A Snapshot of Hong Kong History – Part III: Across the Harbour, the early days of Kowloon

Hong Kong owed its existence as a British colony to the First Opium War – but it took another war for the colony to expand across Victoria Harbour. The Second Opium War (also known as the Arrow War) was fought between 1856 and 1860 and the British claimed the Kowloon peninsula after their victory. The colony now extended as far north as today’s Boundary Street, along with Stonecutter’s Island (now joined to the rest of Kowloon by massive reclamation works), both of which were ceded in perpetuity under the Treaty of Tientsin.

Signal Station on Blackhead Point, Tsim Sha Tsui, circa 1925 - Courtesy of Picture this Gallery

Signal Station on Blackhead Point, Tsim Sha Tsui, circa 1925 – Courtesy of Picture this Gallery

Known in Chinese as “Nine Dragons” (gaulung4九龍) since the Song Dynasty — the name apparently refers to the eight mountain peaks, with the ninth “dragon” being the Song emperor –the Kowloon peninsula was claimed by the British in order to provide better defences for Victoria Harbour. Prior to 1860 the British were only able to control – and thus effectively police – their own side of the harbour. Military facilities were among the first things built by the British after 1860, and this garrison element remains today: one of the older army camps, Gun Club Hill Barracks on Austin Road, is still occupied by the People’s Liberation Army today. Kowloon Park, an oasis of green and relative calm amidst the pedestrian throngs on Nathan Road, was formerly Whitfield Barracks. Along with the military installations at Gun Club Hill and the Whitfield Barrack, another large barrack complex was built in the 1920s on newly reclaimed land in Sham Shui Po. During the Pacific War this was used as a military prisoner-of-war camp.

North bound view from Signal Hill, Tsim Sha Tsui, 1908 - Courtesy of Picture This Gallery

North bound view from Signal Hill, Tsim Sha Tsui, 1908 – Courtesy of Picture This Gallery

Early permanent settlers in Kowloon were the local Portuguese community, migrants from Macau, who moved across the harbour starting in the late nineteenth century. By the 1920s, Tsim Sha Tsui was almost a Portuguese district, with many lusophone families living there. Little-remembered today, the local Portuguese community were Hong Kong’s first true “locals,” and until the 1950s they formed the largest non-British, non-Chinese section of the population.

Whampoa docks, circa 1925

Whampoa docks, circa 1925

Along with the local Portuguese, Kowloon was home to a great many lower-level European employees of firms such as the Green Island Cement works and the Hong Kong and Whampoa Dock Company, both located in Hung Hom. It was also home to the families of ships officers working the China coast and Southeast Asian runs. Many of these seafarers were employed by firms such as Butterfield and Swire, JCJL (the Dutch-owned Java-China-Japan Lijn), and Blue Funnel.

Star Ferry and bus terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui with Canadian Pacific Liner , circa 1925

Star Ferry and bus terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui with Canadian Pacific Liner, circa 1925

When the British first took control over the peninsula, it consisted of a few scattered Chinese hamlets, the most significant being Tai Hang, located near present-day Granville Road at the south end of Chatham Road. Most of Kowloon’s Chinese residents were Hakka who were engaged in stonecutting in the surrounding hills. The stone was ferried across the harbour and used in construction projects there. Some replication of street names with the city of Victoria – as the urban area of Hong Kong Island was known – occurred when Tsim Sha Tsui was first laid out. The present Nathan Road was at one time called Robinson Road, Chatham Road was named Des Voeux Road and Canton Road was known as MacDonnell Road. To avoid confusion with the city across the harbour, they were later changed.

Boundary streetIn time, as development spread northwards the area south of Boundary Street became known as Old Kowloon, whilst the area to the north, Sham Shui Po, was referred to as New Kowloon. Sham Shui Po and Hung Hom, a seaside district to the east, were both early industrial areas, and were established long before the post-war boom in industry that led to Hong Kong’s phenomenal growth and resounding international success. The industry that developed here was light manufacturing, producing plimsolls, torchlights and other low-technology goods, and some food processing.

Dockyards were established and piers for international shipping built. The present-day Ocean Terminal and Harbour City are built on the site of the old Kowloon docks. The docks had residential accommodation compounds for their staff located on site.

Over the years, the pre-1860 land area of Tsim Sha Tsui and the Kowloon peninsula was greatly enlarged by numerous phases of reclamation. Hills have been removed in some areas and the physical shape of the area has changed completely. The location of some Kowloon streets today, such as Reclamation Street in Yau Ma Tei, provide some of the best clues to the peninsula’s formerly distinct coastlines and hills.

Nathan road circa 1960ies - Courtesy of Picture this Gallery

Nathan road circa 1960s

Since the 1950s, following a massive increase in population, the Kowloon peninsula has been very extensively redeveloped, and very few original buildings still remain. Looking along bustling Nathan Road and the surrounding streets today, it is hard to believe that until the 1940s it was a quiet area of tree-lined streets, comfortable houses and low-rise apartment blocks, with an almost suburban feel.

Until the development of Ocean Terminal and Harbour City, the majority of international passenger vessels that called at Hong Kong tied up in Tsim Sha Tsui. Liverpool-based Blue Funnel Line had its own dock, known as Holt’s Wharf, further down from the Kowloon railway terminus, which stood on the site of the present-day Cultural Centre (it was demolished in 1978; only its clock tower remains). These docks remained in use until the 1960s, when advances in the development of rapid air transportation made intercontinental sea travel virtually obsolete except for luxury cruises. Their redevelopment into a massive commercial centre marked a new phase in Hong Kong’s economic life, when shipping gave way to shopping.

Photos of old Hong kong are available at picturethiscollection.com



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