History of Hong Kong districts

Stories behind Hong Kong districts: Tsim Sha Tsui – the beach that reached to become a major tourism and shopping hub

Its name means ‘sharp sandy point’. Earmarked as a port, development sped up with the Kowloon-Canton Railway’s arrival; later rapid urbanisation left little of the local flavour. One structure, though, has escaped the wrecking ball

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 December, 2017, 7:16am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 April, 2018, 12:59pm

In 1860, a small ritual took place at the southern tip of the Kowloon peninsula – then a largely undeveloped area of Hong Kong with only a handful of scattered villages – that would forever change the area’s fate.

A Chinese magistrate scooped up a handful of soil, sealed it in a bag and handed it to a British representative. With that symbolic gesture, the peninsula was ceded to Britain under the Convention of Peking, 19 years after Britain had taken control of Hong Kong Island.

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Looking at Tsim Sha Tsui today – a major tourism, shopping and dining hub – there is no evidence to suggest how it got its name, which literally translates to “sharp sandy point”. But the beach, whose shape inspired its name, was captured in a photo taken 10 years after Kowloon became an occupied territory – possibly the earliest photo taken of the area, according to local historian Ko Tim-keung.

From there, timber of the fragrant Heung tree that gave Hong Kong its name – which in English means “fragrant harbour” – was shipped to Hong Kong Island, then on to Canton (now Guangzhou) and the rest of the world.

The colonial government had seen the potential for Tsim Sha Tsui to become a major commercial port early on. Being the peninsula’s closest point to Hong Kong Island, it was strategically located, with deep water that would allow even large clipper ships to drop anchor.

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To realise the administration’s vision, the Executive Council passed a bill in 1905 approving funding for a large-scale project to spearhead development – beginning with construction of the Kowloon-Canton Railway, with its terminus in Tsim Sha Tsui. The idea had first been proposed by railway engineer Rowland Macdonald Stephenson as early as 1864. But getting every stakeholder on board took so long that a concession was not granted until 1898.

The way the government talked up the project has an uncanny echo today: the railway played a similar role to the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong express rail link currently under construction in that it connected Hong Kong to the trunk line cutting through China to maintain the city’s competitive edge as a trading hub.

A South China Morning Post reporter described it vividly: “Hong Kong is now reaching out towards that vast slowly developing wealth of China and the Kowloon-Canton Railway is the first tentacle, the first artery through which the red blood of trade will flow to and from this centre of British interest.”

Like the new rail link currently under construction, it came with a hefty price tag. The stretch from Tsim Sha Tsui to Lo Wu, on the Chinese border, was only 35km long and had five stations. Built at a cost of HK$12 million, however, it was by far the world’s most expensive railway at that time.

[In the ’50s and ’60s] Nathan Road was tree-lined on both sides and in the centre. It was very picturesque all the way up to Jordan Road
Philip Morais

The most technically challenging part of the project was the construction of five tunnels. Local Chinese workers refused underground work, believing it had bad feng shui, so the company had to import labour from India and South Africa, the latter having expertise in using explosives for excavation.

Another arduous task was reclaiming Hung Hom Bay to build the railway terminus. Records state that about 250 truckloads of earth were dumped into Hung Hom Bay every day over an unspecified period of time, gradually pushing back the shoreline.

The Kowloon-Canton Railway opened on October 1, 1910, and the adjacent Holt’s Wharf godown complex was completed in the same year. These infrastructure projects laid the groundwork for Tsim Sha Tsui to become the busiest shipping port in the world in the 1960s, from where domestic goods such as dried seafood were exported around the world, and through which foreign goods such as heavy machinery and industrial products were imported.

From the early days, the part of Tsim Sha Tsui west of Nathan Road (named after Sir Matthew Nathan, Hong Kong governor from 1904 to 1907, and previously called Robinson Road) was sealed off for use by security services. It was occupied by the Whitfield Barracks and the Marine Police Headquarters. The rest of the neighbourhood became residential. The early foreign settlers, however, were not British, but Portuguese, who from as early as the 1860s bought plots of land from the government for just HK$25 each and built mansions and bungalows.

A 1989 article in the Post attributed this outcome to the prohibitive rents on Hong Kong Island, including The Peak, whose residents would literally look down upon those living in Kowloon. According to the article, a question commonly asked of men at the time was, “Are you married, or do you live in Kowloon?”

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Philip Morais, a 70-year-old Portuguese businessman who grew up in Tsim Sha Tsui, says there were racial overtones.

“The Portuguese were not equal to the British. They weren’t accepted by the British. They wouldn’t have been well regarded even if they’d attempted to reside on The Peak or in Mid-Levels,” Morais says. Tsim Sha Tsui only gained social prestige with the opening of The Peninsula luxury hotel in 1928.

Like many Portuguese residents, Morais’ parents had come to Hong Kong from Macau after the second world war in search of better opportunities. He and his extended family settled in Tsim Sha Tsui.

Born in a small clinic on Austin Road in 1947, Morais lived on Hillwood Road until he was 18. “If I looked from Hillwood Road, I could literally see right up to Salisbury Road, because Nathan Road was tree-lined on both sides and in the centre. It was very picturesque all the way up to Jordan Road,” he says.

Nathan Road was not yet a busy thoroughfare. The Princess Theatre – where the Beatles performed in 1964 – was the tallest structure along the stretch, according to Morais.

“Nathan Road is very dear to my heart, but now of course, you can’t walk onto Nathan Road without being accosted by people trying to sell you a watch,” he says.

As a young adult, he would walk to the pier every day and take the Star Ferry to Central, where he worked as a bank clerk. Every Sunday, he and his family would attend the service at Rosary Church on Chatham Road South. Funded by Portuguese Catholic Anthony Gomes, it was built in 1905 to cater to the growing Portuguese community. It is now the oldest church in Kowloon.

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In 1965, Morais moved into the newly constructed Mirador Mansion, which was one of the first high-rise buildings in the neighbourhood. From the window of his apartment on the 15th floor, he watched in dismay as rapid urbanisation occurred over the following decades. The big houses had all but disappeared by the late 1960s, replaced by composite buildings such as Chungking Mansions and a number of hotels.

Ocean Terminal was completed in 1966, after godowns along Canton Road were demolished and container terminals were built further west at Kwai Chung. In 1978, the New World Centre opened on the site where Holt’s Wharf once stood.

Both developments provided entertainment options for locals while attracting tourists to the district. Also by 1975, the Tsim Sha Tsui terminus of the Kowloon-Canton Railway had been relocated to Hung Hom, leaving behind only the clock tower.

Little of the old flavour of Tsim Sha Tsui remains today. The former Marine Police Headquarters is one survivor, but has been renovated and transformed into 1881 Heritage, which houses a boutique hotel and yet another luxury shopping complex in the area.

But tucked away in a corner of Tsim Sha Tsui, close to the old Holt’s Wharf site, is the Signal Hill Tower, which has somehow escaped the wrecking ball. “There used to be poles where national flags of incoming ships would be hoisted as a gesture of welcome,” Ko says.

Built by the Hong Kong Observatory in 1908 on top of Blackhead Point, the tower originally contained a “time ball” device that signalled the time to incoming ships. Every day, at 1pm, a six-foot hollow copper ball was dropped from the top of the 12.8-metre-tall structure, making a loud bang that could be heard by sailors on ships by the pier.

Now that it is surrounded by high-rises, there isn’t much of a view from the tower. Once, though, it was the highest point in the district and is a rare reminder of the neighbourhood’s history.