Hong Kong’s Other Peak – and the City’s Overlooked History of Segregation

Everyone has heard of the Peak, the verdant mountaintop that looms over Hong Kong Island, studded by mansions and townhouses that sell for hundreds of millions of dollars. But Hong Kong has a second Peak – this one on Cheung Chau, the small, lively, densely packed island about 16 kilometres southwest of Central.

People have lived on Cheung Chau for at least 3,000 years, according to archaeological evidence, though in the 19th century most of its inhabitants were fishing families that lived on boats moored in the dumbbell-shaped island’s western harbour. A narrow, sandy strip of land extends between two headlands, and it was on this narrow isthmus that villagers maintained a marketplace and a collection of temples built in the late 18th century.

cheng chau peak

Cheung Chau in 1974, with the Peak in the foreground. Photo courtesy HKU Libraries.

Cheung Chau was leased to the British in 1898, along with the rest of the New Territories. While indigenous villagers were allowed to maintain control over their settlement, the rest of the island was declared crown land. Life on Cheung Chau remained much the same as it had been until 1919, when the Cheung Chau (Residence) Ordinance was passed, making the southern headlands off-limits to anyone without the consent of the colonial governor.

The purpose of the ordinance was to reserve Cheung Chau Peak for European and American missionaries, who spent their summers in Hong Kong after months of working throughout Southern China. It had the effect of imposing a system of racial segregation on the island: Chinese were limited to the isthmus villages, while the Peak was open only to white people.

The situation mirrored that of Victoria Peak, which banned nearly all Chinese residents in 1904. Though its official pretext was to protect the health of Hong Kong’s European residents — the city’s older districts near the waterfront were squalid, overcrowded and rife with disease — the law was part of a global trend towards racial segregation. Cities throughout the British Empire were divided into sectors based on race or ethnic origin. Singapore’s Chinese, Malays, Indians and Europeans each had their own quarters; Chinese, Japanese and black people in Vancouver were limited to a small area in the city’s east end; and in Cape Town, segregation was routine centuries before Apartheid was imposed in 1948.

As local writer David Bellis notes on his Hong Kong history website, Gwulo, the Legislative Council’s only two Chinese members, Lau Chu Pak and Ho Fook, recorded their opposition in 1919. Ho declared the law “nothing less than racial legislation” and suggested it was an insult to non-white British subjects who had fought to defend the Empire in World War I. In the end, Lau and Ho were the only councillors who voted against the bill.

Segregation on Cheung Chau extended beyond the ability to own property on the Peak. Social life was divided, too, with the so-called Afternoon Beach (today known as Kwun Yam Beach) reserved for white people, and the Police Beach (Tung Wan Beach) given to Chinese islanders. The Peak became a retreat for church workers and their families, but also many of Hong Kong’s middle-class Europeans, who couldn’t afford a house on Victoria Peak.

Tung Wan Beach - cheung chau peak

Tung Wan Beach in the 1950s, with the Peak rising in the distance. Photo courtesy HKU Libraries.

In 1926, the Hong Kong Daily Press described the island in idyllic terms, particularly its “picturesque ‘peaklets’, each crowned with little bungalows, which are reached by winding paths through fir plantations and eucalyptus groves. In the little bays the foam dashes itself against warm brown rocks, and the sea has those wonderful shades of colour that transport one back to the Riviera.” In the summer, the newspaper went on to note, “every bungalow is full, and there is a real holiday atmosphere in the place.”

Denis Bray, who served as Hong Kong’s Secretary for Home Affairs in the 1970s and 80s, recalls the island with fondness in his memoir, Hong Kong Metamorphosis. “Swimming played a central part in our lives on Cheung Chau,” he writes. The island’s European residents hired local fishermen to anchor their boat just off Afternoon Beach, and they attached a diving board to the vessel for children to use. “The boat had a delicious smell of fish and sea water and was swarming with little black creatures with lots of legs,” writes Bray. He evokes with equal fondness the scent of the pine trees ashore, which “still evoke the thrill of arriving at the beach and dashing out to sea.”

Life wasn’t quite as luxurious for Cheung Chau’s Chinese residents. Wat Wai-chun, who was born in 1923 to a family whose roots on the island stretched back several generations, had eight siblings, but only three survived infancy. (Europeans, by contrast, enjoyed premium healthcare; Bray recalls being transported by sedan chair from the Cheung Chau hospital while convalescing after an appendix operation.) Wat’s father was a Kuomintang army commander on the mainland, while her mother traded mountain weeds, which were collected by villagers on Lantau and shipped to Cheung Chau by boat. The weeds were used for medicinal purposes, but they were also burned by fishermen to dry out their boats after cleaning.

Racial segregation in Hong Kong ended in 1946, when the returning colonial government — humbled by the horrors of the Holocaust — repealed the ban on Chinese residents from both of the Peaks. Today, if you walk along the Cheung Chau Peak Road, a tranquil pedestrian path lined by flowering trees, you will pass by old bungalows, spacious villas and Spanish-themed apartment complexes, which occasionally give way to glimpses of an azure sea. It is more densely populated than it was before 1946, but it remains as idyllic as ever.

Cheung Chau can be reached by ferry from Central Pier 5. Cheung Chau Peak Road is on the south side of the island.

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