Hong Kong’s Maritime Trade, Part VI: What Happened to the Historic Dockyards?

There’s a 100-metre superyacht marooned in Kowloon. Except it isn’t really a yacht. Cast in place with reinforced concrete, The Whampoa is a commercial block designed to look like a ship, an incongruous novelty amidst the lookalike apartment towers of the Whampoa Garden housing estate. But it’s not a total contrivance, because the mock vessel stands on the site of one of Hong Kong’s most important dockyards, one that fuelled the city’s economy – and one whose transformation mirrors that of Hong Kong as a whole. 

The story begins not in Kowloon but 100 kilometres away, on the muddy banks of the Pearl River near Guangzhou. This was Whampoa (wong4 bou3, 黃埔, “yellow port”), today known officially by its Mandarin name, Huangpu. It was the one place in the area where foreign ships were allowed to land in the early 19th century, and it’s where a Scotsman named John Couper was sent by the Peninsula and Oriental Company (P&O) to build a new shipyard after the previous facilities were damaged in the Battle of Whampoa during the First Opium War.

Couper arrived in 1845 and converted the existing mud docks into a dry dock where ships could be built or repaired. 11 years later, when the Second Opium War broke out, he was abducted and never seen again. The docks were once again destroyed, but the Chinese government awarded Couper’s son a significant amount of compensation for the family’s loss, and by 1861 he had rebuilt the dockyard. Two years later, he sold them to a new company registered in Hong Kong, the Hongkong & Whampoa Dock Company Limited. 

Whampoa dockyard in 1890

This venture was the doing of two very busy entrepreneurs, also of Scottish origin: Douglas Lapraik and Thomas Sutherland. Born in Aberdeen, Sutherland began his career as a clerk in P&O’s London headquarters. He was soon sent to the company’s outpost in Hong Kong, where he worked his way up the ranks to oversee all of P&O’s operations in China and Japan. 

Lapraik, for his part, was born in London to Scottish parents and moved to Macau in 1839 to apprentice with a Scottish watchmaker who was based in the Portuguese colony. He moved to Hong Kong soon after it was ceded to the British in 1842. “During this time, Douglas Lapraik must have become acquainted with numerous mariners, their ships and their clocks, which he undoubtedly repaired,” notes scholar Peter Hansell in the Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. That led Lapraik to Sutherland, and they joined forces to buy the Whampoa docks and develop the dockyard business in Hong Kong.

Colonial Hong Kong was truly a small place and nearly all of its early business ventures were intertwined in some way or another. Jardine Matheson — the iconic conglomerate or “hong” that would one day build Jardine House — was an early investor in Lapraik and Sutherland’s enterprise. Sutherland was also laying the groundwork for HSBC, which he founded in 1865, with Lapraik serving on the provisional committee that oversaw the bank’s establishment. 

It was amidst all this wheeling and dealing that the Hongkong & Whampoa Dock Company expanded by purchasing existing dockyards, first the one at Whampoa, then on the south side of Hong Kong Island, where the company bought the Aberdeen Lamont dock in 1865. Two years later, they built the Hope Dock in Aberdeen for the Royal Navy, and in 1870 the company acquired the Union Dock Company, which ran two docks in Hung Hom, Kowloon. 

That last acquisition would prove fortuitous. Strategically located in the middle of Victoria Harbour, on a relatively flat peninsula, Hung Hom offered plenty of room for growth. In 1872, the company purchased slipways that had been built by another company in East Point — better known today as Causeway Bay — and moved them across the harbour. A few years later, the navy began complaining that the Hope Dock was too small, and Aberdeen Harbour unsuitable for large vessels in low tide, and so the company agreed to build a new dock in Hung Hom. (The British government offered them a hefty subsidy.) This new 600-foot dock opened in 1888 and was christened Number 1 Dock, with the two older docks relegated in status to numbers 2 and 3. 

Business was good. Along with another facility in Tai Kok Tsui, the Cosmopolitan Docks, the Hongkong & Whampoa Dock Company had a monopoly on dockyards in Kowloon. But it soon had a competitor across the harbour. Between 1902 and 1907, Butterfield and Swire — Jardine Matheson’s arch-rival — levelled a mountain to reclaim land off the shore of Quarry Bay for a new dockyard next to the company’s Taikoo sugar refinery. Its centrepiece was a 787-foot dock that could accommodate even the largest of the world’s ships. In response, Whampoa lengthened the Number 1 Dock by another hundred feet.

The competition was no doubt good for Hong Kong: it made the city one of the shipbuilding hubs of Asia. Among the ships built at Taikoo was the Autolycus, completed in 1917, which was for a time the largest ship built in a British territory outside the UK; and the Wuchang, a passenger ship destined for travel on the Yangtze River, which was later converted into a British submarine depot ship and used to evacuate people from Singapore when it was invaded by Japan in 1942. Whampoa, for its part, built everything from US Navy gunboats to tugboats to river steamers to trans-oceanic passenger ships. 

Both dockyards were heavily damaged during World War II, first by invading Japanese aircraft during the Battle of Hong Kong and later by Allied bombers. They were gradually rebuilt after the war and became part of Hong Kong’s postwar industrial boom. Each dockyard employed thousands of workers. “Once a ship had entered Whampoa’s dry dock and the water around it had been discharged, the various workers would come and start their jobs,” former dockworker Poon Kwai-hoi says in an interview with the Hong Kong Memory oral history project. His tasks were varied: “ship building, machine repairing, steel plate replacing, carpentry and paint shovelling.”

“A major repair could take as long as a year, while a medium repair might last six months and a minor repair could be turned around in as few as 20 to 30 days,” he explains. The yards ran around the clock, with several shifts through the day and night. “When the blast sounded for workers to start or finish their shifts, more than a thousand people would flood into Wuhu Street.”

Plan shewing position of works and dock, The Taikoo Dockyard and Engineering ltd

Like nearly all of those workers, Poon was an immigrant from the mainland, although he didn’t travel far; his hometown was in Bao’an, a then-rural area on the northwest side of present-day Shenzhen. He lived with his uncle and several other dockyard workers in a tenement on Wuhu Street. They slept on triple-decker bunk beds, taking turns to cook their meals at home, except on Sundays, when they would treat themselves to an affordable meal like pork knuckle rice. Dai pai dongs lined the streets outside the dockyard gates. 

Poon worked at the dockyards until 1973. That’s a crucial date, because it’s when the Whampoa docks ceased operation. A year earlier, the Hongkong & Whampoa Dock Company merged with its competitor, Taikoo, to become Hongkong United Dockyards. The new company moved its facilities to Kwai Chung, where a vast new container port was being built. 

Whampoa, staff working on the dockyard in 1962

The move was orchestrated by Douglas Clague, a Rhodesia-born British war hero who had become the taipan of Hutchison International, a venerable trading company established in 1877. Hutchison gained a controlling interest in the Hongkong & Whampoa Dock Company over the course of the 1960s, adding it to a portfolio of companies that included container shipping operations and — crucially — real estate development. Clague saw the writing on the wall: containerisation meant much bigger ships, which meant Hong Kong’s dockyards, now located in the heart of an increasingly crowded city, would quickly become obsolete. The city’s economy was quickly shifting. As history writer Jason Wordie notes, Hong Kong was changing from a place “that actually made things — whether it be plastic flowers or ocean-going passenger-cargo ships — to one whose prosperity increasingly revolved around stock-market investment cycles and property bubbles.” With a growing middle class looking for places to live, the future of both Whampoa and Taikoo was in housing. 

Clague was eventually kicked out of his position at Hutchison when the conglomerate ran into financial trouble and was taken over by its main creditor, HSBC. In 1979, the bank sold Hutchison to Li Ka-shing, who became the first Chinese person to lead one of the historic British hongs. (Hutchison has now become one of the world’s largest port operators, among many other interests.) By then, however, the groundwork was already being laid for the redevelopment of the Whampoa dockyard into Whampoa Garden. Swire was busy doing the same with its old dockyard, which became the site of Taikoo Shing. 

Today, there are still ships being built in the dockyard at Kwai Chung, but shipbuilding is a minor part of the Hong Kong economy. But there are reminders of its glory days; most of the Star Ferry vessels were built at Whampoa. And there’s always The Whampoa, a symbol of how shipbuilding gave way to shopping in Hong Kong’s economy. And a symbol it is indeed: when Hutchison made waves about replacing the fake boat with a high-rise in 2006, planning authorities imposed a height limit to protect the boat and the memory it preserves.

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