On the morning of May 2, 1927, a small news item appeared in the pages of the South China Morning Post. “Bathing beaches opened to the public yesterday,” it announced, detailing how the government had installed bathing matsheds — a kind of makeshift cabin — for the public to hire for 10 cents per person.
As far as news briefs go, it was hardly unusual. But there’s one thing to catch the eye of the modern-day reader: the location of the beaches. “Early in the morning there were about two dozen people enjoying a first swim at Quarry Bay,” noted the paper.
Quarry Bay? The neighbourhood now filled with soaring office towers, shopping malls and high-rise housing estates?
Hongkongers have always loved going to the beach; nearly 14 million people visited the city’s 41 public beaches last year. But these days, the shores of Victoria Harbour are lined by concrete, and a trip to the beach requires a journey well outside the city centre, to the south side of Hong Kong Island or the New Territories.
That wasn’t always the case. For many decades, some of Hong Kong’s most popular beaches were located in areas that are now in the heart of the city. Aside from the tranquil crescent of sand in Quarry Bay, there were beaches in Kennedy Town, North Point, Yau Ma Tei and Lai Chi Kok. A French expression comes to mind: sous les pavés, la plage. Under the pavement, the beach.
Yau Ma Tei’s beach was arguably the most important – as well as the first to disappear. Most of Kowloon’s coastline was originally craggy and inaccessible, so Yau Ma Tei’s sandy shore invited settlement by fishermen who valued easy access to the water. After the Kowloon peninsula was ceded to Britain in 1860, Yau Ma Tei developed quickly, drawing migrants from nearby villages, but also a new generation of well-to-do Portuguese entrepreneurs.
In the 1870s, Delfino Noronha and Marcos Calisto do Rozario bought a five-acre property next to the beach and built a villa they called Delmar, a combination of the first syllables of their given names. The lush garden included pineapple trees and trees imported from Australia. Noronha could afford it – he was the founder of the first ferry line to run between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island.
This photo of the Yau Ma Tei beach from the early 20th century makes it look positively idyllic: a stretch of sand flanked by palm trees and gardens, behind which rose colonial-style buildings shuttered windows and pitched tile roofs.
That scene soon changed with the construction of the Yau Ma Tei Typhoon Shelter in 1910. Sand became cement and stone, a fate that awaited nearly all of the other beaches along the harbour. But for the beaches in North Point and Lai Chi Kok, the best days were yet to come.
The North Point beach, which was located roughly where the North Point Ferry Pier is today, began to draw sunseekers as soon as the tramway opened in 1904. A decade later, the Hong Kong Tramway Company was advertising its own bathing tents at North Point, with military band performances on the beach from 9pm to 11pm.
In 1918, an amusement park called Ming Yuen Gardens opened along the beach, offering Cantonese opera, an outdoor cinema, a ballroom, a merry-go-round, a children’s playground, volleyball and badminton courts, ping-pong tables and more. In one corner of the park, visitors could sip wine while admiring classical Chinese painting and poetry.
Ming Yuen, along with Luna Park, another amusement park that opened nearby in 1949, made North Point one of Hong Kong’s entertainment hubs. But in the 1950s it also began to attract legions of immigrants who had fled the mainland after the Communists won the Chinese Civil War in 1949. As the neighbourhood developed, its waterfront was reclaimed for a new ferry pier and public housing estate, wiping out the beach.
Lai Chi Kok Bay managed to survive for another few decades. Located on the western edge of Kowloon, it was home to another famous amusement park, Lai Yuen, which opened in 1949. Every weekend, thousands of people flocked to the park and the adjacent beach, which had golden sand and a view of the nearby Mobil oil depot.
“In those days Hong Kong still had the luxury of some empty space,” recalls Eddie Lui, an artist who worked at a Coca-Cola bottling plant located along the bay in the 1960s. He and his friends used to go swimming and boating on the weekends. “There were swimming sheds – a really makeshift entertainment device,” he says. “They were temporary so they were not really well built. We had to climb through scaffolding to reach a boat. It was a very uncontrolled leisure ground.”
Eventually, urban development spread west, and the Mobil oil depot was redeveloped into Mei Foo, Hong Kong’s first private housing estate. Lai Chi Kok Bay remained a popular place to swim, but years of uncontrolled pollution had made its waters hazardous, and in the late 1970s the government filled it with earth and turned it into a public park.
Today, there are just two natural beaches left on the shores of Victoria Harbour: one near the seafood restaurants of Lei Yue Mun and another on Stonecutters’ Island. The latter beach was a popular place to swim in the early 20th century, but it was long ago made off-limits to the public when it was incorporated into a naval base.
The next time your tram rumbles through the urban canyons of North Point or you walk through the crowded streets of Yau Ma Tei, though, it’s worth remembering: there’s a beach beneath the concrete.