Neighbourhood Guide: Aberdeen, the Seaside Town That Gave Hong Kong Its Name

Old coastal view of the Police station

Why is Hong Kong called Hong Kong?

There are a few theories behind the name, according to historian Iu Kow-choy. One is that the island was named in honour of Auntie Heung, a legendary female pirate. Another is that it refers to the “fresh and fragrant water” that cascaded down the cliffs of Waterfall Bay, where passing ships stopped to replenish their reserves of drinking water.

The most likely scenario is that early 19th century British sailors mistook the name of Hoeng1 Gong2 Cyun1 (香港村) – Fragrant Harbour Village – to be that of the whole island on which it lay. At the time, Hong Kong was a major producer of aquilaria sinesis, the fragrant tree used to make Chinese incense, which was harvested and shipped to Fragrant Harbour Village to be processed.

That village is now known in English as Aberdeen, though its heritage lives on through its Chinese name, Hoeng1 Gong2 Zai2, which means Little Hong Kong. Aberdeen is one of those areas that is simultaneously famous yet overlooked: nearly everyone in Hong Kong could tell you it is the location of the renowned Jumbo floating restaurant, and they would probably advise you to take a sampan tour of its typhoon shelter, which is home to the remnants of a once-enormous floating village. But they likely haven’t spent much time in the picturesque south side neighbourhood themselves.

“Aberdeen is a bit neglected,” says Billy Kwan, who has set out to change that situation. Kwan is the curator of Very Hong Kong, an ongoing series of festivals and cultural events that shed light on the history and culture of Hong Kong’s urban environment. This Sunday, May 16, Very Aberdeen will bring workshops, walking tours, film screenings and more to the district’s waterfront.

“As we prepared the event, we got to speak to so many people from professional artists to local elderly,” says Kwan. “A lot of them used to live on the boats or their parents lived on the boats, doing some business on the water, like selling supplies to the fisherman. This is a lot of heritage but they’ve never spoken about it to the public.”

Aberdeen’s history stretches back to 1550, though like other settlements on Hong Kong Island, it was modest in size. Lieutenant Thomas Bernard Collinson of the Royal Engineers, who conducted a survey of the island after the British took control of it in 1841, described it as “a straggling village scattered round a small bay, with an ill-paved sort of quay in front and about 50 fishing boats lying about a great rock in the middle, a good supply of shops where bamboo hats, mats, sails, ropes and baskets; rice, fruit, vegetables, tobacco, earthenware and fireworks are all sold together; these being the staple commodities of a Chinese country shop and cakes by the bye, with plenty of pork fat in everything and a thousand of the dirtiest men women and children that ever talked altogether in a singsong.”

Another military observer was less critical and perhaps more accurate, describing Aberdeen as having “a very respectable appearance” and about 200 buildings. The village was likely to home to about 500 people, roughly the same number as Chek Chu, known in English as Stanley.

There may have been just as many people living offshore in the floating village, which was inhabited by so-called Tanka “boat people.” The Tanka trace their roots back to the indigenous groups that inhabited Guangdong and Fujian before the arrival of the Chinese. Even until recently, land-dwellers considered them a people apart. In 1961, there were 136,802 people living on boats in Hong Kong, but in recent decades, most Tanka have assimilated into mainstream Hong Kong society. The 2011 census showed there are just 1,188 boat-dwellers left, many of them living in Aberdeen’s harbour.



idiscovercitywalk_smallRevealing some of this history is one of the goals of Very Aberdeen, which also marks the launch of a new iDiscover Aberdeen tour app developed by Urban Discovery. On Sunday, you can follow the app on a Family Treasure Hunt, but a self-guided tour is just as rewarding. In celebration of the occasion, Zolima CityMag has teamed up with Urban Discovery to share some of our favourite spots in Hong Kong’s most fragrant neighbourhood. 


Courtesy of Urban Discovery

(1) The Warehouse
116 Aberdeen Main Road. Open Tuesday, Thursday and Friday 10:00-22:00, Saturday, Monday and Wednesday 10:00-22:00, Sunday and holidays by appointment

Climb to the top of the hill behind Aberdeen and you will find a surprisingly charming red brick building. Strategically positioned on the hilltop overlooking the South China Sea, it served both as a police station and light house. In the 1960’s when the police station moved to a more modern premises downhill, this was where Hong Kong’s Special Branch security agents received their training.

By 1992, the building had become derelict. At the same time, University of Hong Kong professor Frank White noticed the lack of places for Hong Kong teenagers to hang out and saw this old building as the ideal location to create a youth club. Operated by Woofoo Enterprises, The Warehouse offers sporst, art, dance, drama and music classes that are popular with local youngsters. Check out the graffiti all around the premises and attend one of the many music and drama performances – or simply chill out on the balcony.

While you’re there, look for a grey door under the staircase on the ground floor, next to the piano. Behind it is a secret entrance to an underground tunnel connected to a nearby air raid shelter where British officers were meant to take refuge in the event of an aerial attack.



Courtesy of Urban Discovery

(2) Tin Hau Temple
182 Aberdeen Main Road

This is one of Hong Kong’s many Tin Hau temples. The goddess of the sea is naturally one of the territory’s most popular gods. The Aberdeen Tin Hau temple was built in 1644, making it one of Hong Kong’s oldest. The stone on top of the temple entrance, on which is inscribed the temple’s name in Chinese calligraphy, is the only remaining original part of the temple. This Tin Hau temple was built for Aberdeen’s land-dwelling residents; seafaring people worshipped at another Tin Hau Temple on the island of Cheung Chau, an hour away from Aberdeen. Take a look at the rooftop and marvel at the beautifully sculpted female knights. These figures make this Tin Hau temple unique: it is very rare to see women portrayed in temples built at a time when females were not accorded particularly high status in Chinese society..



Courtesy of Urban Discovery

(3) Vintage Studio
Room 1A, 210 Aberdeen Main Road. +852 2552 6456 – Open daily 12:00-18:00

Feeling nostalgic about film photography? Pay a visit to Mr. Chan’s studio, which opened in 1964. Back in the 60s and 70s, this studio was popular among local models and actresses. Chan has captured many important moments in people’s lives: birth, graduation and weddings. “Families would queue here for family portraits, especially before and after Chinese New Year,” he recalls. The rise of digital photography has seen business dwindle, but that hasn’t faded Chan’s passion for the camera. He still comes to the studio every day from his home two hours away.

Film camera enthusiasts will love this place. The oldest machine in the store is a medium format camera used in the 60s for black and white shots. In the 80s, Chan was inspired by a Swiss painter to start experimenting with post-processing colouring using oil paints and projector backgrounds.



Courtesy of Urban Discovery

(4) Street temple
14 Nam Ning Street

If you walk too quickly, you might just miss this spot. It’s the smallest temple in Hong Kong, measuring just one metre square. This is the only temple in Hong Kong dedicated to Hoi Wong, better known as King of the Sea. “For 20 years, I have been tidying and cleaning the temple every single day,” says Mrs. Wong, one of the temple’s volunteer caretakers from the local fishing community. “I believe the temple ensures fortune and fate for the water people then and now. See how beautiful this temple is? Painted with red paint, and decorated with healthy plants, it is so unique and special amidst all this new Aberdeen architecture surrounding us.”

Despite its small size, the temple packs a punch. Legend has it that when the authorities attempted to relocate the temple in the name of urban renewal, the restaurant across the temple caught fire immediately. Locals immediately related the incident to the angry water god and the temple has been there in the middle of the street ever since.



by Tom Billinge

(5) Guardians of Aberdeen
Old Main Street at Aberdeen Main Road

The Hoi Wong street temple is not the only informal altar in Aberdeen. Once upon a time, Old Main Street was the only point of entry into Aberdeen, so anyone going to or coming from the village had to pass by. At its base there is a remarkable collection of altars known by some as the Guardians of Aberdeen. It’s a sort of greatest-hits assembly of Chinese deities with shrines to Pak Tai, Hung Shing, Kwan Tai and Kwun Yum, but there are also some hyper-local gods about whom there is very little information: the White Tiger God, the Mountain Grandfather and the Banyan Grandfather, among others.



Courtesy of Urban Discovery

(6) Corner Fishball
223 Aberdeen Praya Road. Open daily 12:00-20:00

Fish balls are the city’s most popular snack. Hongkongers eat around 3.6 million of them every day – along with an estimated 2.2 million siu mai! Don’t miss your chance to try this authentic Aberdeen snack. Next to the waterfront footbridge is a shop selling local snacks, including fish balls — which are made of compressed fish paste — and siu mai, which are dumplings made of pork and shrimp. Try a stick of fish balls, which cost HK$7 for five pieces or HK$12 for ten. Hungry? Go for the giant fish balls at HK$13 apiece.



Courtesy of Urban Discovery

(7) Aberdeen Fish Market
102 Shek Pai Wan Road. Open daily 4:00-14:00

This is the largest fish wholesale market in Hong Kong, occupying 15,700 square meters – equivalent to the size of one and a half football fields. The action here is at the break of dawn when fishermen arrive with their daily catch. Fish is auctioned and shipped off to markets, restaurants and hotels around Hong Kong.

Walk into the heart of the market and you will find the Aberdeen Fish Market Catering Centre. Tell the owner, Ar Lo, how much you want to spend per head (it’s usually around HK$200 to HK$400) and he will whip up a seafood meal to fit your bill. Don’t miss the signature fish soup, allegedly combining the flavours of at least six different types of fish (HKD$40 per person). Be aware that the fish soup is not on the menu – you’ll have to ask for it.

Behind the fish market restaurants is a small ice factory. Fishermen used to sail past to load up on ice to store fresh fish. The Fish Marketing Organisation (FMO) has a souvenir shop at the market which is definitely worth a visit. On offer are premium fisheries products but also locally produced handicrafts, ornaments and fishing craft models. Your purchase supports local institutions including New Life Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association, Caritas Artland and Hong Chi Association. The shop is open most days from noon to 5pm, but closed on Thursdays and public holidays.

The fish market is quiet from May to August, due to summertime fishing restrictions, so visit in the autumn or winter if you want to see it in action.


8.floating_village(8) Floating village

To get a glimpse of floating life, hop on the public sampan ferry that connects Aberdeen with Ap Lei Chau – Duck Tongue Island. Before the construction of the Aberdeen bridge in 1980, this was the only form of transportation across the water.

At one point in time, the Aberdeen typhoon shelter was home to 28,500 people in more than 4,000 households, living together in a completely self-sufficient community. They managed as much as possible without the help of the onshore people. With restrictions on the fishing industry making it ever harder to make a living from the sea, many boat people have moved ashore. Aberdeen’s floating population nearly vanished between 1990 and 2010. Your next visit to the floating village may be your last. Hire a sampan on the Aberdeen waterfront to take you past curiosities such as floating school busses, restaurants, post offices and temples.

There’s even a floating noodle shop. The opening hours and location of this sampan restaurant change like the weather, so if you miss it, try your luck in one of the local food stalls near the Aberdeen waterfront and order “sampan congee” or “sampan noodles.”

Another curiosity: a floating Tin Hau temple. There once was a beautiful Tin Hau temple in a small village somewhere upstream in the Pearl River Delta. One day in the war, Japanese planes destroyed the temple. Only Tin Hau’s statue survived the bombardments, which fishermen took as a sign. They brought the statue with them to the floating village in Aberdeen and it has been there ever since. Every year, the village family that offers the biggest donation to the temple gets the right to host Tin Hau on their houseboat.



Courtesy of Urban Discovery

(9) Wing Kee Boat Repair
84 Ap Lei Chau Main Street. Open Monday to Saturday 9:00-18:00

“Metal Sheets, Stainless Steel, Galvanised Steel” is written on the old-fashioned metal sign board of this hardware shop. Wing Kee has long been supplying boat accessories to water people and he still makes engine covers for sampans. Decades ago, there were lots of boat repair shops like this on Ap Lei Chau, but this is one of the few left. These days, fishermen rather get their boats repaired in China for a fraction of the price.

In the past, Ap Lei Chau served as a supply station for the water community, which would come here for “treasures of the land” like groceries, engines, fishing nets, hooks, incense or simply a bowl of wonton noodles. Wing Kee’s owner, Wing Gor, is an example of a boat person who migrated to land. “Only those who have earned enough can live on land,” he says. He calls himself “the keeper of Ap Lei Chau” and he is proud of his roots on the island. “I might not be here for long,” he says. The MTR will soon open a station on Ap Lei Chau and since Wing Gor does not own his shop space, it may fall victim to rent hikes. Will this be the fate of more and more small businesses on Ap Lei Chau?


10_jumbo_restaurant_2_600(10) Jumbo Floating Restaurant
Sampan from Shum Wan Pier Drive. Open Monday to Saturday 11:00-23:30, Sunday 9:00-23:30

Welcome to a Hong Kong icon: Jumbo, which for decades was the biggest floating restaurant in the world. That title may have been usurped by a Dubai restaurant in 2007, but Jumbo is still astonishing, with room for 2,300 guests in its fantastical and extravagant Chinese imperial style complex located in the Aberdeen typhoon shelter. The food isn’t great, but for new comers there’s nowhere else quite like Jumbo, so it’s worth visiting for the novelty value alone.

Aberdeen has always been famous for gourmet seafood and after the war many sampans began doubling as restaurants. Then, in the mid-1970s, the three-storey Jumbo appeared. Just one month before the official opening, disaster struck and the restaurant caught fire, causing 34 deaths. It took four years to rebuild. Today, Jumbo actually consists of two floating restaurants, Jumbo and Tai Pak, which together form the Jumbo Kingdom. In the past there was a third sibling, Sea Palace, but it was eventually towed to the Philippines.

Jumbo’s unique setting has caught the interest generations of filmmakers. Bruce Lee’s legendary Enter the Dragon, Stephen Chow’s God of Cookery, Suzie Wong and The Man With the Golden Gun all had scenes filmed at Jumbo, while the 1988 miniseries Noble House, starring Pierce Brosnan as the taipan of a venerable British trading company, recreated Jumbo’s tragic fire.


(11) Tat Kee
97 Ap Lei Chau Main Street

Ap Lei Chau is traditionally where the water community comes ashore for land food and this is still true today. Tat Kee’s char siu — Cantonese-style roast pork — is local Ap Lei Chau hotspot. The original owner, Mr. Tat, is a retired Jumbo chef famous for roasting pork shoulders in his small kitchen. The restaurant is now run by Mr. Kau, who now runs this popular shop has continued with his mission ‘to serve the water community,” as he puts it. The symbol of a sailing ship displayed proudly on the shop sign says it all.


(12) Widerhall
Unit 2810-11, Hing Wai Centre, 7 Tin Wan Praya Road. Open Monday to Friday, 9:30 – 5:30. By appointment

Back across Aberdeen’s narrow harbour, the industrial district of Tin Wai has become an enclave for art galleries, design studios and other creative enterprises. Many of Hong Kong’s professional photographers and gallerists flock to Widerhall, which offers fine-art and commercial quality printing, framing and mounting. Master printer CK Man has helmed the shop’s machinery since 2008. It also welcomes non-professional clients.


Mur Nomade Gallery_SD(13) Mur Nomade Gallery
Unit 1606, 16/F, Hing Wai Centre 7 Tin Wan Praya Road. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 12:00-18:00

Founded in 2012, Mur Nomade is a not-for-profit cultural space that puts an emphasis on collaborative art projects and cross-disciplinary work, with performances, workshops and residences in addition to exhibitions. The gallery has recently presented shows by young artists like Hong Kong mixed-media artist Jovial Yeung, who makes intimate glass-based work, along with workshops such as a two-day printmaking event staged in collaboration with the Hong Kong Open Printshop. exit_600(14) Gallery Exit
3/F, 25 Hing Wo Street. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 11:00-18:00

With a mandate to foster the long-term growth of young artists, Exit is where you’ll find some of the most exciting work in Hong Kong. Some of its artists include Hong Kong-born Nadim Abbas, who translates a wonky research-based practice into beguiling, often cheeky installations, and Beijing-based contemporary photographer Chen Wei, whose work explores the tensions of modern China.


Gao Xingjian

Sur la Rive by Gao Xingjian

(15) Alisan Fine Arts
Unit 2305, Hing Wai Centre, 7 Tin Wan Praya Road. Open Monday to Saturday 10:30-17:30

Alisan is a family business: founded by Alice King, the sister of former Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, the gallery is now run by Alice’s daughter, Daphne, who left a career in advertising to become immersed in art. “When it first started in the 80s, there weren’t many people that understood art,” recalls Daphne. That certainly isn’t the case these days. With a focus on contemporary Chinese art and new ink art, Alisan has become one of the more established galleries in town. “If you fast forward to present-day Hong Kong, the gallery scene has just gone crazy,” says Daphne. “We’ve gone from being a pioneer to promoting more established artists. I hope we’re setting a high standard for other galleries to follow.”


Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.

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