Yesterday I had lunch with a friend of mine at a Thai restaurant in Central. After we finished our meal my friend went back to work. Since the weather was quite pleasant that day, I decided to take a walk to Tin Hau.
During my walk I took a few pictures of some interesting old buildings in Wan Chai District. Surrounded by modern skyscrapers, these old structures are among the few ones that have withstood the urban development frenzy of the post-war era.
In the morning of 26 January 1841 Sir James Bremer of the British Royal Navy, accompanied by army officers and Royal Marines, landed on the north-west part of Hong Kong, a spot that came to be known as Possession Point (which is now the site of the Hong Kong-Macau Ferry Terminal). He toasted Queen Victoria and took formal possession of the small island in her name. Hong Kong had been ceded to the British by the Qing Empire during the First Opium War. London secured the naval base through the Convention of Chuanbi and later through the Treaty of Nanjing (29 August 1842).
Hong Kong had a population of just 7,500 Chinese, mostly fishermen and farmers (Steve Tsang: Modern History of Hong Kong, A: 1841-1997, 2011, p. 16). Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston dismissed the newly acquired colony as "a barren island with hardly a house upon it" (ibid., p. 14). Hardly anyone at that time could have imagined that Hong Kong would become one of the world's greatest metropolises.
Once the British had occupied Hong Kong island they set about the task of developing it and building a replica of a European city on Asian soil. They first founded the city of Victoria, which was deemed the capital of Hong Kong until the 1997 handover. Victoria largely corresponds to present-day Central District.
Over the next decades thousands of mainland Chinese flocked to the British colony, which offered refuge from the Qing Empire's deteriorating economic and social conditions. As the Taiping Rebellion ravaged China, scores of mainlanders moved to Hong Kong, which by the early 1860s had already reached a population of about 120,000 (R.S. Chaurasia: History of Modern China, 2004, p. 326).
Plans to develop new areas outside of Victoria began already in the 1840s. At that time, Wan Chai, which was adjacent to Victoria, was sparsely populated and its inhabitants were chiefly Chinese fishermen (Michael Ingham: Hong Kong: A Cultural History,2007, p. 59). In the 19th century, present-day Queen's Road East was Wan Chai's coastline.
The colonial government originally planned to turn Wan Chai into a high-class European settlement and commercial district. Western-style buildings began to be constructed around Stone Nullah Lane and the surrounding hills (Jason Wordie: Streets: Exploring Hong Kong Island, p. 102). But the plan never really took off because Wan Chai was cut off from Victoria by the naval barracks and docks which were located in present-day Admiralty.
Instead, Wan Chai became an area of Chinese settlement and an 'entertainment district' for off-duty sailors and officers, who at the turn of the 20th century had been banned from the more respectable Victoria city (Po Hung Cheng: A Century of Hong Kong Island Roads and Streets, 2001, p. 70; Ingham 2007, p. 59).
In order to solve the issue of land scarcity, the British colonial government undertook a series of land reclamations. If there hadn't been these land reclamations, Wan Chai would look completely different today. Land reclamation projects in Wan Chai were carried out in the 1880s, 1920s, 1960s and 1970s. Up until the 1920s, present-day Johnston Road was still the waterfront.
In the 1920s, a major land reclamation project was commenced, and Morrison Hill was flattened to provide earth for it. Hennessy Road and Gloucester Road were built on reclaimed land. After World War II, more land was reclaimed, and new, controversial reclamation projects are underway.