Shopping revolution: the 50 years since Hong Kong’s first mall, Ocean Terminal, opened

Hong Kong shoppers recall the novelty of air conditioning, convenience, choice and glamour brought by the Tsim Sha Tsui mall – and those that followed, such as Daimaru and Mitsukoshi

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 April, 2016, 6:02am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 April, 2016, 10:11am

As the P&O cruise ship Canberra entered Victoria Harbour, the vessel dwarfed an escort of junks welcoming it with firecrackers and a lion dance. At noon that day, 50 years ago, Hong Kong governor David Trench, surrounded by 2,000 guests, declared Ocean Terminal open.

The Canberra docked at the Tsim Sha Tsui facility at 4pm, and 2,000 passengers disembarked at the doorstep of Asia’s first US-style shopping mall.

It was March 22, 1966, and Hong Kong’s manufacturing industries were booming. Ocean Terminal, with 112 shops and space for parking, was a symbol of the colony’s growing wealth, and Trench predicted it would become a popular destination among tourists and residents alike. His prediction proved right. As the number of inbound air and sea travellers climbed, and local spending power grew, the city was on the cusp of becoming a shoppers’ paradise and a consumer society.

Homogenised malls are now ubiquitous in Hong Kong, but more than mere shopping meccas. People spend hours in the air-conditioned comfort of their boutiques and supermarkets, bars and restaurants, cinemas and even medical practices.

“Malls have developed to become a place for entertainment, from movies to ice skating and fabulous restaurants that are very important for shoppers,” says Adeline Lee, founder and CEO of Grey Shopper DPI, a retail services company.

Ocean Terminal opened to the public at 6pm, the South China Morning Post reported, under the headline “Crowds Flock To See New Attraction”. Tenants included “such well-known local companies as Cost Plus, Maxims, Colonial Dispensary, [tobacconist] Tabaqueria Filipina, Azzizi, Mode Elite and Beten’s”.

“The Terminal has also attracted overseas tenants who will run the largest restaurant in the Colony and small ‘off-beat’ shops dealing in stamps, coins, gloves, fishing tackle, or children’s quick portrait sketches and fancy fruit baskets.”

It was wonderful to have an air-conditioned shopping mall. We would catch the bus down to the Star Ferry and spend a whole afternoon mooching around the shops
Dr Katherine Woodthorpe, 13 when the mall opened

Many tenants reported brisk business, while a manager at a foreign-exchange shop said it changed HK$100,000 worth of British, Australian and US currencies – an average of HK$500 per passenger.

Dr Katherine Woodthorpe recalls she was about 13 years old when Ocean Terminal opened. “It was wonderful to have an air-conditioned shopping mall. We would catch the bus down to the Star Ferry and spend a whole afternoon mooching around the shops,” says Woodthorpe, 59, whose family returned to Australia in 1979. She revisited Hong Kong last month for a reunion with classmates from King George V School.

“There was a lovely antique shop. My dad coveted a little ceramic figure of an old man, and when he retired from Hong Kong, his workmates bought it for him as a farewell gift,” she says.

“We did sail from Ocean Terminal once as well, in 1970, leaving on the Canberra to sail to Melbourne for a trip. It didn’t have quite the romance of the old sea terminal next door, but it was very exciting hurling streamers across to friends in Ocean Terminal with the band playing as we sailed off.”

In the 1970s, with increasing containerisation of global trade and development of Kwai Chung’s cargo terminals, the Hongkong and Kowloon Wharf and Godown Company – now Wharf (Holdings) – demolished its warehouses besides Ocean Terminal for a major expansion along Canton Road, adding Ocean Centre, Harbour City and the Hongkong Hotel.

“In the 1960s, Nathan Road was the major tourist and nightlife destination, and Canton Road was a dilapidated street that few dared to visit when the sun went down,” Wharf chairman Peter Woo Kwong-ching wrote in the company’s 2015 annual report.

The development became a destination in itself, with a Hong Kong bazaar where craftsmen demonstrated furniture and jewellery making, ivory carving and carpet weaving. There was also a waxworks museum.

“Outside were two guards – one wax and one real. The real one would make us jump out of our skins,” says Michele Groome, who grew up in Hong Kong. “I loved the amazing toy shop, too, with shelves of Barbie dolls, and the craftsmen. I had my silhouette cut out in paper.”

Across the harbour in 1977, Hongkong Land announced it would level Gloucester Building, Lane Crawford House and Windsor House, on Queen’s Road Central, to erect what the Post described as “another giant edifice”, called Gloucester Tower.

Three years later, in November 1980, The Landmark opened. With 80 shops and restaurants targeting a growing number of affluent local shoppers, Hongkong Land boasted it would “bring life back to Central”.

“Previously, everything in Central closed at 5pm and there was little to do,” a company spokesman told the Post.

The MTR Corporation also completed its first property development that year, around its new Kowloon Bay station and including its first mall – Telford Plaza. The podium development above the station was a unique feature at the time, says Alfred Ho, an architect who has conducted extensive research into public spaces. Unlike the downtown malls, Telford Plaza catered to local neighbourhood shoppers. Other malls quickly sprung up, including Cityplaza I in Taikoo Shing and Sha Tin New Town Plaza.

As the 1980s unfolded, local manufacturers began relocating factories north of the border, while the services economy matured. Spending power continued to multiply along with a growing Hong Kong middle class, and a retail boom ensued.

A phenomenon of ’80s conspicuous consumption was Japanese department stores. The first, Daimaru, had opened six years before Ocean Terminal, in Paterson Street, Causeway Bay. On November 4, 1960 the Post reported that 4,000 people attended the opening.

“The store carries a complete supply of daily necessities and has a supermarket, international bazaar, Italian tea-room and Japanese dining room,” it said.

With a similar blend of Japanese and cosmopolitan chic, Matsuzakaya joined Daimaru on Paterson Street in 1975. Mitsukoshi opened a Causeway Bay store on King’s Road in 1981, followed by Sogo in 1985.

In the ’80s, going to department stores became a leisure trip – people dressed up, and it replaced the old Chinese market, with the added attraction of having air conditioning
Alfred Ho

The Japanese stores, and growing number of malls, changed the way Hongkongers shopped, Ho says.

“In the ’80s, going to department stores became a leisure trip – people dressed up, and it replaced the old Chinese market, with the added attraction of having air conditioning,” he says.

Other features were pop-up stalls, product salesmen yelling for attention, and cooking demonstrations. “People shopped for leisure, and began to construct their own identity by consumption.”

The most ambitious Japanese retailer was Yaohan, offering “one-stop” shopping for food and clothes, mainly in the New Territories. Its first store opened in Sha Tin New Town Plaza in December 1984.

When boom turned to bust in the late 1990s, however, the Japanese stores went into decline. The biggest, Yaohan, fell hardest. It had opened nine stores in Hong Kong amid aggressive global expansion, and imploded in 1997 as the Asian financial crisis was brewing. In September the following year, Matsuzakaya closed, blaming weak consumer spending.

Then on New Year’s Eve, 1998, after 38 years in business, Daimaru became the next victim of recession, laying off 400 employees including Sikh doorman Ptitam Singh, who had hailed taxis for customers for 29 years.

Thousands flocked to Daimaru on its last day, to reminisce and snag bargains, the Post reported. Cecilia Lee, arriving with her grandson, said: “I have been shopping at Daimaru since I was a student. I still remember the days when I bought blankets and pillows for my marriage.”

I felt so proud the first time I went to the cafe there and read a magazine I bought there
Mitsukoshi shopper Wong Sau-yin

Eighteen years after its closure, minibuses terminating in Causeway Bay still display Daimaru as their destination.

Sogo, a Causeway Bay landmark, remains Japanese in name only. It was taken over by Hong Kong companies in 2000 after its parent went bankrupt. In 2006, Mitsukoshi was ousted by landlord Hysan Development, which redeveloped the site into Hysan Place.

Housewife Wong Sau-yin says shopping in Mitsukoshi had been a mark of status.

“If you didn’t have the money you wouldn’t dare to go in to even window shop,” she says. “I felt so proud the first time I went to the cafe there and read a magazine I bought there.”

Local department stores, such as Wing On and Sincere, although considered old-fashioned, still survive. One observer attributes this to loyal, older customers, and the fact the properties are owned so the businesses are immune to rent rises.

Shopping malls, on the other hand, have continued to thrive. Upscale Pacific Place opened in Admiralty at the start of the 1990s, followed by the Dragon Centre, Times Square, Plaza Hollywood and Festival Walk. They mushroomed across the New Territories as the MTR Corp extended its railway network, and are now an integral part of Hong Kong’s urban landscape.

Love or loathe them, malls are here to stay, although the fortunes of some luxury shopping centres

will continue to depend on tourist numbers.

“The perceived ‘mainlandisation’ of Hong Kong in recent years, with luxury European brands taking over, is currently giving the luxury malls a hard time, with the backlash against nouveau riche mainlanders,” Ho says.

With 6 million sq ft of retail space, the greater Harbour City complex has gone increasingly upmarket over the decades. Today, its tenants are largely luxury clothing and watch brands.

Wharf reported Harbour City’s operating profit, excluding hotels, rose 6 per cent in 2015 to HK$7.48 billion. Fifty years ago, when it built Ocean Terminal at a cost of HK$70 million, it borrowed two-thirds of that from the government.

Ho believes malls will continue to be popular places for Hongkongers to gather, shop, dine and enjoy all manner of activities, despite the challenges presented by online shopping. They are convenient places to gather in relative comfort.

“Shopping malls are prominent spaces for public use with air conditioning. This is one of the reasons why there are always so many people in the malls,” he says.