sorcery once popular in Guangdong and Hong Kong. It is a small ceremony in which the old lady would help her client to curse the enemy, usually someone that the client hates. East of Canal Road Flyover stands Times Square (時代廣場), a luxury shopping centre and office complex occupying the original Sharp Street tram depot; while west of the flyover sits Bowrington Road Market (鵝頸街市), a large market that include street stores and a multi level complex. At the boundary between Wan Chai and Happy Valley where Morrison Hill once stood, Canal Road Flyover makes a bend and becomes Wong Nai Chung Flyover extending into Happy Valley. The hill was removed in 1920’s as part of Praya East Reclamation Scheme, when rocks cleared from the hill were used to reclaim the nearby waterfront.
At midnight 12th of November 2006, Edinburgh Place Ferry Pier (also known as Star Ferry Pier 天星碼頭) Clock Tower played its last chimes of its 48-years service, before being decommissioned and demolished along with the third generation Star Ferry Pier. Manufactured by Dent (London clock maker who was responsible for the clock of the Big Ben), the clock had told the time and chimed every 15 minutes since 1958. Although the timepiece mechanism was eventually preserved, the clock tower was discreetly toppled in early morning on 16th December 2006 amid public outcries and activist protests. Then four months later, just a stone throw from the toppled clock tower, Queen’s Pier (皇后碼頭) became the next harbourfront icon to fall victim for the Central and Wan Chai Reclamation project. Named after Queen Victoria, Queen’s Pier was the main arrival and departure point for all colonial governors since 1925, and the landing spot for British royal visits (Queen Elizabeth II in 1975, and Prince and Princess of Wales in 1989). After their failed attempt to save the Star Ferry Pier, local conservationists reunited at Queen’s Pier to held rallies, hunger strikes and candlelight vigils to fight against the demolition. While winning support from the public and even some celebrities, the activists once again failed to convince the government to consider preservation the colonial pier. Despite their fruitless attempts, the incidents of Star Ferry Pier and Queen’s Pier have significantly raised public awareness on heritage preservation in Hong Kong, and triggered widespread support for later conservation projects such as Central Market, Police Married Quarter (PMQ) and Tai Kwun Police Headquarters.
As a port city, pier structures have always been essentials to Hong Kong. Based on an university study of photos from 1863, there were once 56 piers and jetties between Western District and Causeway Bay in mid 19th century. Excluding the restricted zones, that works out to be 56 piers in 5.5km of shoreline, or roughly a pier every 98m. As port facilities were moved away from the heart of Victoria Harbour and the opening of Cross Harbour Tunnel in 1970’s, pier activities along the north coast of Hong Kong Island have significantly declined, except for the pleasant Star Ferry and the other boat services to the outlying islands. I still remember the excitement as a kid in 1980’s when arriving at the Outlying Islands Ferry Pier (港外線碼頭) boarding a boat for day trips to Lantau or Yamma Island, or rubbing shoulders with foreign tourists taking photos of traditional rickshaws at Star Ferry Pier (天星碼頭), or watching couples taking wedding photos at Queen’s Pier (皇后碼頭) after tying the knot at the adjacent City Hall. Each pier had its own ambience and scenery. Each pier has become a unique piece of memory. Since the completion of Central and Wan Chai Reclamation project, the old Central piers are all but gone. About 300m north of the former piers, a cluster of ten new piers were established between 1990’s and 2000’s as the new Central Piers. Assigned with Pier No. 7 and 8, the current Star Ferry Pier was erected in Edwardian style mimicking its second generation predecessor from 1910’s. The “fake antique” and “theme park” approach of the architecture have drawn heavy criticism from the public. Between Pier No. 9 and 10, Hong Kong Observation Wheel, a 60m Ferris wheel, was erected in 2014 as a new tourist attraction. Despite being skeptical about the necessity of a new attraction, many do see the Ferris wheel as a delightful focus for the harbourfront, and a welcoming feature upon arriving at the Central Piers by ferry.
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.