tale of two cities

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 April, 2008, 12:00am

Here's a brainteaser for the guests at your next dinner party. What is the capital of Hong Kong?

Despite its size, Hong Kong does have a formally designated capital - the city of Victoria. Except on government documents, the name has long-since fallen into disuse, and those who have heard of it often assume it refers to Central.

Victoria was formalised as the capital in 1843, when the Treaty of Nanking, which ceded Hong Kong Island to Britain, was ratified by the British parliament and Hong Kong officially became a crown colony.

At that time, the city of Victoria - then a small settlement along Hong Kong Island's northern foreshore - included much of what is today Sheung Wan, Central and Wan Chai. Central became - and still remains - the business and administrative centre. A walk around the city demonstrates virtually all that remains from the Victorian era is the official name itself.

'Victoria is a beautiful city,' English traveller Isabella Bird wrote in 1878. 'Most of its streets are so steep as to be impassable for wheeled vehicles, and some of them are merely grand flights of stairs, arched over by dense foliaged trees, so as to look like some tropical-coloured, deep colonnades. It has covered green balconies with festoons of creepers, lofty houses, streets narrow enough to exclude much of the sun, people and costumes of all nations, processions of Portuguese priests and nuns, and all its many-coloured life is seen to full advantage under this blue sky and brilliant sun.'

According to Bird, Victoria clearly had great visual appeal during its heyday, 'rising abruptly from the sea ... looking out from dense greenery and tropical gardens, and the deep shade of palms and bananas, the lines of many of its streets traced in foliage'.

In 1903, Victoria's city limits were further delineated by a series of marker stones, some of which still exist; one stands at Hatton Road, part-way up The Peak, and others can be seen on Pokfulam Road, Old Peak Road, Wong Nai Chung Road, Bowen Road and just below Victoria Road. Until recently, another stone stood on Magazine Gap Road; this disappeared in renovation work and officialdom now denies all knowledge of its existence.

Into the 1930s, Happy Valley and Pok Fu Lam were considered suburban, as were North Point and Shau Kei Wan. Shek O and Stanley were isolated rural districts.