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Stories behind Hong Kong’s street names: Spring Garden Lane and its ‘big number brothels’

The street was named by British settlers for its natural springs, but the Chinese name refers to spring the season. Long a red-light district, the street hosted a market for a time, but little of its past remains

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 June, 2016, 12:33pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 June, 2016, 12:32pm

Bustling Spring Garden Lane in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai district is lined with clothes stores, restaurants and little shops selling everything from gadgets to lai see packets and herbs. Few would imagine that many years ago, it was home instead to a string of brothels and colonial mansions.

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In his book The Hong Kong Story, John Luff wrote of the rich foliage and springs gushing from the ground which inspired the name Spring Garden Lane. However, the meaning was lost in Chinese, as the translator mistook ‘spring’ to be a reference to the season.

In Hong Kong’s early years as a British colony, many British businessmen chose to build their mansions along Queen’s Road East, which formed the waterfront in Wan Chai until reclamation in 1858, as the location was near Admiralty Barracks and was therefore considered relatively safe.

According to the book Hong Kong: A Cultural History by Michael Ingham, until the Government House on Government Hill was completed in 1855, the third governor, Sir George Bonham, and his successor, Sir John Bowring, also lived in one of these elegant mansions.

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Major businesses, such as Dent & Company, one of the biggest trading companies at the time, established their headquarters nearby. The area developed into a high-class residential zone and a business hub.

Hong Kong Coastline map showing 1842 coastline and subsequent reclamation

The former Wan Chai Market was built at the junction of Queen’s Road East and Wan Chai Road to cater to the upper class people from Spring Garden.

But things took a turn in 1860. British forces, both the Army and the Royal Navy, moved into Admiralty, acquiring land to build barracks and naval yards, effectively cutting off Wan Chai from Central, the budding business district. So the European merchants moved out in favour of Central, and in their place, Chinese retailers moved in, along with prostitutes. Spring Garden Lane became a notorious red-light district. High-class brothels displayed big number plates to attract customers – mainly sailors and foreign servicemen.

Later, when the red-light district moved to nearby Hennessy and Lockhart roads, Spring Garden Lane briefly became a vibrant night market. But that did not last long either.

The mansions, brothels and spring gardens are long gone, but you can still sample some of the old flavour of the area at Spring Garden Lane’s traditional cafes.