From urban Hong Kong’s mid-19th century beginnings, socioeconomic aspirations have been reflected in the names given to residential and commercial developments. Over time, these choices have reflected broader societal changes and, at the same time, scaled ridiculous heights of materialistic pretension.
Following Scotland’s early 18thcentury economic collapse – the 1707 Acts of Union were, in effect, a condition of England’s economic bailout – Scots migrated overseas in search of opportunity. Sentimentally patriotic, these unwilling expatriates would do anything for their bonnie, faraway homeland but actually live in it. Generations of homesick Scots left their mark right across Asia. Hill-station bungalows from India to Hong Kong bear names such as The Crag, Dunearn and Inverness. Scottish themes continued in architectural styles and building materials; many early Peak houses were built in Scottish Baronial style: a bleak, stone-built mishmash of motifs heavily borrowed from Glamis Castle and other Highland piles.
Spanish Mission-style bungalows, with whitewashed walls, terracotta roof tiles and decorative ironwork, started to appear in Hong Kong in the 1920s and 30s. Vaguely Spanish names – San This or Bel That – further added to the Californian flavour. Heavily influenced by Hollywood, a few surviving bungalows, in Pok Fu Lam, Shek O and elsewhere, offer a lingering reminder of these times.
Between the wars, Hong Kong’s apartment blocks, with names such as Branksome, Tregunter, Dorchester and so on, reflected their occupants’ eventual English retirement aspirations. Street plans offer a further illustration. Kowloon Tong, laid out from 1913 as a garden suburb with bungalows, has roads named after Devon, Cornwall, Somerset and other picturesque English counties. The houses built were unlike anything found in the old country – in the days before efficient mechanical cooling became widespread, climatic conditions had to be taken into consideration and high ceilings, deep verandahs and the intelligent use of natural shade and ventilation evolved to fit local requirements.
These days, climatic realities can be ignored. Consequently, most new private developments could fit in anywhere from Dubai to Shanghai, and would be uninhabitable without constant recourse to air-conditioning.
Common or garden vulgarity, inevitably, abounds across Hong Kong. Grand-sounding names such as Tycoon Place, Dynasty Court, Royal This, Regal That and Imperial Something-Else- Again bestowed on cookie-cutter apartment blocks clearly reflect the aspirations of many Hong Kong residents (or at least what developers imagine those aspirations to be). Names of other developments are explicit statements of individual ownership, proudly named after the business magnate or family corporation that built them – CC Wu Building, Chuang’s Building and the like, are representative examples.
“Franglais” combinations genuflect towards the French lifestyle aspirations of a Hong Kong middle class who want to feel part of the perceived glamour of that milieu but can’t quite muster the language skills – much less cultural references – for a full and accurate sentence in the original vernacular. Le Billionaire, a glittery development in otherwise gritty Kowloon City, offers a blatant, but by no means unrepresentative, example of this trend. Similarly, names such as Amalfi, Marbella and Larvotto aim to give an Italian-Spanish vibe to sea-view developments from Stanley to Sai Kung. Faux- Mediterranean name combinations abound; I have yet to see a Villa Costa Lotta or Casa Mucha Richa in Hong Kong, but given time …
Perhaps the saddest aspect these name choices epitomise, from Hong Kong’s earliest times down to the present day, is the obviously expressed yearning to be somewhere – anywhere – other than where the residents actually live: the rocky, humid, subtropical coast of southern China.
For more on Hong Kong history and heritage, go to scmp.com/topics/old-hong-kong