There are no maples on Maple Street. There are no poplars on Poplar Street. There are certainly no willows on Willow Street. All told, there are 17 streets in the northwest corner of Kowloon named after trees, none of which can be found on their eponymous thoroughfares, except for Palm Street, on which the government planted palm trees a few years ago. In fact, most of these streets don’t even have trees at all.
Even if they did, they likely wouldn’t be ash, beech, elm or oak trees, which don’t even grow in Hong Kong. It’s something I have wondered about ever since I moved to Kowloon in 2008. Just why are some of its most denuded streets named after foreign trees?
The mystery deepened further when I learned that many of the Chinese names of these streets don’t correspond with the English. In Cantonese, Fir Street is Cung4 Syu6 Gaai1 (松樹街) – Pine Street. Pine Street is Cedar Street (Caam3 Syu6 Gaai1 杉樹街). And Cedar Street? In Chinese, it’s Cypress Street (Baak3 Syu6 Gaai1 柏樹街).
There are other oddities. Lime Street’s Chinese name does not refer to the kind of limes you find at the market (ceng1 ning2 青檸). Instead, it is Pou4 Tai4 Gaai1 (菩提街) – Sacred Fig Street. Strangest of all, while all of the other tree streets refer to actual species, Sycamore Street’s Chinese name is Si1 Go1 Mou5 Gaai1 (詩歌舞街), which sounds like “sycamore” but translates to Poetry Song Dance Street.
In his wonderful book Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City, Dung Kai-cheung weaves fact and fiction to explore Sycamore Street’s etymology. “There are several different stories about the name of this street,” he writes. Sycamore can refer to a maple, plane or fig tree, depending on the region, so perhaps translators simply couldn’t decide which one to choose. Another explanation is that the most obvious Chinese name for a sycamore is mou5 faa1 gwo2 (冇花果), which means a tree with no flowers or fruit – a very inauspicious name for a street.
Dung offers another, more mischievous origin story, which he attributes to Leung Kwan-yat’s A Study of the Oral History of the Kowloon Area, a book that does not exist. “As far back as the eighteenth century, the stretch of land that became Poetry, Song and Dance Street was already a centre of artistic, educational and cultural activities for the whole district thanks to its proximity to Mongkok, one of the largest villages in Kowloon,” he writes. “Ancestral temples, schools and opera troupes served the community’s religious, educational and leisure needs. In time a scholar from Mongkok bestowed on it the name Poetry, Song and Dance, after a well-known passage in the preface to the ancient Book of Poetry.”
Dung wryly notes that this account is “not terribly convincing but one that people preferred to believe.” Of course, it a fantasy invented by Dung himself. Even he has no idea why government officials decided to name so many of Kowloon’s streets after foreign trees.
I thought Gillis Heller might have some answers. Heller and his uncle, Andrew Yanne, are the authors of Signs of a Colonial Era, a book about Hong Kong’s street names. But while the book notes all of the discrepancies between the English and Chinese names of the tree streets, it makes no indication of their origin. “I never saw any explanation of why the streets in this neighborhood were given horticultural names,” says Heller when I ask him about it. He suggests I pay a visit to the Government Records Service, where a century and a half of government documents are stored.
So off I went. The GRS is housed in a large modern building in Kwun Tong. I sign in with the security guard at the front desk, who gives me a numbered visitor sticker to wear, and I take the lift up to the reading room on the fourth floor. The catalogue reveals some potentially interesting artefacts from the area’s history. A helpful librarian brings them out and instructs me to put on a pair of white gloves before I handle them.
One is a simple hand-drawn map labelled “Tai Kok Tsui Village 1893,” yellowed with age but still in good condition. It depicts two rows of houses along a shoreline, which brings to mind present-day seaside villages like Peng Chau or Yung Shue Wan, with their narrow lanes curving along a bay. It’s impossible to say where the old Tai Kok Tsui Village is now, though, because the map has no compass rose – and in any case, the shoreline long ago vanished as land was reclaimed from the sea.
The next documents I found had to do with that reclamation. Most of them were full of dull correspondence between bureaucrats, mostly typewritten but sometimes inked in dense cursive. It seems much of the area was owned by Sir Robert Hotung, the influential Eurasian businessman whose descendants include casino tycoon Stanley Ho. In one exchange regarding a land swap in 1923, two civil servants snarkily observe that Hotung had bought a number of lots in Tai Kok Tsui two decades earlier and was now set to make a profit without ever having developed them. “I think Sir Robert is getting a very good bargain,” writes one.
All of this is interesting but incidental. I don’t find any information on the origins of the tree streets. That’s when I realise I don’t even know how streets were named in the past. Was it the whim of a single bureaucrat? A committee?
Luckily, there’s an academic who knows the answer: Ma Koon-yiu, who teaches in the University of Hong Kong’s Department of Real Estate and Construction. I reach him by phone at his office. He explains that, in the beginning, streets were named in English by the Public Works Department.
“They had a consensus inside the department,” he says. “As a rule of thumb, if you name it after a person, it shouldn’t be so close to another person’s street that it would invite comparisons. Another rule of thumb was to have a name that didn’t upset anyone.”
After the department decided on a name, it sent it to the governor for approval. “The earliest record I can find is a memorandum from Christmas 1896,” says Ma. New streets were being laid out on land reclaimed from the harbour and the director of public works wrote to then-Governor William Robinson to propose that one of them be named after Catchick Paul Chater, an Indo-Armenian businessman who was instrumental in planning the reclamation. Robinson agreed. “He approved it with a red pen,” says Ma.
That was only the beginning of the process. After the governor approved the English street name, the Public Works Department handed it off to the Secretariat for Chinese Affairs, which translated it into Chinese. “They would pass it onto the most important men in the Chinese community, like the Tung Wah Hospital or the Chinese chambers of commerce.”
This is where some of the odd translations come in. Streets named in honour of colonial conquest were often given a completely different Chinese name, like Possession Street, which in Cantonese is Seoi2 Haang1 Hau2 Gaai1 (水坑口街) – Water Pit Mouth Street, referring to a nullah that once ran alongside it. Other streets, like Lyndhurst Terrace, reflect two different layers of Hong Kong history. Its English name honours John Copley, the Baron of Lyndhurst, while its Chinese name, Baai2 Faa1 Gaai1 (擺花街 – “Flower Display Street”) refers to the flowers that adorned the many brothels that lined the street in the 19th century.
In 1953, the responsibility for naming streets was passed from the Public Works Department to a new Urban Council Street Naming Committee, which reversed the practice of choosing an English name that was later translated into Chinese. Today, most streets have the same name in both languages, like Lung Wo Road on the new Central harbourfront, but there are still some strange translations: newly-built Concorde Road (Hip3 Tiu4 Dou6 協調道), in Kai Tak, refers to the supersonic jet in English but a peaceful agreement — a concord — in Chinese.
Most of the tree streets were named in 1927, when Tai Kok Tsui was first developed, but a few were latecomers. Sycamore Street, Walnut Street and Willow Street were named in 1950, while Cherry and Palm were named in 1954. This information comes from the Development Bureau, which I had hoped would offer some insight into the origins of the names. It turns out even the government has no idea why they are all named after foreign trees. “We do not have any record on the origin of all these street names,” a spokesperson told me by email.
Ma says it was common for a neighbourhood’s streets to be named according to a theme. Most of the streets in Yau Yat Chuen are named after flowers; Kowloon Tong’s streets are named for English country towns. I ask him if it’s possible that some British-born civil servants in the Public Works Department decided it would be nice to name the newly-built streets of Tai Kok Tsui after some anodyne trees from their homeland. “Most probably,” he replies.
Early on a summer evening, as the city dips into the cobalt hues of twilight, I take a walk through the tree streets. There are no poplars on Poplar Street, but there is a row of green market stalls illuminated by red lamps. There are no sycamores on Sycamore Street, but there is a graceful row of 1950s-era walkup apartment buildings. There are no beech trees on Beech Street, but there is a banyan, a gnarled, stubborn beast that rises six stories above the courtyard of a temple. It’s the only tree for blocks around.
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.