The history of Hong Kong has for centuries been linked to that of piracy. Indeed, the proximity of the Pearl River and trade along the coasts of southern China combined with the many bays and islands which offer natural shelters and hideouts for pirates, have favored its growth. It reached a peak rather recently, however, with the emergence of some exceptional and colorful characters, probably due to the the presence of Portuguese, Dutch and English merchants in the region, which has further increased the possibilities of attacks and seizure of valuable cargoes. Although reality and legends are intimately connected when coming to pirates, here are some of the most striking stories about them.
The Red Flag Fleet
The largest fleet ever assembled by a pirate is undoubtedly that of Zheng Yi (1765-1807), who gathered up to 70000 pirates and some 600 junks. This was possible due to a network of alliances between pirates in the Hong Kong region and those from Canton. This true armada, which was named "Red Flag Fleet", was most often anchored in Junk Bay, just East of present-day Victoria Harbor. It is difficult to imagine such a fleet today, as this bay is largely filled by Tseung Kwan O's land reclamations! At the head of his pirate army, Zheng Yi played a decisive role in the conquest of Vietnam by China in the early 19th century. It is also in this country that he died, the victim of a typhoon according to some and a murder according to others!
War junks were the favorite boats of Chinese pirates. They were often of small size, equipped with only one or two sails made of woven reeds and bamboo frame, and therefore very manoeuvrable. The butterfly wing-shaped sails were almost indestructible as cannon balls would fly through them without altering their overall structure, rigidity being provided by the bamboo sticks. A junk could surge from behind an islet and cut the road to larger ships, turn tight to avoid shots and rapidely take aim from the opposite side. Her armament consisted of eight to twelve light cannons.
It is actually a woman, Ching Shih (1775-1844, first illustration) who finally succeeded the best in this industry. A former prostitute in Canton known for her intrigues, she married Zhen Yi in a sort of pact where her network would be added to the reputation of the pirate. When he died death, Ching Shih took control of the fleet with the help of her adopted son Cheung Po Tsai. Establishing a code of piracy by which any refusal to obey and order or unapproved rapine was punished beheading and throwing of the body at sea, she became master of the South China Sea, going so far as to extort the imperial government for her protection. In 1810, she signed a treaty by which she renounced piracy with the assurance of keeping all the goods stolen by her and she even was made a noble. Taking her official retirement at only thirty-five years, she continued to run a brothel and gambling house and finally died in her bed at the age of 69!
In the 1920s, another woman made a name for herself in piracy, originated from Macao and called Lai Choi San. She is suppoded to have commanded a fleet of twelve junks and have a double life of pirate and protector of merchant ships. This character inspired to Milton Caniff the cartoon "Terry and the Pirates" in 1934, which became a film in 1940 (video) in which the role of "Dragon Lady" was played by Sheila Darcy (above). The duality of the character was even accentuated by staging a vamp dressed in a silk gown when in the city and a ruthless fighter once at sea. The reality was definitely less glamorous as one can see from the attached picture of the real Lai Choi San surrounded by her guards (second from the right).
On January 29, 1935 an incident made the newspapers frontlines when pirates seized the British ship SS Tungchow and captured 70 children of missionaries and their teachers, occasionally killing one of the Russian guards in charge of their protection. The kidnapping of Western children came as a shock to the public, so that everything was undertaken to solve this crisis and recover the young prisoners. They will be located nine days later in Daya Bay, a ill-reputed place for pirates East of Hong Kong. The kidnappers decamped at the sight of the reconnaissance aircraft and the children were eventually escorted to Hong Kong. Following this event, the hunt for pirates will further intensify. Finally in 2000, "Sister Ping", aka Cheng Chui Ping, was arrested in Hong Kong for piracy after being engaged for more than twenty years in smuggling and trafficking of Chinese migrants into the United States. At her death in 2014, thousands of people would follow the cortege through the streets of Manhattan, talking of a "modern Robin Hood"!
- I Sailed with Chinese Pirates, by Aleko E. Lilius, published for the first time at Appleton and Co, 1931
- Terry and the Pirates, by Milton Caniff, a weekly comic for Chicago Tribune in December 1934
- Hong Kong the Pirate Capital, article in three parts by Ryan Kilpatrick for the blog Zolima, Oct 2017
- The Chinese female pirate who commanded 80000 outlaws, Urvija Banerji, 6/4/2016, Atlas Obscura
- The Hong Kong Maritime Museum permanent collections, Victoria Harbour, Central Pier 4, first floor
- Hong Kong, the Island of Thieves, and the pirates who ruled the South China Sea, Doris Wai, 2018
The old Star Ferry offers a travel option favoured by over 70,000 people who cross Hong Kong Victoria Harbour every day. Yet very few people know its actual story. Before the first tunnel was built, it was the only way to cross the two kilometers (today barely one) of the "Fragrant Harbour". Joseph Kessel, the French reporter and novelist who visited Hong Kong in 1955, was particularly touched by the charm of the old ferry which took some of the passengers who had landed in Kai Tak Airport or were staying at the Peninsula Hotel to their appointments on Hong Kong Island.
Joseph Kessel wrote in his travelogue "Hong Kong and Macao" which was published in 1957: "The crowd of travelers flowed from the boarding pontoons on to large flat-bottomed boats, taking up their places without jostling or disorder. While one ferry was already leaving, another crowd came out from the flanks of the other in direction of the mainland. These people, whether they were Chinese from Canton, Peking or Shanghai, Malay, Indians, English, civilians or soldiers, had not the squeezed, twisted, clenched or haggard faces that one sees at rush hours on public transports in Paris, London or New York. A friendly smile aa well as a relaxed expression softened their features. From Kowloon to Hong Kong, the cool breeze kept caressing the faces, because the passage from one bank to the other, if it took only a few minutes, was made of grace, charm and poetry. " .
Even today, one takes one's time to admire each of the moves of the sailors in charge of mooring operations in their blue uniforms. After one of them hands the heavy rope to the man of the wharf with help of a long stick, he would make three precise knots around the mooring pole, to ensure the final stop of the boat. Then the door, in front of which passengers are patiently waiting, topples down and everybody throw themselves on the ramps along the green columns leading to the heart of the city. The sequence of all these subtle moments constitute an immutable ballet which has been lasting for more than a century.
Dorabjee Nowrojee, an Indian Parsi business man, launched in 1874 the service that would become the future Star Ferry Company. It was originally a mere hard top motor boat which he used to haul bread. Our man indeed owned Victoria Hotel in Hong Kong, Kowloon Hotel, on the continent side, as well as a bakery which had to deliver bread in both locations. Therefore the ferry was a convenience more than the main purpose of his business. However, more and more people started to use his boat to cross the harbour, so he decided to extend the number of crossings to accomodate these passengers. As the workers in Paul Chater's (nearby photo) company Kowloon Wharfs became familiar with Nowrojee's boat, he negociated with Chater the maintenance of his boats and wharfs in exchange of a cheaper crossing fee for the company's employees.
This smart agreement would reveal crucial to keep the service aflow when competition became tougher with a war on prices and less passengers that could have damaged the overall profitability. In 1888, Nowrojee returned to India and sold his business to Paul Chater who eventually renamed the company Star Ferry in 1898. This name was inspired by a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson entitled "Crossing the Bar", which begins: "Sunset and evening star, and one clear call to me!". Since then, the ferries where all named after stars. In 1898, the first double-decker boat was introduced.
Among the events that mark the history of the Star Ferry, the 1906 typhoon was responsible for the destruction of Tsim Sha Tsui terminal until 1914. However, the most difficult period came during WWII control of Hong Kong by the Japanese. In addition to the bombing of many boats, some ferries were used to transport POWs from the Sham Shui Po camp to Kai Tak airport, where they had to build a new runway. After the war, the fast city development also slightly changed the crossing experience. Indeed new terminals were built on reclamations, making the journey shorter every decade. In the lattest Blake and Mortimer album, it is possible to date the scene in the 1950s from the shape of the ferry terminal. The begining of the movie "The World of Suzie Wong" also shows Kowloon terminal in 1960 (second photo and video)
In 1966, a 5 cent increase of the ferry ticket caused a student to go on a hunger strike, his arrest triggering the first riots of Hong Kong's modern history. Indeed, the population, which was majoritary poor, in those years, attributed this increase to the then corrupt English government. This incident also showed how the Star Ferry had become important as the companion of the lives of generations. Since 1972 a tunnel connects Kowloon to Hong Kong Island (they will soon be three) and since 1982, the Tsuen Wan subway line offers an additional crossing possibility.
The Star Ferry popularity, however, is confirmed among Hongkongers who still regularly use the twelve boats of the company, when they want to avoid the long corridors of the metro or the taxi hassle during tarffic peaks! However, the experience of the harbour crossing is very different from that of Kessel, the many local wooden boats having disapeared since the 1970s. This facilates the traffic (sails had priority at that time) but had become far less romantic. Judge for yourself: "On her liquid route, on the right and on the left, motorboats, yachts, car transporters, or maneuvered either rowing or paddling, slipped the sampans. At every moment, from all perspectives, junks bloomed the sea."
After 150 years, the Star Ferry retains its magic and remains a wonderful time machine. For every crossing still brings a poetic break in the city's rat race.
- Star Ferry, story of a Hong Kong icon, David Johnson, New Zealand Remarkable View Limited, 1998
- Hong Kong and Macao, travelogue written by Joseph Kessel, published at Gallimard in 1957
- The History of Hong Kong Yaumati Ferry Co, Master Thesis, Lingnam University, Sham Wai-chi 1997
- The World of Suzie Wong, film by Richard Quine starring Nancy Kwan and William Holden, 1960
- Star Ferry, Hong Kong Street Photography workshop, photos by John Lehmann, Nov 8-11 2018
- The Valley of the Immortals - Threat over Hong Kong, by Yves Sente, Ed Blake and Mortimer, Nov 2018
When talking to people who happened to live in Hong Kong in the 60s and 70s, one is struck by their frequent reference to Russian restaurants. Places like Tkachenko or Cherikoff are oftened mentioned. There was a time indeed, when Western food in Hong Kong was systematically associated with Russian cuisine. Similarly, Russian pastries were popular in the British colony for their big creamy fruit cakes. Then again, who are these Russians who stayed in Hong Kong and left such a legacy that it is still remembered today?
If you visit the Happy Valley's colonial cemetery, where the oldest tombs in Hong Kong are located, you will probably notice some Saint Cyril crosses bearing Slavic surnames among the British tombstones. Those are orthodox catholic Russians tombs. Among the reasons that led several generations of Russians to emigrate to Hong Kong, many are related to the turbulent history of this country. The first waves, however, were the Jews fleeing the progroms of the 1880s. Those took refuge in Harbin Manchuria, at the end of the Trans-Siberian line. Some families continued their journey to Shanghai and eventully to Hong Kong. In the Jewish cemetery which was opened in 1855, you can see the tomb of Pearl Antschel Steinberg, who was born in Russia and died in Hong Kong in 1901 at the age of 72. After the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the massive exode of escaping csarist Russians pushed thousands of people into China.
These White Russians would leave Harbin for Shanghai in the 1920s, turning some parts of the city into some kind of "Little Russia". From the 1930s on, some moved to Hong Kong, which was the "economic" annex of the "Paris of the East". The cards were redistributed in 1949 with the fall of Chiang Kai Shek to the armies of Mao Zedong. The Russians, like many other nationalities, had little left but leaving China. They would often transit through Hong Kong before obtaining a visa for Australia or the United States. However, some of them chose to settle in the “fragrant harbour” for a few decades.
In 1934, the Orthodox Church Peter and Paul was founded by the missionary and future Archpriest Dmitry Uspensky (1886-1970), a native from Shuya near Moscow. At the same time, former demobilized csarist soldiers who had a reputation of solid military expertise, enrolled in the Hong Kong police, constituting up to 15 per cent of the peace keeping forces. A small group of 25 even formed a unit specializing in the fight against the pirates, then raging in the China Sea. Indeed, a hostage-taking on a line boat near Hong Kong made the front lines of the newspapers a few years earlier, making it crucial for the Westerners to adapt to this threat. These additional Russian resources were then more than welcome. From 1930, they will accompany valuable shipments, deterring many pirates attacks, which decreased significantly for the boats that were protected by these valuable guards (first photo).
Already popular in Harbin and Shanghai, Russian cuisine was soon to fill the restaurant tables of Hong Kong. Thus in 1928, the Russian Jewish associate Aaron Landau of Jimmy James, the founder of Jimmy's Kitchen on West Nanjing Road in Shanghai, launched the brand in Hong Kong. Among the dishes on the menu were classics like chicken "a la king", fish meuniere or the famous borscht. The success was such that, just like in Shanghai, Hong Kong cafes, whose chefs had been trained by Russians, also proposed comparable dishes.
Today, whether at Shanghai's Deda Cafe or Hong Kong's Queen's Café, you can find "lo sung tong" (羅宋湯), the Chinese name for borscht, or the pork schnitzel alongside the old-style fresh mold coffee. Tkachenko, which already existed in Shanghai, opened a tea salon in the 1950s which cakes soon reach a high reputation among hongkongers. In "Gweilo", Martin Booth's childhood memories, it is after leaving Tkachenko's that the main character met the "Queen of Kowloon", a Russian aristocrat who had fallen into opium and sold her diamonds on the street to survive. On Nathan Road, the Chantecler restaurant, whose name is French but food Russian, also served meals made of zakouski, the typical Russian starters, or pan-fried liver with bacon. Then Cherikoff pastry, near Waterloo Road on Kowloon, is one of the remaining Russian tradition addresses in Hong Kong.
If you have the opportunity to have lunch in Hong Kong, check if the menu includes borscht. This could be a rare and exquisite opportunity to celebrate 150 years of history between Russia and China!
References et adresses:
- Anti-Piracy Guards - 1939-1939 by Nona Parks, post from her familly website Pio-Ulski.com
- Othodoxy in Hong Kong, post from the Peter & Paul Orthodox Church in Hong Kong website
- Russian food and eateries in Hong Kong, Gwulo website by David Bellis, post 3/2/2011
- Jimmy's Kitchen, 1-3 Wyndham Street, Central, Hong Kong, tel +852 2526 5293
- Cherikoff, 760 Nathan Road, Prince Edward, Hong Kong, tel +852 2381 8195
- Queen's Cafe, 500 King's Road, North Point, Hong Kong, tel +852 2576 2658
For the first time, the famous two cartoon characters created by Edgar P. Jacobs in 1946 will visit Hong Kong. The occasion of a stroll in 1950s Hong Kong and a unique blend of history and science fiction!
Among the news that will delight comics fans, the forthcoming release of "The Valley of the Immortals", the last episode of the saga of "Blake and Mortimer", is also to mark a milestone for the afficionados of old Hong Kong. Indeed, this new adventure takes place in the "harbour of perfumes". Even though the album is not released yet (20th December in UK), I got a first glimpse of it by reading the boards published since the end of the summer in French and Belgian newspapers "Ouest-France" and "Moustique", on the same pattern as "Tintin" magazine of the great period!
Since the epidodes, the series is characterized by the mixture between historical reality and science fiction as well as a concern for details which make the cartoonist's inventions look plausible. The Belgian designer Edgar P. Jacobs often worked from photos such as for "The Necklace Affair", which takes place in Paris, "The Mystery of the Great Pyramid" in Cairo or the mythic "The Yellow M" which is located in London. The other feature is the use of uchronia, a narrative style that extrapolates official history by answering the question "What would have happened if ...?". The greatest historical invention of the father of the series is World War Three, declared and lost at the end of WWII by an imaginary Tibetan dictator, the Emperor Basam Damdu. The heroes are Captain Francis Blake, a former Royal Air Force pilot who eventually became turned the head of the prestigious MI5, and Professor Philip Mortimer, a prominent scientist in nuclear physics. The successors of Jacobs, like Yves Sente, have ever since all kept the fundamentals that made this series today's success.
This episode precisely takes place after the end of World War III, the characters landing at Kai Tak airport in the late 1940s. The RAF which was stationed at Kai Tak at that time is also involved in the story when three Spitfires engage in a dogfight with a mysterious American-made Mustang. The enemy is Chinese, however, a warlord by the name of Xi-Lee, who take advantage of the chaotic situation at the end of the war together with the growing struggle between Mao and Chiang Kai-shek in China to try to get his hands on a precious manuscript. Given this threat and the push of the Communists (watch this 1949 video), Hong Kong must ensure its protection, so no need to say Captain Blake and Professor Mortimer are put to contribution.
The historical part of the "Valley of the Immortals" is particularly well documented, recalling the political events which shaked these years from the very first pages of the album. Tintin fans will actually recognize a familiar character when a certain Gibbons, greets Professor Mortimer in the famous Peninsula Hotel. Gibbons comes from Shanghai whose International Concession has just been ceded to the Chinese authorities by the British Crown, he said and one would immediatly make a connection with the colonialist villain scorned by Tintin at the beginning of the Blue Lotus. The homage to Edgar Jacobs' career by Yves Sente is clear here as we know he worked for Hergé, Tintin's father, as a colorist. The similarity of the tones used by the two representatives of the "ligne claire" comic strip school is evident with the blushing reds and blues intended to brighten the stories published in the 1930s and 1940s.
The historical parenthesis continues with a Star Ferry ride from Tsim Sha Tsui, a stopover at the Hong Kong Club and taking a rickshaw to Wan Chai, which brings another reference to Tintin's Blue Lotus album. Then the story becomes more futuristic with Professor Mortimer driving to, or may I say into, Mount Davis, near Kennedy Town. The author has indeed imagined to place a secret base of the British Army inside the mountain, supposed to protect the "free world" (remember James Bond "The Man with a Pistol Gold" and the invention of secret base hidden in the wreckage of Queen Elizabeth II). A strategic weapon is kept there, a flying guiding system for the Swordfish vessels also engineered with help of Professor Mortimer's work. Mount Davis would eventually open itself in the manner of a Cold War launching silo to release the flying engine. As I do live nearby Mount Davis, I can guarantee you that there is no such thing under the mountain. So I suggest you go there to read this comic during a hike amoong the abandoned batteries and let float your imagination. Hope to see you there after mid-November to share more Blake and Mortimer stories!
Ref: The Valley of the Immortals, Vol 1- Threat over Hong Kong, by Yves Sente, Cinebook Ed, 20 Dec 2018
Object of curiosity or even fear, Kowloon City has fueled the most extraordinary stories. Let's discover together one of the most incredible human adventure in Hong Kong ever!
If you attended the debut of Jean-Claude Van Damme in the movie Blood Sport (video), you will probably remember that the final fight takes place in Kowloon Walled City, described as a lawless area. the illegal martial arts event being organized by a secret society. Today raised to make way to a public garden, this "city in the city" has long fed the wildest fantasies. The ancient Chinese city (last photo) actually found itself isolated in the middle the British controlled territory at the time of the extension of the new territories in 1898. Therefore it became sone sort of historical anomaly.
During the Japanese invasion, the ramparts were destroyed to be spread under the new runway of Kai Tak airport. However, the enclave experienced the greatest changes when Mao's took over China, becoming the home of thousands of refugees. The initial 1940 population of 2000 inhabitants doubled in the 1950s, new-comers being attracting by the lack of public regulations there. In addition to traditional small businesses, opium trafficking exploded, controlled by the K14 and Sun Yee On triads. In 1957, Joseph Kessel interviewed a senior police official who declared: "The English never entered Kowloon City. When I was taking care of this area, if a professional murderer took refuge in Kowloon City, I had to pay other criminals to force him to the edge of Kowloon where my men would wait for him. "A few years later , the young Martin Booth was also taken by his Chinese friend to a triad meeting hall in Kowloon City (triad altar seized in 1978).
Almost every dodgy business would take place in the "City of Darkness" (黑暗 之 城) as it was known by the Chinese, from illegal dentists, dog meat restaurants, those being banned in the rest of Hong Kong, to extensive prostitution or drug trafficking. Opium was prefered by the wealthiest consummers whereas the poorest type could only afford heroin. Very old women would sometimes prostitute themselves and serve the lower class workers. The whole situation eventually changed when the ICAC anti-corruption department created in 1974 and started to hunt down protectors of the triads.
Life in Kowloon City
The majority of the inhabitants, however, have nothing to do with the world of crime. At the beginning of the 1970s, chaotic constructions became the rule, the superimposed units first sheltering 10000 people then 30000 in 1980 and finally topped at 50000 in 1990. With only 2.7 hectares, meaning a rectangle of 126 meters by 213, it represented the world's highest density of 1.2 million per square kilometer! (video). The copy industry, manufacturing of simple plastic or metal objects (above) were generally located in the first levels of the buildings. Some workshops would specialize in preparing food for the Hong Kong's schools or public services. One would also find schools, playgrounds on rooftops and inner shopping streets. Charities provide the missing social welfare to those in need. At that time, a single flat could accommodate up to four families and one would rent a room for as little as 35 HK$ a month.
Facilities were limited as Kowloon City did not benefit from the public removal of garbage or distribution of water and electricity. However, solidarity and the resourcefulness among the inhabitants allowed them to live on a daily basis. Some of them would have to walk down 14 floors to do their laundry at one of the only eight existing water pipes avalaible. Some others would have to light up the darkest areas using electric extensions and pale neon lights. The precariousness was such that the pipes would leak at almost every floor so that people used to hold an umbrella to avoid being soaked.
However one invited their neighbours to share meals and disputes were rare. Many former residents remember having happy moments in this vertical village, accommodating constraints and eventually enjoying a certain freedom. "We had the best times in the first house, even though the rooms were so tiny there wasn't space for a dinner table", recalls Heung Yin-king. "We ate from a board laid over the knitting machine and sat on the bed. Everyone got along and it was great to have so many kids to play with. The second house was all right but had no taps, so as the eldest daughter, I had the responsability of hauling buckets of water from the public taps up four floors to the flat every day." Ng now 62 says: "We didn't know it was so dangerous. The kids would go up onto the roofs and leap fom building to building, or we would drag discarted mattresses to the roof and jump on them. It was a happy time."
The beginning of a myth
When the handover of Hong Kong talks began in 1984, the issue of Kowloon City was raised and the decision to get rid of it made by both governments in January 1987. Some 350 million HK$ in compensation were attributed and destruction started early 1993. The park that now replaces the city of darkness was completed in 1995. It kept the former yamen in it, the original residence of the imperial mandarin assistant, that was situated in the central courtyard of Kowloon City. Some old guns were also exposed as well as the foundations of the ramparts.
It is almost impossible today to find traces of Kowloon Walled City anymore except in the memories of its inhabitants or the many gangster movies that take place in it. Recently, several films about triads depict the violence of the 1960s in Kowloon City and meet a fair success at the box office. For instance, Jason Kwan's "Chasing The Dragon" shows famous gangster Crippled Hau and corrupted police officer Lee Rock Andy Lau, the roles being played by Donnie Yen (on the nearby photo) and Andy Lau. In this case, the Kowloon City scenes were filmed in a studio near Canton. The other recent film taking place in Kowloon City is Dealer / Healer, with critics acclaimed actor Sean Lau, which traces the equally true story of Peter Chan Shun Chi, a former gang boss and drug dealer who eventually reconverted into the helping drug addicts.
A most unusual initiative, is that of Hichiro Yoshida, a Japanese student who used to stay in Kowloon City who has since embarked on the arcade game industry. He started an arcade hall in Kawasaki, South of Tokyo, which recreates Kowloon City's dark alleys after pictures that were taken by himself. Even the tags on the walls are faithful to the original. Then, authors Greg Girard and Ian Lambot patiently took and published exceptionnal photographs of the City of Darkeness, emphasizing the aesthetic side as well as inhabitants lifes. This work brings light onto the darkest corners of the mythic city.
As in many places related to the history of Hong Kong, destructions do not always succeed in eradicating the collective memory. Images left by Kowloon Walled City are, in this respect, particularly strong.
- City of Darkness, Revisited, by Greg Girard and Ian Lambot, Ian Lambot Editions, 2014
- Bloodsport, film by Newt Arnold starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Bolo Yeung, 1988
- Hong Kong et Macao, novel by Joseph Kessel, published at Editions Gallimard in 1957
- Gweilo, Memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood, by Martin Booth, Ed Bantam Books, 2005
- Chasing the Dragon, by Jason Kwan starring Donnie Yen and Andy Lau, Hong Kong 2017
- Kowloon Walled City: Life in the City of Dearkness, by John Carney, SCMP 12/2/2015
- Kawasaki Warehouse, article by Chris Barnes for site Japantravel.com website, 26/9/2013
After my post about Kai Tak airport, I would like to take you on a far quieter type of ride. Here is the history of the Hong Kong tram, not that quiet after all!
Only tram system fully equiped with double-deckers, Hong Kong "ding-ding" is favored by tourists because of its old-style appearance and the colorful adds decorating its sides. On board of one of the 164 tramcars, you can enjoy street life through the open windows as well as the proximity with the driver whom you can spy on to kill time. Some cars still have their original rollling signs indicating the terminus station, those activated manually from inside by the driver and also their big fount brake-wheel on each extremity.
Created in 1904, the first tramline connected Kennedy Town and Causeway Bay then Shau Kei Wan. As land reclamations were new, it used to run along the waterfront and Hongkongers would take it to go swimming at North Point beach or the Kennedy Town sea bathes (video). A very different situation from today when one has to take a long ride for seaside sand. At that time already, delivery carts using the tram tracks to save time were a problem, causing traffic jams and accidents. This new way of transportation was welcome among the city inhabitants and it soon had to increase its capacities to meet the demand. The very first double-deckers appeared in 1912, with priviledged first class tickets on top and a third class category on the first level. No second class tickets were issued to simplify the pricing scheme! During the Japanese occupation only 12 tramcars functionned, part of it dedicated to merchandises. Then things went back to normal after the war with a transfer of the production of cars from England to Hong Kong.
In the 1950s, a rather special activity florished along the tramtracks when local authorities tried to prevent organized prostitution. Private prostitutes indeed chose to operate in the Des Voeux Road Central sector. A crude Cantonese expression described them back then, "Stand on the tram" (企電車路) which is still used today, even if most of the cheap hotels around Wing On Department Store closed in the 1970s. Between 1965 and 1982, a strange trailer was attached to some of the tramcars to accomodate more people. They were dedicated to the first class categories.
Even if the suppression of the tram was discussed on many occasions, in order to promote more modern means of transportation, it always remained due to its relative reliableness compared to double-decker busses which could more easily overthrow in this densely populated area of Hong Kong. The question became even more accurate when the subway was created in 1979, bringing both speed and security. However, young Hongkongers showed a strong determination to preserve historical landmarks. This became obvious when demonstrations bursted out in December 2006 against the destruction of Queen's Ferry Pier on Victoria Harbour. Some people went as far as enchaining themselves to the iconic pier in protest. This is part of the reasons why the old Hong Kong tramway is still in use today, on the same model with the Star Ferry.
Accidents and gunshots
In terms of accidents, the most impressive one was probably this tramcar toppling over after a driver carelessly negociated the Bank Street turn on 6th April 2017. Fourteen were injuried! The rest of collisions involved busses or cars, merely causing material damages. Same thing with cars derailing here and there. Typhoons also caused damages to the pre-1923 versions of tramcars, the top floor being only covered with canvas. Today, hardtop-covered tramcars wisely wait at the tram-depot during the storms.
In Hong Kong cinema, the tramway is under-represented compared to busses or metro in action movies because stunts often require speed. In John Woo's famous picture "The Killer" (1989), however, detective Li-Ying chases a tramcar before shooting down a villain hidden amidst passengers (4th photo). The movie set was Causeway Bay, which took passers by surprise causing some of them to call the police in an assumption that the shooting was real. In a very different genre, Stanley Kwan's 1988 movie called "Rouge", one of the main characters has a nice chat with the ghost of a 1920s courtisane on a tramcar going to Shek Tong Tsui, a former red-light district of Hong Kong!
"Ding-ding" is now operated by a French company, creating a stronger link between Paris and Hong Kong. So next time you jump on the Hong Kong tram, remember you are stepping in a bit of France in China!
- HK Tramways, our story, internet website of the Hong Kong Tramways Company, www.hktramways.com
- Early Hong Kong Prostitution 香江風月, Cheung Po Hung, Hong Kong University Press November 2010
- Old Hong Kong Photos and the Tales They Tell, Volume 1, by David Bellis, Gwulo 2017
- Police vs Syndicats du crime: Les polars et films de triades dans le cinéma, Arnaud Lanuque, Gop Ed. 2017
- 14 hurt as tram topples over outside HSBC headquarters in HK Central District, Danny Mok, SCMP 6/4/2017
- The Killer, by John Woo, 1989 film starring Chow Yun-Fat, Danny Lee and Sally Yeh
As more than 900 flights have been cancelled because of Mangkhut super typhoon, I remember the hair-raising cross-wind landings on former Hong Kong Kai Tak airport. The old runways are now abandonned since the new Chep Lap Kok airport was open on the North of Lantau Island. The stories related to Kai Ta, however, remain alive.
The pionneers era
In 1912, two businessmen, called Ho Kai and Au Tak, bought a strip of reclamed land in Kowloon Bay, near the old Chinese town. Following the 1911 revolution, many immigrants came from China to Hong Kong to seek refuge, so that our two business associates planned to develop housing facilities on this piece of the land. The project however never took place and in 1924, the Hong Kong government acquired this place to create an airfield for the RAF together with a couple of flying schools. Previous to this event indeed, there was only one airfield in Shatin, on which the first plane to ever land in the colony touched ground in 1911, the so-called "Spirit of Shatin", which replica is exposed in today's airport.
Kai Tak airport also harboured seaplanes starting from 1928, those stationning along two wharfs on the South side of the airfield. In 1936, the first commercial company for passengers was launched. By then, the neighbouring Chinese city of Kowloon was still surrounded by its thick walls, as a strong reminder of the Qing emperors past glory. The airstrip itself was a mere flat ground scattered with grass which welcomed the first Air France flight coming from French Indochina in 1938, a Dewoitine 338! The following year, however, a regular tarmac was available so that when the Japanese invaded Hong Kong in late 1941, Kai Tak revealed its strategic interest. It was for the new conquerors a sure and fast way to connect the rest of the controlled areas in China. They even decided to build a second concrete runway which would cross the already existing one. For this purpose, they used the POW forced labour to demolish the Chinese city ancestral walls and Song dynasty bridge and spray the debris as the fundation of the new runway!
Stars and Constellations
After WWII, the Royal Air Force 80th Squadron was stationned in Kai Tak, operating a bunch of legendary Supermarine Spitfires. Neighbouring communist China had indeed become a new potential threat for the British colony and it was important to carefully observe the moves along the new border of the so-called "Free World". Hong Kong soon became a major destination for Western passengers in Asia so that other flying legends like the iconic Lockheed Constellation, a three-tailed and four-propelled-engines airplane, landed in Kai Tak on a regular basis. She will remain in service until the begining of the 1960s, being replaced after this date by turbo jets, therefore ending the heroic era of propelled aviation.
As the main entry door to Hong Kong territory, Kai Tak became favorized by paparazzi, looking for celebrities pictures. The early movie stars used to have their portrait taken in front of the flying club hangars, a trademark for modernity on the same model as Shanghai 1930s. Then movie stars departing for or coming back from US were top targets for professional photographs eager to make the font page of gossip newspapers. The peak of this fashion was undoubtly the arrival of the Beatles on 9th June 1964. The Fab Four or let's say Fab Three as Ringo Starr was replaced by Jimmie Nicol after diagnosed tongsillitis, attracted hundred of young fans at the airport terminal for there one day stop and evening gig en route for Australia! Film actors like Bruce Lee or James Coburn later fancied having their picture taken while waiting for their final boarding call.
A most dangerous place
The legend of Kai Tak also comes from its particular layout. In 1958, the famous runway 13 was built by reclaming a long strip of land on the bay. Therefore, some of the world's scariest landings took place there (video). Pilots had to operate a 47 degrees right-turn in front of the mountain before diving onto the runway. Some got directly into the habour, just like this China Airline flight in 1993. Then, because of frequent typhoons, some planes had to try delicate cross-wind landing, leaving their passengers with the fear of their lives!
Kai Tak certified pilots rained on flight simulators. The "chessboard hil", a white and orange rectangle was the only indication of the moment when you had to operate the steep turn and descent to the runway. Take-off was not a piece of cake either as you had to avoid crushing into the surrounding mountains right after leaving ground. In 1965 and 1967, two deadly accidents resulted in 59 and 24 casualties. From the 1970s on, the rapid economic growth of Hong Kong led to a further increase of air traffic. At that period, Boeing 747 flew at only a few meters above some of the most crowded urban areas in Hong Kong like Kowloon City (banneer). This unbearable situation ultimately led to the closing of Kai Tak in 1998 and its replacement by Chep Lap Kok. Even if a redevelopment project was promptly proposed, it took some fifteen year to become reality! In addition to the current sea cruise terminal, the iconic former runway 13 should receive office buildings and shopping malls, bringing back a bit of life into this place of history.
- Kai Tak Airport History, by David Bellis, internet site Gwulo poste of 1st May 2008
- Coastline of the Kowloon Peninsula（九龍海岸線) par 余震宇, Chung Hwa Books Co 2014 - in mandarin
- A brief Visual History of Hong Kong's Old Airport, Kai Tak, by Tom Grundy, Hong Wrong site, 3/12/2014
- Hong Kong French Connections by François Drémeaux, Bonham Books 2012
- No flight to Shanghai, blog post of Shanghailander by Hugues Martin, 23rd February 2009
- When the Beatles came to Hong Kong, by Charley Lanyon, article in South China Morning 29/8/2013
When you go hiking along the wonderful Tim Tam Reservoirs in Hong Kong, you easily figure out the importance of water supply issues. This extraordinary group of four basins which strech above Stanley date from the Victorian era and include a set of impressive dams and bridges. The original construction date of the upper dam is 1889 whereas the lower reservoir was only inaugurated in 1918 by Sir Henry May (1860-1922), the governor of Hong Kong. Tim Tam became the largest water tank on the Hong Kong Island, supplying the needs of the expanding city of Victoria at the end of the 19th century.
When the British took possession of Hong Kong in 1841, the question of the access to water was immediately raised. The very name of Hong Kong, the "fragrant harbour", is connected with the presence of a waterfall near Pokfulam, which allowed a luxurious nature to grow there. This was indeed in Pokfulam that the famous Bauhinia, the flower on the Hong Kong flag, was discovered, at a time where most of the hills and mountains around were composed of bare rocks. Another explanation of the origin of Hong Kong's name comes with the village which became Aberdeen which dealt with joss sticks trade. This is precisely in Pokfulam that the first reservoir was constructed in 1863 to retain fresh water. When the New Territories were added to the colony in 1898, new rivers could be used for fresh water consumption, stabilzing the situation for a short period.
The dry years
Even if two periods of drought occured in years 1902 and 1929, the most critical problems came when flows of refugees from China surged into the colony after 1950. In his memoirs, which take place between 1952 and 1964, Martin Booth remembers the water rationning happining almost every summer, with strong images of filling bath tubs or whatever available recipient when the taps were eventually working. During droughts, people used to drive down to beaches such as Repulse Bay or Shek O not only to cool down in the evening but also to wash themselves. These were the times of mid-week "sweat 'n swim days", when offices would close early to enable employees to reach the beach before sunset.
The peak of hardships was reached when the June 1963 to June 1964 drought led Hong Kong authorities to limitate the water distribution to four hours in every fourth day in some of the city districts! In addition to this already dramatic situation, many squatter villages that scattered the hills of Hong Kong in those years had simply no access to running water. For this reason, they had to queue for hours in front of public taps when water delivery was announced. In some of Kowloon cheap highrises, the water pressure was so weak that the upper levels pipes stayed dry during the whole summer. The memories of long lines of empty buckets under the burning sun have become part of the city history and still vivid for many hongkongers. Hopefully this episode ended with the burst of typhoon Ruby which brought sudden and heavy rainfalls but still the last water rationning occured in 1982 with a 16 hours a day basis for distribution.
In Kowloon City, however, access to fresh water had always been an issue, due to the overpopulation of this very unique neighbourhood (50000 people in 1990!). When the New Territories Treaty was signed, the "walled city" remained within the Chinese Empire so that after 1949, the matter of sovereignty was unsolved. This situation soon benefited to the triads and various mobsters who could rule the place and run illegal traffics. The lack of official authority in this 14 storeys light-deprived concrete maze also attracted many refugees who made a living through small businesses. The price to pay, however, was a heavy one, in the form of a daily journey to one of the only four water taps of the entire quarter!
The end of rationning
Starting from the 1960s, decision was made to buy water from China. Despite radically different political views, China found the deal beneficial as providing foreign currencies and a sure mean to strengthen its position into negotiating with Hong Kong. The "water weapon", however, was never used by China even during the hardest days of the Cultural Revolution. Water would be pumped from the Dong River near Dongguan and poured into the Shenzhen Reservoir before running into specially built pipes to Hong Kong. Between 1979 and 1991, some 4 Billion $HKD, the equivallent of 500 Million USD at this date, were paid by Hong Kong to China for its water supply. Today still, 70% of Hong Kong's water is pumped in China. Mammoth projects were also carried out to further secure the coverage of Hong Kong in terms of fresh water need, such as the closing of entire gulfs like Shek Pik in 1963 or Plover Cove in 1968 (below).
At the same time, a creative management of water supplies includes the use of sea water for flushing toilets in all new buildings, the government funding the additional pipes. This innovative system apllies to 68% of the whole city today! Thanks to this responsible management of water supplies, no need to go the beach anymore to wash or queue under the sun at the city water taps like in the 1960s. These strong images however should remind us of the need to save resources. With global warming alarms erupting from climate experts these days, the Hong Kong exemple should ring a bell!
- Hong Kong stories: 1960s, original vintage prints by Yau Leung, Blindspot Gallery Aberdeen, nov 2017
- Gweilo, Memoirs of a Hong Kong Childhood, by Martin Booth, Bantham Publishers 2004
- Hong Kong Museum of History, Kowloon, photos and permanent collections of the second floor
- Hot & thirsty: the struggle to supply Hong Kong with drinking water, blog article by David Bellis, 6/6/2018
- History of Hong Kong Typhoons from 1874, by Michael J.Jones, PPP Company Limited 2017
- City of Darkness: Life in Kowloon walled city, Greg Girard and Ian Lambot, watermark Publications, 2014
- Hong Kong Annual Reports, Public Utilities/Waterworks, Water Supplies Department of Hong Kong
As the Hungry Ghosts Festival is about to begin, I found it a good occasion to share a few ghosts stories with you. The first one is related to the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong of sad memory. In December 1943, a shinto shrine was erected by the Japanese on top of Mount Cameron to commemorate the fallen heroes of the Empire of the Sun. This defying 130 feet high monument, a kind of equivallent of the cenotaph in Chater Square, could be seen from every single location in Victoria Harbour. The most important part of it, however, was invisible to the eye, buried 46 feet deep under the shrine.
A samurai sword
To give a sacred status to the monument, the Japanese had indeed brought from Tokyo a 500 years old sword. This priceless sword was said to belong to Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645, nearby), probably the most famous samurai ever, who wrote a strategy treaty called "The Book of the Five Rings" telling about the art of sword fight as well as philosphy of the warrior. So before the shrine was erected, the sword was cealed into the thick concrete platform, according to the contractors who built it, in the solemn presence of a sword master. When Hong Kong was eventually liberated, nobody wanted to keep this monument which was a strong reminder of war hardships. However getting rid of it was not that simple as its iron concrete structure was very complex. On 26th February 1947, it was finally smashed down thanks to heavy explosive charges followed by patient hammering of the debris. The platform remained untouched so that when Cameron Mansions was built on it a few years later, there is a chance the soul of the famous samurai would haunt the place. Although antique collectors tried to locate it, the exact location of the sword remains a mystery. Still, inhabitants report some ghost activities in the estate but they would mention a good spirit which knocks at the doors and touch the bottom of ladies whenever possible. The soul of the warrior is probably at peace!
The former mental hospital of Sai Ying Pun is often refered as "High Street haunted house" for a good reason. When it was closed down in the 1970s, two fires started supposedly lighted up by deceased. Some argue that the place was one of the several execution grounds of the Japanese during WWII but as many young people had started to use the old hospital to meet and smoke drugs, those fires may well have been lit accidently. Since then, the building has been refurbished and reopened as a cure center for drug-addicts precisely. Still, if you pass by on your way to a drink to nearby bars, I suggest you walk on the opposite side of the road. One is never too cautious! Generally speaking, there are many locations in Hong Kong that are related to torture, comfort houses ou massacres dating from the Japanese occupation period. Nam Koo Terrace, today closed to public, in Hong Kong Park is one of them, supposedly haunted by the screams of the poor women enslaved by the Japanese there. Then 51 Blue Pool Road Villa was the place of a civilian massacre.
If you like hiking, you have probably already walked through some of the many abandonned villages of Hong Kong territory. They are often located in remote areas, in the New Territtories or islands, most of the time founded by migrants from different periods of Hong Kong history. A large number of them have been deserted in the 1990s when overall living standards were raised and the inhabitants found commuting with the city center too complicated. Fan Lau, Sham Chau or Yim Tin Tsai (photo below) for exemple have become mere names of the Country Parks maps, even if the last one, which played the role of early settlement for missionaries, received the UNESCO world heritage label. For this reason, tourist cruises in Sai Kung Bay propose a halt in Yim Tin Tsai and it is not unusual to spot large groups of visitors strolling among the abandonned houses during weekends or holidays. When you walk through such places, however, you inevitably think of the young children who used to attend the now deserted community schools or generations of hardworking salt workers struggling to make ends meet. Those strong images will only emphasize the absence of life among the fallen roofs, wild weeds and slashed matresses and provide a perfect playground for ghosts and spirits!
As Chinese people are very superstitious, they would make rituals there to avoid bad spirits to haunt abandonned houses. Offerings, joss sticks and octogonal mirrors called "bat gwa" (八卦) can often be found in thoses places. The bat gwa mirrors are hung above doors or windows, bringing good luck and repeling evil. So if you find those vaudoo-like little shrines with cigarettes, alcohol or dolls like in above photo of a villa in Cheung Chau Island, do not be afraid. There is a good chance that this particular house is spirit-free with a perfect feng shui!
So don't forget to feed all your ghosts. I wish a happy Hungry Ghosts Festival to everyone of you!
- The Book of Five Rings, written in 1645 by Miyamoto Musashi, Sambhala Publications 2012
- My search for the secret samurai, article by Mike Smith for SCMP of 30th August 1993
- Gwulo, internet historical website and database animated by David Bellis, post of 19th July 2008
- Windows into the past: See inside the abandonned villages of HK, Pete Spurrier, SCMP 12/3/2016
- The most haunted places in Hong Kong, Facebook account of HK Urbex of 31st October 2017
- The Complete Idiot's Guide to Feng Shui, by Elizabeth Moran and Master Joseh Yu, Penguin 2005
The Gin Drinkers Line is one of the most interesting historical places in Hong Kong. Located in the middle of a dense jungle above Shing Mun Reservoir, this complex system of tunnels, pillboxes and trenches is a living memory of the battle of Hong Kong. This place requires a bit of adventure spirit to explore as well as a decent physical condition but it is worth the effort. This defense line was established at the end of the 1930s when the threat from Japan in the region was becoming serious. At that time indeed, the Empire of the Rising Sun had already invaded Shandong in late 1931 and a few months later sent troops to Shanghai to "protect" its citizens from rioters.
These events were only the prelude of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937 and the Pacific War in 1941. The geographical ambitions of the military clique which had come to power in Tokyo since 1925 represented a direct threat to the Westerners who controlled the Treaty Ports of China like Shanghai and territories like Hong Kong since the Opium Wars period. Therefore, the decision was made by British military authorities to protect the Kowloon peninsula from a potential attack coming from the North. The existing defenses were indeed positioned against an enemy invasion by sea, dating from the Great Game era when fleets of both German and Russian Empires were active.
The Hong Kong Maginot Line
In Europe as well, the rise of nazism had led France to build the Maginot Line along the German border to deter a potential attack coming from their hereditary foe. This is the same strategy that the British chose to deny enemies access to the Kowloon Peninsula through the road coming from Sha Tin. In total, some thirteen miles of connected tunnels and pillboxes stretched along the Smugglers Ridge with a strategic commanding post in Shing Mun Redoubt. It is interesting to know that most of the mountains in this area were already covered by vegetation at this time, even if the reforestation of Hong Kong accelerated after 1950 to prevent landslides. So the defenders were perfectly hidden on their top positions.
This disposal, however, presented a number of weaknesses! First of all, the "Gin Drinkers Line", which name was chosen in reference to the nearby bay and not the preferences of its occupants in terms of alcoholic beverages, soon revealed difficult to man, the military resources of the British Army being already allocated to police tasks in Hong Kong. The fact that pillboxes and observatory bunkers were undermanned from the begining created a flaw in the armour which was rapidly noticed by the Japanese spies who were very active in 1930s Hong Kong. The military command of the Japanese Empire eventually became in possession of the complete map of the Gin Drinkers Line disposal, with full indication of the locations of trenches, pillboxes and covered tunnels. They even had time to build a full scale replica of the defense system, enabling their troops to train for an assault long before the attack actually took place.
Jungle version of London
Then, instead of coding tunnels names, those were given the names of famous London streets, most probably a way to avoid young privates being homesick, but yet another sure mean to garanty that enemies do not get lost! Today, when you stroll along the many galleries of the Gin Drinkers Line, you can still see clear signs with names of Shaftesburry Avenue, Oxford Street or Picadilly on the walls, adding a surreal feeling to the already unusal exploration. You will be amazed to start your visit in so-called Strand Palace Hotel, the headquarters of the defense system, and walk into a virtual London, sometimes crawling in crumbled galleries and sometimes standing at the light of ventilation shafts in better refurbished areas.
This is precisely because of these shafts that the Shing Mun Redoubt was lost to the Japanese. Developpers had omitted to cover them with a cap, allowing a single platoon of 20 men led by daring Lieutenant Wayabiyashi (photo above and name at the entrance of Charing Cross below) to take control of the bunkers in the early morning of 10th December 1941 by throwing hand grenades through the vacant holes. The group could surcircle the pillboxes at the favor of darkness and make the 43 young recruits of the Royal Scots prisoners, making no casualty that day. It appeared that the British were not in unsufficient number to patrol outside their bunkers or spot the patrol crawling their way up from the reservoir dam! Supposingly designed to hold a few months according to Commander in Chief Brooke-Popham and a few weeks in less optimistic Churchill's views, the whole line collapsed in less than 48 hours!
Even if nobody reasonably expected to contain an attack against Hong Kong, but merely save time to stignatise Chinese resistance, the British made the same error as the French one year before. Let us remember that the canons of the Maginot Line all aimed at Germany so that it was easy for the Wehrmacht to conqueer the defenses by getting around them. The visit of the Gin Drinkers Line remains is therefore both instructive and entertaining. If you feel like further emotions, you can pursue on nearby Golden Hill and face the hords of macaque monkeys living there. You will have to walk your way accross some large groups and I advise you hold a stick to deter males attacks (avoid staring at them in the first place).
If you make it in one piece as I thankfully did, you will probably never feel like playing Lara Croft again, this video game suddenly considered a tasteless pastime compared to the thrill of your lattest adventure.
- Eastern Fortress, a Military History of Hong Kong, Kwong Chi Man and Tsoi Yiu Lun, HKU Press, 2014
- The Truth about the Gin Drinkers Line, students of Pr Lawrence Lai, HKU, May 2012
- Gwulo, historical website animated by David Bellis, posts of 11st May 2013 and 22nd June 2016
- The Defense of Hong Kong, non dated article by John Cartwright for www.hkwg.org
- Ruins of War, co-written by Jason Wordie andKo Ting-kung, HK Joint Publishing Co, 1996
- Not the slighest chance, the Defense of Hong Kong 1941, Tony Banham, HK University Press, 2003
- Getting to and Surviving Monkey Hill Hong Kong, article by @thisgirlabroad of 6 October 2014
Access to GDL by Minibus 82 from Tsuen Wan to Shing Mun Reservoir, Macleose trail, stop at Shing Mun Redoubt