Drive down Garden Road towards Queen's Road Central today and you see a building site emblazoned with a sign in huge capital letters: 'The centre of Hong Kong.' Travel about 700 metres westwards to Sheung Wan and you encounter another building site, also called 'The Centre'. What gives? Two of the biggest new developments in Hong Kong have chosen identical marketing angles, yet they are on opposite sides of Central. Since Li Ka-shing's Cheung Kong group is behind both structures, this looks suspiciously like a case of poor co-ordination at executive level. So which is really the centre of Hong Kong? A look at the history of Central suggests that neither is qualified to take that title. In the 1840s, the urbanised part of Hong Kong was a 6.5-kilometre strip of land built by the British navy along the narrow ground between the sea and the mountain. Bizarrely, early maps show Hong Kong had its own 'Chinatown', just like London or San Francisco. It was Tai Ping Shan, a little town in Western district on the slopes just below the hillside path that was to become Caine Road. This was a noisy, cluttered area of wooden houses on a steep slope. A staircase called Ladder Street was built for sedan chair coolies to lug fat Europeans up the hill. But most Europeans lived in the 60 or so colonial houses in Queen's Town (renamed Victoria city in 1843), where Queen's Road Central stands today. The bulk of what modern property agents call 'core Central' was in the sea. The shoreline ran slightly north of Queen's Road Central, approximately where The Landmark is now. The grander houses were built up the mountain. A few buildings from those early days are visible today: Flagstaff House (the beautiful low, white 1846 building now in Hong Kong Park); St John's Cathedral (built in 1849); and Government House (built in 1855). Running up the hill behind Victoria city was a lane lined with trees. These were bombax malabaricum, a plant which produces cotton-like fibre pods. The people of the island had a saying: when the cotton trees flower, you can put away your winter coat. Cotton Tree Drive used to blossom in April. A guidebook of the 1890s says that Pedder's Wharf, a wooden pier that jutted 76 metres into the harbour, was 'the most central portion of the City of Victoria'. In terms of Hong Kong's human traffic, this pier was the heart of Hong Kong, just as Star Ferry was before the MTR was opened. In the 1890s, Queen Victoria's son came to Hong Kong and laid the foundation stone for a new waterfront reclamation scheme. Don't tell the SAR ethnic cleansers who are trying to excise all traces of Queen Victoria, but Connaught Place in Central is named after her son, Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught. The British said the new land was necessary for something they saw as absolutely vital for a town centre - a cricket pitch. The new reclamation also provided a site for the building that is now the Legislative Council Building, opened in 1912, and originally used as the Supreme Court Building. To visualise Central early this century, imagine a little town in which many buildings were similar to the present Legislative Council Building: solid stone structures of three to six storeys, with long, covered porticos running along the sides. (The binding agent used in cement in those days was horse-hair, which limited the height to which buildings could be raised.) Also from that era is the 1913 building which now houses the Fringe Club and the Foreign Correspondents' Club. It was originally called The Dairy Farm Building, and was used to store ice shipped from America. Through the rest of this century Central gradually grew out into the harbour. There was one particularly strange aspect of this. A wooden stores depot ship called HMS (Her Majesty's Ship) Tamar was docked in Victoria Harbour from 1897 to 1941. It was eventually swallowed up by the land, but retained its name. Today 'Her Majesty's Ship' is not a ship at all, but a military ground and car park. Wood from the original ship was used to make new doors for St John's Cathedral. City Hall was added to the Central waterfront in the 1950s, the Mandarin Hotel in the 1960s and Exchange Square in the 1980s. But the biggest recent reclamation has been in the past five years. A new ferry pier has been built well into the harbour, and the new Hong Kong Station is taking shape at this moment. The width of the harbour when the present Central reclamation work is complete will be about half what it was in 1841. So where is the genuine centre of Hong Kong? In terms of physical geography, it is Kwai Chung in the New Territories. In terms of urban Hong Kong, it is probably Jordan in Kowloon. A fung shui man told me that the spiritual centre of the SAR is the harbour. But don't tell Cheung Kong. They just might want to throw up another building there.