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Street Names Tell Rich Tales – Hong Kong’s Fascinating History of Street Names

Hong Kong’s street and road names are an eclectic and idiosyncratic mix of English and Chinese tributes to people and places, often with confounding translations. Together though, they tell a fascinating tale of Hong Kong’s heritage and offer nostalgic and quirky glimpses of the past.
 
To a first-time tourist to Hong Kong, the names of many streets and roads can seem bizarre and bewildering, especially if you can only read one language. But look deeper, and you'll find the names of these streets and roads paint a rich tapestry of Hong Kong's past.
 
Streets and roads began to be built shortly after the British took over Hong Kong in the 1840s. As was customary, most of the streets were named after people of stature or consequence, starting with the royalties, of course, but also including historical figures, governors, and even minor government functionaries. For the most part, these street names appeared on Hong Kong Island and Kowloon (south of Boundary Street) which were permanently ceded to UK. Subsequently, especially in the late 1880s and early 1990s as Kowloon began to develop, the government began to name street after cities and provinces of China and neighbouring countries, particularly Vietnam.
 
To be fair, these naming practices were quite common, then or now. What complicated it was the translation from English to Chinese or vice versa. Most of the English names were phonetically translated into Cantonese, thus rendering them difficult to remember. For Chinese- named streets, some were translated phonetically from Cantonese into English, while others were translated from standard Mandarin translation that were standard during that era (mostly Wade-Giles translation system). And then there are some streets where the English or Chinses names bear no resemblance to each other. The result - amusing confusion and incomprehension, its hilarity compounded by inadvertent or eccentric errors along the way. So, let's dive in and immerse ourselves into this delightful morass, shall we?
 
Queen, King and Prince, and all others.
 
The Queen: The earliest road named after a royalty was Queen's Road, itself the earliest road built on Hong Kong Island. Originally named Main Street, it was renamed in honour of Queen Victoria, then the long reigning Queen of the British Empire (1937 to 1901). For the most part, the road marked the original shoreline of Hong Kong Island, stretching from Wan Chai to Sai Ying Pun. Today, Queen's Road is divided into four sections, Queen's Road East (Wan Chai), Queensway (Admiralty) , Queen's Road Central, and Queen's Road West (Sai Ying Pun and Shek Tong Tsui). While still a main road, you might notice that Queen's Road is more winding and undulating than roads that were built in later years from reclamation land as it followed the contour of the original shoreline.
 
The King: As Hong Kong continued to develop as an entrepot, the city expanded eastward from Causeway Bay to North Point and onwards to Shau Kei Wan, a major fishing village. The main road that connected these places was called Shau Kei Wan Road. In 1935, to commemorate the 25th silver jubilee of King George V, part of the road from Tin Hau to Sai Wan Ho was renamed King's Road. Unfortunately, the king died shortly after, in 1936. King Road continues to be the main road for the eastern areas of Hong Kong.
 
 
 
The Prince: In 1922, Prince Edward VIII, then the Prince of Wales, came to Hong Kong and visited the construction site of a major road in Kowloon stretching from Kowloon City to Mon Kok. Upon completion, the government named it Prince Edward Road in his honour. Subsequent extensions stretched the road from Choi Hung to Tai Kok Tsui and was renamed Price Edward Road East and West, respectively. For brevity, the Chinese translation for the road literally meant Prince Road, without the prince's name, Edward. That's regrettable , since Prince Edward VIII, who became King Edward VIII upon his father's death, had a short reign of less than one year (1936) as he famously abdicated his throne so he could marry Wallis Simpson, an American socialite and a divorcee – then a real no-no. The couple did live happily after until Prince Edward, who was given the title the Duke of Windsor, died in 1972.
 
 
 
The Governors: You would expect roads to be named after the governors that were sent to rule and manage the colony. That certainly was the case. Almost all the early governors had streets named after them, including some of the city's more well-known streets . They include Pottinger Street (Sir Henry Pottinger, the first governor), Mount Davis Road (Sir John Davis, second governor), Bonham Road and Bonham Strand (Sir George Bonham), Robinson Road (Sir Hercules Robinson), Kennedy Road, Kennedy Town Praya (Sir Arthur Kennedy), Hennessy Road (Sir John Pope Hennessy Road), Des Voeux Road Central and West (Sir George William Des Voeux, and others. But surely the most famous street named after a governor is Nathan Road, Kowloon's main thoroughfare, named after Sir Mathew Nathan in 1909 when it was changed from Robinson Road to avoid confusion with Robinson Road in Hong Kong. The last governor that had a major road named after him was Sir Reginald Stubbs (Stubbs Road), although Hong Kong's lon gest hiking trail, the MacLehose Trail, was named after Sir Murray MacLehose, arguably the city’s most popular and consequential governor who served from 1971 to 1982.
 
 
Major and minor Government and local officials: It's not just governors that have streets named after them. In fact, many major and minor officials in Hong Kong and back in the UK received the honour. The more interesting or quirky ones include colonial secretaries (Caine Road, Austin Road); a Harbour Master (Pedder Street, Rumsey Street); a government auctioneer (Duddell Street); a major general (Cameron Road); surveyors (Cleverly Street, Aldrich Street); and a public works director (Chatham Road ), to name just a few.
 
 
 
Wan Chai and Causeway Bay: Wan Chai was a thriving local fishing village when the British arrived. Many of the street names reflect its root. Ship Street was the site of a dockyard. Many who settled in Wanchai in the early days were from northeast Guangdong and Fujian province, and the streets Amoy (Xiamen) and Swatow were named after cities in that area, with Westernised English names of that era.
 
 
 
In the 1800s, Jardine, Matheson and Company (Jardine's) took up much of present-day Causeway Bay (East Point back then) for its business activities that included godowns and trading. As such, several streets were named after the company and its principals . They include Yee Wo Street (Chinese names for Jardine's), Jardine's Bazaar. Jardine's Crescent, Percival Street (a tai-pan of Jardine's); and Keswick Street (tai-pan), among others.
 
 
Kowloon: Many of the streets in Kowloon were named after cities in China, and curiously, in Vietnam. Some were major Chinese cities (Shanghai Street, Peking Street, Nanking Street, Hankow Road (part of Wuhan today), and Canton Road, of course. However, the Chinese translation for Canton Road (Guangzhou) was mistakenly changed to Guangdong, the province. The mistake was allowed to stand. The names of these streets all followed Mandarin Wade Giles translation.
 
 
 
Other streets included Kweilin Street, (Gunagxi), Ki Lung Road (Taiwan), Ning Po (Zhejiang), Nam Cheong (Jiangxi). Several streets were named after cities in Vietnam – Haiphong Road, Hanoi Road, Saigon Street (Ho Chi Ming City) and Tonkin Street which in Chinese has the same spelling as Tokyo but referred to Tonkin as in the Gulf of Tonkin in Vietnam. Curiously, not that many streets were named after provinces; the ones in Kowloon were only Shantung Street and Gansu Street – go figure.
 
 
 
Mong Kok arguably has the richest brew of names of different sorts. Besides the aforementioned streets that were named after cities, many of which run through Mong Kok, there are also streets named after its business activities – Sai Yee Street (washing clothes), Yim Po Fong Street and Hak Po Street (Dying), Sai Yeung Choi Street, Tung Choi Street (vegetable growing; Chinese watercress and water spinach). The Battle of Waterloo is prominently featured in Mong Kok (Waterloo Road, a main road) and Nelson Street (Admiral Horatio Nelson, arguably Britain's greatest admiral in history). A merchant ship, the Argyle, became the name of one of Mong Kok's busiest streets, and of course, there is Boundary Street, which at one time served as a real boundary that demarcated the leased portion of Hong Kong from the rest.
 
 
Odds and Ends/Do you know?
Longest Road: At 50 kilometres, Castle Peak Road which extends from Sham Shui Po to Yuen Long by way of Tsuen Wan, Sham Tseng and Tuen Mun is the longest road in Hong Kong. The road neither starts nor ends in Castle Peak, a prominent mountain in northwest New Territories. A trip to the New Territories in the 1950s and 60s would be an all-day affair. Tai Po Road, at around 26 kilometres is the second longest and the only way to get to Shatin and beyond before the Lion Rock Tunnel was built.
 
 
 
 
Hiram's Highway: The main road from Clearwater Bay Road to Sai Kung is called Hiram's Highway (The Chinese translation simply means Sai Kung Highway). The road is named after Major John Wynne-Potts of the Royal Marines whose nickname was Hiram as he shared the same name as Hiram K. Potts, an American sausage – go figure.
 
 
 
Names that don't match their translation: There are many streets where the English and Chinese names bear no relationship to each other. They include Possession Street, which commemorates the spot in Sheung Wan when the British first set foot on Hong Kong Island. The Chinese translation means literally a gutter, or to be more kind, a small aqueduct. Lyndhurst Terrace, named after an Assistant Magistrate, is called “Flower Arrangement Street” in Chinese as the street was home to many flower stalls.
 
 
 
Street Name by Mistake: How about checking out Rednaxela Terrace, a side street above Sheung Wan? Rednaxela is, of course, Alexander written backwards. One interpretation had it that a Chinese clerk was writing down the name from right to left, as it is customary in Chinese writing. The mistake stood, perhaps out of amusement. The Chinese translation was transliteral, which is a mouthful in either language.
 
 
 
How many streets does the Tram travel on? There are 14 streets that the Hong Kong Tram traverses on its main track stretching from Kennedy Town to Shau Kei Wan. They are Catchick Street, Kennedy Town Praya, Des Voeux Road West, Connaught Road West, Morrison Street, Des Voeux Road Central, Queensway, Johnston Road; Hennessy Road, Yee Wo Street; Causeway Road, King's Road, Kornhill Road; and Shaukeiwan Road. A tram ride from one end to the other is an excellent and relaxed way to enjoy the city.
Next time you see an interesting street name in Hong Kong, you can be sure it tells a tale from a long-ago era. Have fun street name hunting!
 
 

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