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Stories behind Hong Kong street names: Sun, Moon and Star streets, Wan Chai

The company that supplied the first electric lighting in Hong Kong, in 1890, laid out three streets for staff housing next to its power station; a classic Chinese text inspired their names

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 July, 2016, 1:24pm
UPDATED : Friday, 22 July, 2016, 1:24pm

Star Street, Sun Street and Moon Street, near Three Pacific Place in Wan Chai, have inspired the names of nearby luxury properties, such as Moonful Court, Star Crest and Starlight Court. But why the celestial theme, you may ask.

The reason has to do with nearby Electric Street. This street was named after the power station which used to be in the area. Run by The Hongkong Electric Company, it began generation in December 1890, making Hong Kong one of the first two Asian cities to have public electric supply. Before then, lighting was provided by lanterns and lamps burning oil or gas. Since, at the time, the electricity generated could only be distributed within a mile radius of the station, Hongkong Electric built it on the site of an abandoned cemetery in Star Street near the centre of the then colony.

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The challenges Thomas Edison met when inventing the light bulb are well known, and the endeavour to provide the city with electric light was no easier. The company encountered one problem after another, despite the high-powered figures on its board of directors, including Paul Chater, a prominent businessman, Henry Dalrymple, director of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, and John Bell-Irving chairman of Jardine Matheson, the oldest company in Hong Kong.

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A plunge in the gold and stock markets left the company running on a shoestring. It had to import all the machinery and engineers from Britain, where a dockers’ strike held up its shipment for months.

William Wickham, the electrical engineer who designed the station and supervised its construction, initially decided to use overhead transmission. However, the great storm of May 1889 which struck the city gave him “the surprise of his life” – 10 days and nights of continuous rain with lightning so rapid that, according to a news article, “one could read by it”.

The storm wreaked havoc: two-thirds of the Peak Tram line was destroyed and the whole of Garden Road slid down into Murray Road. Wickham realised he would have to strengthen the electrical distribution system so it could withstand Hong Kong’s weather.

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Finally, on the evening of December 1, 1890, the first electric lights were turned on – only to go out two days later because of a technical fault. Once the problem was fixed, though, operations ran smoothly.

Back to the question about Star, Sun and Moon streets. While the company was struggling to get the station up and running, it decided to provide staff with housing to boost morale. Streets were laid out next to the station and the houses built. Given it was the first part of Hong Kong to have electric lighting, the street names were taken from a verse in classic Chinese text the Three-Character Classic (San Zi Jing):

The Three Forces

are Heaven, Earth and Man.

The Three Luminaries

are the sun, the moon and the stars.