Hong Kong’s Jewish Governor and the Road that Bears His Name

The Golden Mile has lost its lustre. For decades, Nathan Road was one of Hong Kong’s must-see streets – in a way, it was Hong Kong, with its panoply of signs, its cosmopolitan crowds and its mix of nightclubs, tailors, gold shops and department stores. Today, it’s a concrete canyon best known for cookie cutter jewellery stores and exhaust-belching buses.

But Nathan Road wasn’t always this way. In fact, it wasn’t always the Golden Mile: it began life in 1861 as a muddy country path, the first road built by the British on the Kowloon Peninsula, a spoil of the Second Opium War signed over to Britain a year earlier. At first, the road was named Robinson Road, after Sir Hercules Robinson, the fifth governor of Hong Kong. A portion of the land alongside it was devoted to military use, and the Whitfield Barracks were built in the 1890s. St. Andrew’s Church was built just opposite the barracks in 1906, but for the most part, development along the road came slowly.

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Nathan road in 1909 – Photo courtesy Ko Tim-keung

There was already a Robinson Road on Hong Kong Island, so in 1909, the Kowloon thoroughfare was renamed Nathan Road to avoid confusion. Sir Matthew Nathan was Hong Kong’s 13th governor, serving from 1904 to 1907. Nathan was Hong Kong’s only Jewish governor, and his tenure was short but influential. Born in London, he attended military school before becoming a military engineer. He served in Sudan and India, and was appointed acting governor of Sierra Leone in 1899 and governor of Gold Coast (present-day Ghana) the following year.

Nathan was posted to Hong Kong in 1903. He put his background as a military engineer to good use, establishing Hong Kong’s first urban planning office, which laid the groundwork for Kowloon’s development. He envisioned Robinson Road as Kowloon’s spine, running along the length of the peninsula to Boundary Street, and it was soon lined by graceful stone buildings with arcaded sidewalks and arched verandahs.

But Nathan had a difficult time in Hong Kong. He was single, which in those Edwardian days meant he didn’t have a wife to host functions at the governor’s mansion. As a Jew, he was not welcome at the Hong Kong Club, where the city’s British movers and shakers did their business, and he didn’t attend Sunday service at St. John’s Cathedral, which at the time was the centre of Hong Kong’s colonial social life. He also didn’t attend synagogue, and he kept his distance from Hong Kong’s small but influential Jewish community, which counted among its members the Kadoories, who ran (and still run) a hotel, property and electricity empire.

“We don’t know a lot about Nathan as a person but, while we know he refused to take an active part in Jewish life in Hong Kong, he did enable the community to expand the cemetery by granting an extra piece of land during his tenure,” says Judy Green, chairwoman of the Jewish Historical Society of Hong Kong.

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Sir Matthew Nathan

Nathan was transferred to South Africa in 1907, but his namesake road continued to develop. It was mostly residential in its early years, home in particular to middle-class Europeans, including members of Hong Kong’s Portuguese community, as well as many White Russians. Under the racial hierarchy that existed in the early days of colonial Hong Kong, both Portuguese and Russians enjoyed less prestige — and lower salaries — than the British. Living in Kowloon was a more affordable option than the expatriate enclaves of Hong Kong Island.

One of the reasons Nathan Road was primarily residential is because Shanghai Street was Kowloon’s main commercial artery. But that slowly began to change in the 1930s, as motor buses were introduced to Kowloon and Nathan Road, which was much wider than Shanghai Street, became the area’s main transport corridor. Photos of the road from that decade reveal a motley array of businesses selling rugs, auto repair services and dry goods.

They were soon joined by the Majestic Theatre, which was built in 1928 on Nathan Road near Public Square Street. It had 1,000 seats and a screen that played the latest Hollywood hits; its first screening, on December 8, was the original Ben-Hur, a silent film. Two years later, Hong Kong’s first “talkie” was shown at the Majestic: Broadway Babies, a 1929 picture about a love triangle between a chorus girl, a stage manager and a bootlegger. The Majestic was soon followed by many other movie palaces, including the Ritz, the Princess and the Astor. By the 1950s, it was Hong Kong’s version of Broadway, a string of glittering marquee lights and glowing neon.

But the transition from residential street to commercial hub was gradual. The lower part of the road near the Peninsula Hotel and Kowloon Station was intensively developed after World War II, with buildings such as the landmark Telephone Building, which at 192 feet was the city’s second-tallest building, after the HSBC headquarters. Further up, many of the old buildings remained.

“Nathan Road had trees on both sides,” recalls Chan Kwong-yiu, the owner of a Yau Ma Tei cha chaan teng who moved to Nathan Road in 1958, when he was 14. “There were still some villa-style buildings left. One of them was a garden mansion located where Yue Hwa Chinese Products Emporium is today. You couldn’t see any light inside. All the kids called it the ghost house.”

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Nathan road 1966 – Courtesy Information Services Department

The tipping point came in the 1970s and 80s as Nathan Road completed its transition to shopping strip. Even Kowloon Park, which was created in 1970 on the site of the Whitfield Barracks, was partially developed into a row of shops called Park Lane Shopper’s Boulevard in 1982. It was this lower part of the street, in Tsim Sha Tsui, that earned Nathan Road the nickname of Golden Mile, which is rarely used anymore, except in the name of the Holiday Inn Golden Mile.

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Nathan road in the 80s – Photo courtesy Hong Kong University Librairies

The street’s commercial bustle has been interrupted only by the Umbrella Movement, when pro-democracy protesters turned the stretch of Nathan Road from Dundas Street to Argyle Street into a lively tent city in 2014. That three-month interlude showed another side of Nathan Road: a calm, traffic-free street where neighbours gathered to chat. So far, no one has proposed pedestrianising Nathan Road, but in a street that has lived through as many incarnations as this one, it’s impossible to say what its future holds.

 

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