Was it Hong Kong or a town in the English Midlands? Tram passengers who rounded the curve between North Point and Quarry Bay a hundred years ago may have had trouble telling the difference. In 1884, John Samuel Swire, the heir to an English cotton fortune, opened the Taikoo sugar refinery on the sandy eastern shore of Hong Kong Island. Constant expansion turned it into the world’s largest sugar processing plant, and by the early 20th century, Quarry Bay was Hong Kong’s original company town.
Workers lived in rowhouses along King’s Road; behind them were the pitched-roof, four-storey buildings of the refinery, over which smokestacks towered. There was a dock that received sugarcane and sent out granulated sugar; there were schools, leisure facilities, a private company reservoir. Managers enjoyed the summer months in a mountaintop sanitorium they reached by cable car.
Quarry Bay was not Hong Kong’s only industrial city-within-a-city. A little further east, on the shores of Causeway Bay, Jardine Matheson dominated East Point with its own sugar refinery, along with a pioneering ice factory and a whisky distillery. Across the harbour, Hutchison Whampoa built an enormous shipyard and cement factory in Hung Hom. When people think of industrial Hong Kong, they tend to think of plastic flowers and textiles, but its history goes back much farther than that. Until very recently, this was a city that made things.
“Salt production probably began here around the third century BC,” says Hugh Farmer, founder of the Industrial History of Hong Kong Group, a project that brings together academics and amateur historians to explore the city’s industrial origins. After beginning as a series of newsletters in 2012, the group now consists of around four members who operate a website with a trove of photos, historical records and details about who made what and where. Guest specialists like naval historian Stephen Davies round out their contributions.
Farmer’s own interest is purely personal. “I have no academic background in the subject – indeed, I have never worked for a company that could be described as industrial,” he says. He grew up in Cambridge, “where there is no industry to speak of,” but when he left home for university he deliberately chose to study in Sheffield, the Midlands city that was for decades the heart of the British steel industry. “I enjoyed wandering past the smoking steel furnaces in the Don Valley and taking photographs of derelict cutlery workshops in the city,” he says.
He moved to Hong Kong in 1989 to work as a teacher at the British Council. “Arriving in Hong Kong I almost immediately started hiking there, not just in the well-known hilly areas of the territory but industrial districts like Kwun Tong, Yau Tong and Tsuen Wan, which led me to do some initial reading on the industrial history of Hong Kong,” he says.
At the time, those areas were still full of the export industries that had powered Hong Kong’s economy for decades. Farmer said he was astounded by the variety of Hong Kong industry. “There have been around 20 commercial mines, a similar number of shipyards, and a remarkably large range of transport, from sedan chairs to trams, walla-wallas to rickshaws,” he enthuses. “I grew up in the 1960s, the ‘Made in Hong Kong’ period, when it was the world’s largest manufacturer of toys, watches and textiles.”
Farmer is particularly taken by Hong Kong’s history of mining. After the British arrived in 1841, there was a huge demand for stone to build the burgeoning colony, which led to the creation of dozens of quarries in places like Shek Tong Tsui and Quarry Bay. Many of the quarriers were Hakka people, who arrived in Hong Kong in the late 17th century and settled on previously uninhabited parts of the eastern New Territories, Kowloon and Hong Kong Island.
Those quarries supplied the granite that built early Hong Kong’s buildings, staircases and retaining walls. Later, more than two dozen mines produced tungsten, lead, silver, graphite and quartz. In Ma On Shan, an entire village sprung up around Hong Kong’s only iron mine, which employed more than 2,000 workers at its peak. It shut down more recently than many people realise – in 1976. Farmer says that history “still fills me with some wonder.”
There are more than 1,500 articles on the Industrial History Group’s website, but even then, there is still plenty to investigate. Farmer is particularly interested in the cottage industries that took place in Hong Kong’s postwar shantytowns. When hundreds of thousands of mainland Chinese refugees poured into the city after World War II and the Communist victory in 1949, they didn’t just build houses on the city’s hillsides; they also operated workshops that were as diverse as Hong Kong’s industrial landscape as a whole.
Hong Kong may be a global financial centre today, but the roots of its wealth are in industry. Some of the city’s biggest companies seem keen to explore their own industrial history. That includes property conglomerate Nan Fung, which is exploring its roots as a textile manufacturer as it converts its old Tsuen Wan mill into a design and art centre. But there are a lot of threads left hanging. “There is a growing awareness of acknowledging Hong Kong’s history generally and of preserving physical remains where possible,” says Farmer. “[But] I suspect the industrial part of this history is probably not top of the government’s ambitions.” For many, it seems this part of Hong Kong might still be a bit too grimy to promote.
But that means one thing: there’s a lot more industrial history to explore. Although there are not many physical traces left of Hong Kong’s original prewar industry — the Taikoo sugar refinery is now the upscale office and residential district around Taikoo Shing MTR station, for instance — the city is still defined by these early industrial ventures.