Hong Kong culture

Stories behind Hong Kong street names: Russell Street, a.k.a. Rat Street

The shopping street in Causeway Bay fronting Times Square was named after either a judge or an opium trader, and for decades housed a wet market notorious for its rodents, and a tram depot

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 July, 2016, 8:02am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 July, 2016, 9:47am

Russell Street in Causeway Bay is perhaps best known for having been until recently the world’s most expensive retail strip, with shop spaces renting for US$2,800 per square foot per year. But what do we know of its past? And who was it named after?

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There’s a bit of dispute surrounding the origins of its name. Some believe it’s named after James Russell, chief justice of Hong Kong from 1888 to 1892, while others, such as Frena Bloomfield – who wrote a book about Hong Kong street names – trace its name back to Russell & Company.

Samuel Russell founded Russell & Company, one of the leading American commercial houses in East Asia in the 19th century. According to a diplomatic historian, Sibing He, the company made handsome profits from dealing in silk and tea, and was also heavily involved in the opium trade.

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A letter from a New York China trader, Townsend Harris, to then US secretary of state William L. Marcy spoke of the company’s “heavily armed & strongly manned” opium receiving ships stationed near Shanghai and a steamer smuggling opium from Hong Kong to Canton.

By the mid-19th century, the company had established branches along the China coast and inland. It had also acquired new endeavours, such as a rope manufacturing company in Hong Kong.

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As innovations in transport and communications transformed the China trade, and competition increased, the fortunes of Russell & Co took a downturn. A financial crisis in 1890 dealt it a fatal blow.

Russell Street has undergone great change over the past several decades.

In the 1920s, Hong Kong Tramways built a depot and terminus on Russell Street. Alongside was a wet market, where hawkers sold groceries. Poor hygiene there led to a rat infestation, thus giving rise to its nickname “Rat Street”, as the word for rat sounds similar to Russell in Cantonese.

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The street is also well-known for a violent clash. When tram workers had a dispute with their employer in 1950, police charged the depot, firing tear gas, and beat the protesters with batons.

The tram depot expanded to neighbouring Sharp Street, but was deemed inadequate to service the expanding tram fleet and closed in the 1980s, with the work moving to depots in Sai Wan Ho and Whitty Street, Western district.

The then owner of Hong Kong Tramways, Wharf Holdings, built the Times Square mall on the site of the Sharp Street depot. When it opened in 1994 it was one of Hong Kong’s first big malls. Despite the recent downturn in tourism, it continues to be a top attraction, drawing busloads of visitors every day.