Hong Kong’s Industrial History, Part IV: The Rock That Built Hong Kong

It’s hard to separate myth from fact in the story of Tsang Koon-man. Born in 1808 to a Hakka family in the hills of eastern Guangdong, he and his brother made their way to Hong Kong at the age of 16. They found work in a granite quarry in Cha Kwo Ling before moving across the harbour to A Kung Ngam, another quarrying town near the harbour in Shau Kei Wan.

That’s when the legend begins. Supposedly, Tsang was wandering through the hills behind the village when he noticed a light shining from a particular patch of earth. Tsang decided it was a meridian spot — a concentration of earth energy — which made it a particularly auspicious place for a graveyard. He made a note to reserve it for his remains when he one day passed. But soon after, there was an explosion near the quarry where he worked, and when Tsang investigated, he discovered a set of human bones. Knowing that it was bad luck for bones to be scattered across the ground, he carried them to the meridian spot and buried them in the place he had chosen for himself.

The gods rewarded this unselfish act with treasure. Shortly after burying the bones, a hawker came to Tsang’s house with a barrel of salted fish. A Kung Ngam was a small village, and Tsang thought there was no way the hawker would be able to sell all of his fish, so he decided to buy the entire barrel for himself. When he eventually emptied the barrel, he discovered there was a trove of gold and silver buried beneath the fish. He tried looking for the hawker but he was nowhere to be found. Tsang decided to invest his newfound fortune in his own granite quarry, which he opened in Tsuen Wan.

That’s one version of how Tsang achieved success. The more likely story is that he simply worked hard in Hong Kong’s quarries until he had saved up enough money to start his own operation. Either way, nobody disputes what came next. Just as Tsang’s business was getting underway, the British arrived and began building a new city on the shores of Hong Kong Island. They needed a lot of granite and Tsang was happy to supply them. He made enough money that he began building a huge walled village for his family: Tsang Tai Uk, the Big House of the Tsangs. Naturally enough, its fortifications and houses were all built with granite.

granite quarry

Shan Ha Wai Sha Kok Street in Tsang Tai Uk, May 2016 – Photo courtesy Kwan U-cheng

Today’s Hong Kong is made of glass, steel and concrete, but for most of its history, the city was fashioned out of the very rock on which it stands – the same rock on which Tsang built his fortune. Most of the surviving examples of 19th century architecture you see today are built of locally-sourced granite, including the Court of Final Appeal, the Main Building at the University of Hong Kong and the former prison walls that surround Tai Kwun. So too are many of the staircases and so-called ladder streets that climb the slopes of Central and Western District.

Granite is even embedded in the place names people use every day without a second thought. Stonecutters Island. Quarry Bay. Shek Tong Tsui (sek6 tong4 zeoi2 石塘咀, “Stone Pond Mouth”). Pottinger Street, whose granite paving stones date back to its construction in the 1840s, is known in Cantonese as sek6 baan2 gaai1 (石板街) – “Stone Slabs Street.”

Nearly the whole of Kowloon is built atop granite, along with the north side of Hong Kong Island, the areas around Cape D’Aguilar and Shek O, most of Lamma Island, the eastern half of Lantau, Tsuen Wan and Castle Peak. (The rest is mostly volcanic rock, with the low-lying areas of the northeast New Territories made up of sedimentary rock). As you’ll notice if you look closely at many of Hong Kong’s stone structures, much of the granite has a pinkish tinge, which comes from high concentrations of alkali feldspar.

For centuries, Hong Kong granite was highly-prized. “The most prestigious stone in Canton and the Pearl River Delta area for such quality buildings was Hong Kong granite, which could be given a high polish, and which had a pleasing mottled surface,” writes Hugh Farmer, founder of the Industrial History of Hong Kong Group. Dozens of small quarries around the territory supplied rock both locally and to the region around Hong Kong. The industry expanded after 1841, when the British set to work building their new colony on Hong Kong Island. In Kowloon, the villages of Ngau Tau Kok, Sai Tso Wan, Cha Kwo Ling and Lei Yue Mun all made their fortunes in quarrying granite for this burgeoning metropolis.

The northeastern coast of Hong Kong Island was particularly industrious in this regard. When Lord Collison carried out his survey of the island between 1843 and 45, he noted that the entire stretch of land from Quarry Bay (which he named) to Shau Kei Wan was pockmarked by small quarries. According to the first British census of Hong Kong in 1841, there were 1,655 stonemasons on the island – nearly a quarter of its population of 7,450 people.

granite quarry

Stonebreakers in the early 20th century. Photo courtesy Industrial History Group of HK.

Granite is heavy, of course, and transporting just a single slab of it along a footpath took up to 50 workers. For that reason, quarries were always located near the sea, where rock could be loaded onto special boats and taken to its destination. Shau Kei Wan was a particularly busy port. According to Karl Gutzlaff, a German missionary whose Cantonese language skills earned him the position of Chinese Secretary to the Hong Kong government in 1843, up to a hundred stone boats per month left Shau Kei Wan, each loaded with between 70 to 100 tons of stone.

Some of these boats rounded the island to Central, but others were destined for much further destinations. “Granite probably became the first Hong Kong product exported to other parts of the world,” write historians SW Poon and KY Ma in their research paper Quarrying in Hong Kong from 1840 to 1940. Granite was shipped to California, New South Wales and Thailand, as well as to various places in southern China. It was a lucrative industry in those early years: in the years before 1850, licence fees for quarries accounted for 3.2 percent of the government’s revenue.

To ensure the safe transport of their cargo, quarry owners were eager to finance local temples. They frequently donated to the Hau Wong Temple in Kowloon City as well as the Tam Kung Temple in A Kung Ngam, the Hakka village in Shau Kei Wan where Tsang Koon-man got his start. This is the only temple in Hong Kong dedicated to Tam Kung, a seafaring god who is originally from the mountainous prefecture of Huizhou in Guangdong – the homeland of the Hakkas.

For much of Hong Kong’s history, Hakkas made up the majority of quarry workers. They established complex guilds to manage the quarry industry, ensuring workers decent wages and medical benefits, and they made sure everyone attended monthly festivals in honours of the gods, Tam Kung in particular.

Hakkas were relative latecomers to Guangdong, having fled attacks against them in northern China at some point during the Jin Dynasty (265-420). They spoke their own language and endured a brittle relationship with Cantonese clans; as a result, many Hakka inhabited the rugged, hilly areas just beyond the fertile plains of the Pearl River Delta. “What appeared as hilly ‘wasteland’ of little value to downstream paddy farmers could in Hakka hands be made to yield a bounty,” write Sow-Then Leong, Tim Wright, George William Skinner in their book Migration and Ethnicity in Chinese History: Hakkas, Pengmin and Their Neighbors. “The Hakkas had become expert prospectors and miners.”

Unlike other Chinese ethnic groups, which bound the feet of women and killed infant girls in favour of boys, Hakka society enjoyed more gender equality, which led to higher population growth in Hakka communities. With the Hakka homelands becoming ever more crowded, more and more young Hakka people set out to find their fortunes elsewhere, and in many cases, those fortunes were found in mines and quarries. As they established stone quarries in places like Cha Kwo Ling, they sent word to their relatives back home in Huizhou, creating a chain of migration that populated much of Hong Kong with Hakkas.

Some of the workers who came were women, which would have been unthinkable in Cantonese society, but not for the Hakkas. “Many of the wives and unmarried daughters of the stonecutters worked at the quarries, breaking aggregate and carrying baskets of stone onto the waiting junks,” writes historian James Hayes in his book The Hong Kong Region 1850-1911. “The wife might be as expert as her husband in the technical aspects of quarrying.” He cites the example of one Hong Kong quarry that was run by a widowed woman who had learned the quarrying trade from her son-in-law.

granite quarry

A quarry rises behind squatter villages in Sau Mau Ping in the 1980s. Photo courtesy Ko Tim-keung.

As Hong Kong urbanised through the 20th century, its quarries became fewer in number but larger and more sophisticated in operation. The government gradually phased out private quarries, the last of which closed in 1974. After that, all quarries were operated by the government, producing aggregate for the concrete that was being poured into countless high-rise housing estates and office towers. By the late 1980s, however, public concern over the environmental impact of quarrying led the government to re-examine is policies.

It eventually decided to phase out the industry altogether. By 2001, there were four quarries left in Hong Kong, in Shek O, Sok Kwu Wan, Anderson Road and Lam Tei. One by one, they all closed over the next 14 years. But traces of Hong Kong’s history of quarrying remains: in its buildings, its footpaths, in the exposed rock face of abandoned quarries – and in the village Tsang Koon-man built for his family. Nearly two centuries after it was built, Tsang Tai Uk still stands today, its granite weathered but strong.

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