Road trip into the past

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 November, 2009, 12:00am

Next time you're on Hiram's Highway, think sausages. And if you visit Minden Row, consider Myanmar. Why? The clues are in the names, whose origins or Chinese transliterations are explained in Signs of a Colonial Era. In the book, authors Andrew Yanne and Gillis Heller take readers on a pacy historical tour that resurrects personalities from the past, casts cultural buoys and cocks an eyebrow at the incongruities and bloopers signposted throughout Hong Kong.

Hiram's Highway, says Heller, was named after the officer in charge of building the road, Major John Wynne-Potts, because of his apparent hankering for the Hiram K. Potts brand of American canned sausages. And the Chinese characters for Minden (Row, not Avenue) are those for Myanmar, although Minden refers to a small town in northwestern Germany.

Speaking 'ho siu [very little]' Chinese, Heller, a lawyer who moved to Hong Kong from New York in 1984, worked with his uncle, a fluent Cantonese speaker born here, to write the book. Fact-finding, to learn about the names of not only roads but schools, hospitals and other public buildings, was also shared. 'My uncle did a lot of research in Chinese-language books,' says Heller. 'I never found anything about Lyndhurst in the English literature and he wouldn't have found anything in Chinese about the conflicts in business, the military or government.'

The Chinese name for Lyndhurst Terrace (Pai Fa Gai) apparently recalls a chivalrous knocking-shop custom: clients of the brothels along that street were expected to turn up bearing bouquets for the prostitutes, which gave rise to a plethora of flower stalls and the Chinese name, which means to arrange or display flowers.

Featuring misapplied village names, military figures and homesick-suggestive appellations (consider those evoking London, such as Old Bailey Street and Chancery Lane), the book also makes reference to, among other people, Queen Victoria, during whose reign Hong Kong was established, and governors, although Hong Kong's last, Chris Patten, is among the few whose names won't be found in any street directory.

The book took three years to put together, although Yanne had been photographing Hong Kong's street signs and buildings for more than a decade. A few months after the handover in 1997, he took a picture of a PLA soldier in uniform 'as if he were truly guarding a British garrison'. The image, bearing the name Prince of Wales Barracks over the building entrance, opens the volume.

The businesses and businessmen whose names are carried on signs in Hong Kong underscore the merchant 'faction' that moulded the SAR's history. Among the Chinese commemorated in this way are Lee Hysan (Hysan Road and Lee Gardens); Tang Shiu-kin (Shiu Kin Lane and Tang Shiu Kin Hospital); and Hong Kong's first millionaire, Kwok A. Cheong, whose Fat Hing company gave rise to Fat Hing Street. There are also the British, Armenians, Iraqi Jews and Indians, among them Parsees Dhunjibhoy Bisney and Hormusjee Naorojee Mody.

Indians are also evoked in references to Mosque Junction (Mo Lo Miu Gaau Ka Gai) and Mosque Street (Mo Lo Miu Gai) as well as Upper and Lower Lascar Row (Mo Lo Sheung or Har Gai), the Chinese names for which have provoked debate recently about whether they should be changed because mo lo can be considered pejorative.

Mo lo could simply be a corruption of the Portuguese 'Moro' (for Moors), Heller points out, conceding, however, that 'if the Indian and Pakistani community makes enough of a fuss, then the process of name change should be started. This bottom-up approach is responsible government.'

Heller baulks at change for the sake of change, however. 'Hong Kong street names are about the only glimpses of history that we have now,' he says. 'The Chinese will show they're confident in themselves by leaving the names as they are.'

Not that all names make sense in their contemporary settings. 'Glenealy used to be more of a glen-like place but now it's completely built over,' Heller says. 'Cotton Street used to be where Jardine's had a cotton mill, but it's nothing like that any more.'

And the past has proved difficult to prise from certain street names. About Shepherd Street in Tai Hang, the authors write: 'The Chinese characters do not mean shepherd so Shepherd was likely a person. But who?' And regarding Breezy Path near Bonham Road, they comment: 'Not breezy.'

The street name whose origins they would most like to discover is Wyndham Street. 'Was Wyndham Street named after the street in London or was Wyndham more closely associated with William Pedder, whose office as Harbour Master was along what is now Wyndham Street?' Uncovering the derivations of the 70-odd signs the authors have flagged in the book will take time and effort, although Heller hopes 'some old-timers' may provide the missing links.

'If we can solve enough of the mysteries,' he says, 'I'd love to do a second edition.'