Hong Kong Reads: “Signs of a Colonial Era” by Gillis Heller and Andrew Yanne

Beneath the cracked pavement of Lyndhurst Terrace run two different histories of Hong Kong. One, reflected in the street’s English name, is a story of polite colonial power: John Lyndhurst was an assistant magistrate in the 19th century. The story behind the street’s Cantonese name, Baai2 Faa1 Gaai1 (擺花街), or Arrange Flowers Street, is entirely more compelling. 

In the late 19th century, Lyndhurst Terrace was lined by upscale brothels, and florists made good trade selling bouquets to men paying a visit to their girlfriend for the night – hence the Chinese name, which is just one example of how the stodgy colonial narrative encoded in Hong Kong’s English toponymy doesn’t always reflect the more indecorous reality of the city’s past. 

This is one of the many pearls of wisdom to be found in Signs of a Colonial Era, a 2009 book written by Gellis Heller and his uncle Andrew Yanne. “The historical buildings are mostly gone, so the real history is in the street names,” Heller told us when we met for coffee shortly after the book was published. He had been curious about Hong Kong’s place names ever since moving here from Seattle in 1984. Yanne, for his part, had been taking photos of the city’s street nameplates for years. After the handover in 1997, they realised those street signs would end up being the last visible reminder of Hong Kong’s colonial history. 

Few things are more political than place names, so Heller and Yanne naturally assumed that, as the years progressed and Hong Kong became more comfortable in its new role as a Special Administrative Region of China, its colonial place names would go the way of red mailboxes and green-uniformed police. “But the good news is that basically nothing has changed,” Heller told us. That’s true even for streets that honour the most despicable of British rulers, like James Bruce, the Earl of Elgin, who ordered the complete destruction of the Summer Palace in Beijing after his troops had looted its most valuable treasures.

It turns out that a far greater problem than historical revisionism is the sheer blandness of Hong Kong’s newest street names. Whereas streets in the colonial era were named after public figures, old local traditions and geographical landmarks, streets built since the handover are given the most generic and least offensive names possible. In Tseung Kwan O, for instance, all of the street names start with the character tong4 (唐), referring to the ancient dynasty that existed from the years 618 to 907, and all of the arterial road names start with bou3 (寶, “treasure”). These are both followed by a random character with an auspicious meaning, like hong1 (康), which means “healthy.”

When Heller and Yanne’s book first appeared, one of Hong Kong’s newest roads had just opened along the Central waterfront. Despite running along landmarks like City Hall, the Central Government Offices and the former British headquarters — now home to the People’s Liberation Army — the road was given the entirely anodyne name of Lung Wo — Dragon Harmony — Road (Lung4 Wo4 Dou6 龍和道). The trend has only continued in recent years. The road leading to M+ is named not after an exceptional artist or cultural movement, but is simply Museum Drive. Whimsy and eccentricity seem to have been banished, save for a few precious exceptions like Concorde Road in Kai Tak, named after the famous jetliner that first landed in Hong Kong in 1976. 

Luckily, there are still plenty of interesting street names that remain, and Signs of a Colonial Era, which is organised by theme, with plenty of photos and explanatory tables, is a very useful guide to them. As with Lyndhurst Terrace, many of the most interesting monikers are those that seem unassuming at first glance, but which reveal a quirk of history upon closer inspection. 

San Francisco Path, a tiny passageway in Ho Man Tin, was named in 1925 by Portuguese property developer Francisco Soares. In Cantonese, it’s Gau6 Gam1 Saan1 (舊金山, “Old Gold Mountain”), an old name for the city that evokes the many Chinese migrants who made their way to California during the gold rush that lasted from 1848 to 1855. Soares named some of the area’s streets after World War I — Liberty, Victory and Peace — and others after his wife, Emma, and daughter, Julia. San Francisco Lane was presumably a cheeky way for Soares to name something after himself, with its official translation an inadvertent window into the history of the Chinese diaspora.

Another wonderful example: Upper Lascar Row. Few of the tourists who visit the quiet strip of curios shops known as Cat Street realise it has three names. Lascar is an old colonial word borrowed from Portuguese, and originally derived from Urdu, that referred to South Asian, Arab and Somali sailors that served on European ships in the 19th century. The Chinese name, Mo1 Lo4 Soeng5 Gaai1 (摩羅上街), is derived from an old Cantonese term for people of Islamic faith. The lane came to be known as Cat Street, finally, because it was once notorious for dealers of stolen goods, who were known as cats in Cantonese; the thieves who sold them the stolen items were called rats. 

Hong Kong would be unrecognisable to any of those cats today; it’s a city that shapeshifts into something new every generation or two. But even if the buildings change, and sometimes even the geography, there are still street names to remind us of the colourful, complicated history that underpins this endlessly fascinating city. 

Signs of a Colonial Era is published by Hong Kong University Press. 

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