JUST over a decade ago, the stretch of Hong Kong harbour between Queen's Pier and the old Kowloon-Canton Railway Station was considered clean and safe to swim across. Today, no one would dare. The sight of plastic bags, polystyrene lunch boxes, dead fish and the smell from the polluted water are enough to deter the keenest swimmer from taking the plunge. But you don't need to dive into the harbour water to taste the bitter reality that lies behind Hong Kong's glamorous postcard image. While Hong Kong's high-rise skyline is one of the most spectacular in the world, reclamation has meant its days as a beautiful port have long gone. ''Hong Kong has now passed the point where it can preserve the look or natural beauty of its old fishing port. That environment has gone forever,'' said Mr Patrick Lau, a reader in architecture at the University of Hong Kong. ''Places like Sydney, Vancouver, San Francisco and Rio de Janeiro, which also possess beautiful harbours, would not even consider reclamation work on this scale. ''[Their governments] fear that any landfill projects would take away their water which is not only a great natural resource but also an amenity.'' But Mr Lau agrees that, unlike these countries, the territory has a fundamental land shortage problem. ''We have the same problem and arguments over the conservation of old buildings.'' Hong Kong was probably the only city in the world where so much reclamation had been undertaken in so short a time. But the price for creating more land was high, said Mr Lau. ''If you look across to Kowloon East from the Eastern Corridor, you see the ugly scars on the mountains [near Lam Tin] . . . part of the sand was used for reclamation work,'' Mr Lau said. Others agree. ''If you stand on Hunghom pier and look across, you get this incredible feeling that you can just leap over to [Hong Kong] side,'' said one environmentalist. ''There are so many reclamation works. ''Look at the West Kowloon project. It is massive. With the extension of the two shores, one day we might not need the ferry to cross the harbour. We will simply walk over to the other side.'' Environmental groups have protested for years about reclamation and dredging projects which they believe are threatening marine life, such as the pink dolphins. Another major concern is the effect which reclamation will have on the natural flushing effect in the harbour. '' The speed of the water [currents] across the harbour flushes pollutants away. But the flushing capacity had decreased with all the new reclamation,'' said Ms Liza Hopkinson, spokesperson for Friends of the Earth. Even fung shui experts agree that reclamation work will affect the territory. ''The worst move was to link Stonecutters Island with the Kowloon peninsula which now stops water [the symbol of money] flowing from the Pearl River into Victoria Harbour,'' said fung shui consultant Koon Lung. ''If anyone decides to merge Hong Kong Island with Kowloon peninsula, it will mark the end of the territory's prosperity.'' However, the Hong Kong Tourist Association (HKTA) is confident that at least for the foreseeable future, Hong Kong harbour will remain beautiful. ''We are concerned about the cleanliness of the harbour. I doubt we'll lose it, but we urge town planners to consider their plans carefully,'' a HKTA spokeswoman said. ''And we will be delighted if some of the reclaimed land is used for hotel purposes. The territory is running out of hotel rooms.'' But business and money have always come first in the territory, since day one of its colonialisation. Hong Kong's first landowners began reclaiming land from the sea in Victoria Harbour within days of the original marine lot auction by Captain Elliot on June 14, 1841. These plots had a sea frontage of 100 feet. Hong Kong's ever-rapacious entrepreneurs saw nothing wrong in extending their plots by a bit of illicit reclamation before anyone realised what was happening. In the early years the shoreline was straightened out in places between Bonham Strand and Causeway Bay. But it was a haphazard affair. Much of the reclamation amounted to little more than the width of a road, a sea wall, a bit of praya or a military installation. There was the major development of two beaches which were flooded at high tide on either side of Morrison Hill. Wan Chai Road was the original shoreline. But it was not until the arrival of Sir John Bowring as Governor in 1854 that any grandiose schemes were attempted. His Praya Reclamation Scheme was a far-sighted concept. His plan was to build a public road along the whole sea front of Hong Kong from Navy Bay at Sai Ying Pun to Causeway Bay. This he intended to call Bowring Praya. Despite the bill being defeated, a piece of the Praya was built between Paterson Street and Morrison Hill Road. This Bowring modestly named Bowrington. Land was reclaimed and a sea wall with wharves and godowns was built in the early 1880s along Chatham Road by Sir Paul Catchick Chater. The Mandarin Hotel, Prince's Building, St George's Building, the Hong Kong Club and the Legislative Council Building all stand on land reclaimed by Chater. The scheme was conceived in 1887 and took almost 20 years to complete. Then Dr Ho Kai, a Legislative Councillor, and his crony Au Tak, a photographer bought a large area of Kowloon Bay which they developed to form the Kai Tak Bund. Ho Kai was later knighted. It was not until 1928 that work was begun on Kai Tak Airfield which was named after them - so is the Kai Tak Nullah. Meanwhile, Sir Paul Chater, the great reclaimer, was busy buying up property in Wan Chai. The Praya East or the Wan Chai Reclamation Scheme was begun in 1922. It covered an area from Johnston Road to Gloucester Road. During World War II the Japanese pulled down the walls and hill of Kowloon Walled City and extended the airport at Kai Tak. After the war, reclamation went berserk. Among the first major projects in the post-war period was the Kai Tak airport reclamation which was completed in 1957. Its runway redefined the costal outline of southeast Kowloon. Between 1946 to 1967, much of the reclamation took place in heavily-industrialised areas such as Yau Tong, Kwun Tong, Tai Kok Tsui, Shamshuipo and along the coast stretching from Tsuen Wan and Kwai Chung in Kowloon. Reclamation continued in the 70s with the Kai Tak runway further extended in 1974 while the container terminal in Kwai Chung was completed in 1976. In the 80s, on top of projects in Kowloon, there was an increasing number of projects on the northwest and northeast of Hong Kong Island in Sai Ying Pun, Central, North Point and Chai Wan. According to the Lands Department, the total area of land reclaimed from 1887 to 1991 is around 4,000 hectares. Today, there are reclamation projects on both sides of the harbour including the nearly-completed Container Terminal 8 (CT8), reclamations at Aldrich Bay Typhoon Shelter, West Kowloon, Tseung Kwan O, North Lantau, and Central. According to information provided by the Civil Engineering Department, under the proposed (but not final) reclamation plans which extend into the 21st century, Kai Tak airport and the whole of Kowloon Bay are to go under reclamation schemes. Will this shrinking harbour jeopardise marine traffic? Mr Ian Dale, Deputy Director of Marine, said the department had always taken measures to ensure that safety within the harbour was maintained. ''Historically, the port of Hong Kong was right in front [of Central], in between Stonecutters Island and Lei Yue Mun. Today, it has shifted to the west of Hong Kong where the port is wider and the water deeper,'' he said. ''More reclamation in Victoria Harbour is going ahead but only after all aspects are studied, considered and approved by other appropriate government departments.'' Mr Lau of Hong Kong University believes there is some cause for optimism. ''We are now going through a period of development and it is inevitable that we'll pass through the ugly phase where there is nothing but sand and mud. But once all these projects are finished, then Hong Kong will become a more impressive-looking city,''he said. In the 60s, there was a lighthearted prophecy that Victoria Harbour would eventually be concreted over. After 1997 it will lose its name. Whether it finally ceases to exist in reality is open to speculation.