Island Stories, Part II: Hong Kong’s Disappearing Islands

Since the days of the conquistadors, the island of Bermeja was a fixture on charts of the Gulf of Mexico. But in the 19th century it did something curious: it disappeared.

Some said it was blown to smithereens by the United States in order to expand their economic zone and rob Mexico of its oil reserves. Others suggested it was masked by an extraterrestrial cloaking device, as an alien armada amassed off the Yucatan coast to conquer the planet. Around the world, other land masses have met a similar fate, deemed a cartographical error caused by a fog bank, iceberg or optical illusion and summarily erased from maps.

Disappearing Islands

Castle Peak Bay including Pearl Island and Mouse Island – Photo courtesy of Hong Kong Historic Maps

In Hong Kong, too, we have our own phantom islands that seemingly fell off the face of the Earth: Hoi Sham, Rumsey Rock, Kellett Island, Channel Rock, Junk Island, Stonecutters Island, Pillar Island, Mong Chau, Cap Island, Lam Chau, Slope Island, Nga Ying Chau, Island House, Harbour Island, Tung Tau Chau, High island, Yim Tin Tsai, Mouse Island, Pearl Island, Lut Chau, Chau Tsai, Lak Ka Chau, Yuen Chau Kok and Yuen Chau Tsai.

Except there’s no mystery surrounding their fate. We killed them off one by one, inscribing their names to a long list of casualties wrought by unending onslaught of development. Since 1887, Hong Kong has wrested over 70 square kilometres of land from the ocean floor, swallowing up over two dozen islands, islets and rocky outcrops in the process.

Hoi Sham in Kowloon Bay ceased being an island in the early 1970s. Its Chinese name literally means “island in the heart of the sea,” but today it’s in the heart of industrial To Kwa Wan. Where waves once washed the base of its distinctive Fishtail Rock, vehicles now pull into a carpark placed bafflingly on prime harbourside real estate.

From 1868 until the New Territories lease of 1898, Junk Island was home to a Chinese Customs Station established to tax the opium trade and accept tribute from Indochina. Despite its maritime history, Junk Island is now an island in name only, connected to the Clear Water Bay Peninsula by Tseung Kwan O Industrial Estate. South of Junk Island, the body of water known as Fat Tong O has also been reclaimed to create the South East New Territories Landfill, absorbing the former island of Tit Cham Chau along with it.

Hankow Rock and Trocas Rock were the first features to fall victim to the West Kowloon Reclamation of the 1990s, but eventually the fill flanked Stonecutters Island, the only outlying island ceded to Britain along with the Kowloon Peninsula in 1860. Stonecutters has played host to a quarry and array of Royal Navy facilities. Japanese occupiers farmed snakes on the island to produce antidotes for their soldiers, and in the 1970s and ‘80s it was the forward operating base for a Royal Navy hovercraft. Today the facilities are run by the People’s Liberation Army Navy, and except for a handful of hugely oversubscribed open days, Hong Kong people are still forbidden from this historic former island.

But at least, in a way, these islands’ names and some hint of their past lives remain. Others were not so lucky. Many people know that our airport sits on Chek Lap Kok – or at least a hugely expanded version that has become the largest outlying island in Hong Kong, not counting Lantau. But fewer appreciate that its runways actually course over Lam Chau, another, smaller islet that was flattened out and fused to its larger neighbour.

Disappearing Islands

Hung Hom Bay – Photo courtesy of Hong Kong Historic Maps

Similarly, the Kai Tak runway swallowed now-forgotten Channel Rock. Rumsey Rock, too, has left no trace, buried beneath what was once Hung Hom Bay, now but a sea of concrete.

Pillar Island once guarded the mouth of Gin Drinkers Bay, but now both the island and bay have been lost. Across the narrowing Rambler Channel, Cap Island too was lost when it became part of a bloated Tsing Yi. Further up the coast of the northwestern New Territories, Pearl Island was attached to the mainland with the development of the Gold Coast resort and marina, and Mouse Island was quashed when Castle Peak Bay was filled in.

Disappearing Islands

Gin Drinkers Bay including Pillar Island and Cap Island – Photo courtesy of Hong Kong Historic Maps

The issue of large-scale land reclamation has come back to the fore as Hong Kong confronts an affordable housing crisis, and our government pushes for land reclamation over other options that are less costly and damaging to the environment, such as building on brownfield sites, reforming inefficient village land use, cooling the property market and clamping down on absentee homeowners. Chief Executive Carrie Lam said earlier this month that further large-scale reclamation is “unavoidable” in the future.

By any measure, the cost of reclamation is high. The budget for the proposed East Lantau Metropolis, which would swallow up two more islands, has estimated at HK$400 billion – more than the controversial Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, third airport runway and high speed rail link combined. Taking more land from the seabed also has a devastating effect on Hong Kong’s ecology and water quality. The pink dolphin is the most recognisable species to suffer widespread habitat loss due to out-of-control reclamation, but it is far from the only one.

Disappearing Islands

Aerial view of Kellett Island in 1948

The loss of our beaches, wetlands, tidal flats, natural coastlines and islands has another human cost that it is harder to quantify, and transcends aesthetics and recreational value. Consider how much history has revolved around islands, from Crete and Malta to Holy Island, Manhattan and Okinawa. They comprise such a small proportion of our world, yet they have been the site of so many real and imagined events in history, mythology, literature and science. So why do this tiny flecks of land figure so large in our imaginations?

From Lord Byron in the Ionian isles to Paul Gauguin in the Marquesas, Ernest Hemingway in Cuba and Robert Graves in Majorca, artists and writers have long made a habit of running off to islands. As he followed their examples and paddled through the Pacific islands, American writer Paul Theroux came to this conclusion:

It is impossible to imagine these island episodes unfolding on the mainland. The common denominator is not the landscape of the islands, or its location on the globe, but rather the fact of a place being surrounded by water – the character of the water itself is the magic element, offering the islander transformation… no one can really take possession of an island. Being the monarch of all you survey is in reality a mainland conceit; on an island it is you who have possessed.

Disappearing Islands

The remains of Hoi Sham Island surrounded by reclaimed land in Kowloon Bay – Photo by Ryan Kilpatrick

A part of the appeal of islands is their vulnerability. They are more isolated and exposed to the elements that we are numbed to on the mainland. The waves, the wind, the rain, the stars, the moonlight and the blazing sun – everything, on an island, is more felt. Yet this vulnerability has also put them on the frontline, the perennial victims of short-sighted development.

Hong Kong’s waters are home to 263 islands of 500 square metres or more, according to the Survey and Mapping Office of the Lands Department. It’s an impressive number — few of us can claim to have stepped foot on even half of them — but it’s also shrinking. While China has committed to preserving at least 35 percent of its natural coastline and has imposed tighter restrictions on reclamation projects, Hong Kong has done little more than pledge an end to reclamation within Victoria Harbour, which has already lost 96 percent of its natural coastline.

Disappearing Islands

Historic photo of Victoria Harbour and Stonecutters Island in the distance

More of our islands may soon become phantoms, once-unique, self-contained and self-sufficient communities reduced to anonymous tracts of concrete that could be anywhere in Hong Kong, or indeed the world. Explore, treasure and protect them while you can.

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