FYI: Why do some Hong Kong street names seem to have no connection to the area they are in?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 January, 2008, 12:00am

A ramble through Hong Kong's history can seem like urban archaeology; constant redevelopment has obliterated what went before, and all too often street names provide the few - obscure - clues to what was.

One example is the word 'praya', which frequently occurs in Hong Kong road names, such as Kennedy Town New Praya and Tin Wan Praya and Lei Yue Mun Praya roads. 'Praya' is an Anglicisation of praia, the Portuguese word for beach. On the mainland, 'praya' came to mean a stone-bunded waterfront road and, for more than a century, the term was widely used from Macau to northern China. The word's continued use in Hong Kong provides a connection to the now largely vanished local Portuguese community.

Until the first major reclamation project on the Island commenced in 1890, the harbourfront road was known as Praya Central and Praya West. It was subsequently renamed Des Voeux Road (Central and West) after the then-governor, Sir William Des Voeux. This 19th-century waterfront road is now several hundred metres inland.

Another unusual term that crops up in Hong Kong is 'nullah', an Anglo-Indian word that means a stone- or concrete-revetted drainage channel. True to the name, for decades both Stone Nullah Lane in Wan Chai and Nullah Road in Mong Kok had prominent, smelly ditches running through them. The ditches have long since been covered but the names persist.

Sugar refining was a major industry in Hong Kong, and memories of the colony's sugar mills can be revisited in Causeway Bay's Sugar Street - site of the Jardine, Matheson and Company plant, and Tong Chong ('Sugar Factory') Street in Quarry Bay, once the location of Butterfield and Swire's mill and dockyard.

Cotton Path in Causeway Bay recalls a cotton mill, another sizeable Jardine, Matheson enterprise. The mill was eventually relocated to Shanghai and the site was subsequently acquired by the France-based Sisters of St Paul de Chartres. A school and hospital - known as the French Convent and Hospital - were established there in the late 19th century. Both still stand at the site.

Shipbuilding and repairing were other major Hong Kong industries, and the sites of the Hong Kong and Whampoa Dock Company yard at Hung Hom and the Taikoo Dockyard at Quarry Bay have roads named after former company officials. Dyer Street in Hung Hom is an example.

Not far from the North Point waterfront, Healthy Street recalls Healthy Estate, one of the Island's first housing estates. Built in 1956, the estate was redeveloped in the 1980s.

Kowloon also has a number of street names that recall vanished trades and industries; Yin Chong ('Cigarette Factory') Street, just behind the Kwong Wah Hospital in Yau Ma Tei, is located on the site of the Oriental Tobacco Company. Yim Po Fong ('Dyeing Plants') Street and Sai Yee ('Laundry') Street, both in Mong Kok, are self-explanatory. Photographs from the 1920s clearly show skeins of cloth and lines of washing hung up to dry all along these then-quiet lanes.