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Explore Hong Kong

In pictures: a potted history of Causeway Bay, ever-changing heart of Hong Kong

From bustling shipyard and sugar processing site to one of the world’s great shopping precincts – but whatever happened to the city’s whisky distillery?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 February, 2017, 7:03am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 February, 2017, 11:02am

Before there was shopping, there was industry. Causeway Bay today might be known for its chain stores and shopping malls, but in Hong Kong’s early years it was where sugar was refined and ice was manufactured.

It’s a lesson in just how radically Hong Kong has transformed since 1841, when the British first took control of it. Over the past 176 years, Causeway Bay has changed vocation and even physical form, as the geographical features that once defined it were altered and removed. At the same time, the area is a reminder that at least one thing hasn’t changed at all: whoever owns the land controls the city’s destiny.

The British began to sell off pieces of Hong Kong just a few months after their arrival. One of the first plots to go was 57,150 sq ft of East Point, a cape that extended out into a silty body of water that later came to be known as Causeway Bay. A Canton-based trading firm called Jardine, Matheson & Co snatched it up for £565 and built an office on the edge of the point. The following year, it built a new headquarters known as the Palace, which sat on a hill overlooking East Point.

The company’s taipan – literally “big boss” in Cantonese – took up residence, watching the land below transform into a bustling collection of shipyards, warehouses, factories and shops. One of Hong Kong’s earliest street markets took form along a narrow street called Jardine’s Bazaar. A sugar refinery was built in 1878, a few years before Jardine’s nemesis, the Swire company, built a rival refinery in Quarry Bay. The refinery was joined in 1880 by an ice factory, which provided Hong Kong with its first locally made frozen water, eliminating the need to import it all the way from New England (whose ice harvesting companies had dominated the global ice trade for most of the 19th century).

The rise (and occasional fall) of Hong Kong’s Japanese department stores

There was a distillery in the area, too, though it remains something of a mystery. In 1933, the South China Morning Post’s Old Hong Kong column, penned pseudonymously by “Colonial”, noted that the distillery was owned by a man named John Jack, and it went out of business in 1873. “But what did he distil?” the columnist wondered. “If there ever was a Hong Kong whiskey it deserves some record.”

East Point was a virtual fiefdom, to the point that Jardines would fire a gun salute whenever the taipan arrived by sea. That offended a senior British naval officer who was new to Hong Kong, since a gun salute was normally reserved for government and military officials. As punishment, Jardines was ordered to fire a gun every day at noon in perpetuity.

In 1923, Jardines sold East Point Hill – including the old company headquarters – to opium trader Lee Hysan, who developed it into a hotel and amusement park called Lee Gardens, where European travellers could enjoy nightly shows of “lady [northern Chinese] equestriennes, bareback and acrobatic stunts; feats of strength; Chinese old-time sword combat; rapier contests; freak balancing; boxing; Cantonese opera by charming actresses” and “many other novelties”, according to a 1926 advertisement.

Another ad described the setting: “There are many very old trees on top of the Hill which are decorated with thousands of coloured bulbs at night. A full view of the town and the harbour of Hong Kong and Kowloon can be had from all vantage points.”

Lee Hysan was assassinated by anti-opium activists in 1928, but his family’s wealth lived on, thanks to his savvy investment in real estate. In the 1930s, the Lee family developed upmarket “European style” flats along Caroline Hill Road, while Jardines was busy demolishing more than 100 old Chinese tenements that were deemed structurally unsafe. It seems that, even in old Hong Kong, buildings weren’t meant to last.

The same was true for Lee Gardens. Just 10 years after it opened, the Post reported that it “presents a bedraggled sight” in the wake of a typhoon whose damage had not been repaired. “Fallen trees, foliage, smashed statues and debris are scattered all over the place, which is but a wreck of what was once a beautiful summer resort with restaurants and amusement grounds.”

Parts of the old amusement park were used as a garage, while others were occupied by a nursery and film studios.

Five years later, the Lee family were forced into exile when the Japanese invaded Hong Kong. When they returned after the war, they began to redevelop the site. “We started to level Lee Garden Hill and dumped all the dirt into what is now Victoria Park, [which] used to be a typhoon shelter,” wrote Hysan’s grandson, Lee Hon-chiu, in 1997. The old Jardine’s Palace was demolished. “What is probably the oldest building of any importance in Hong Kong has outlived its usefulness,” the Post reported on June 28, 1952. “By December not only will the building have disappeared but also the hill on which it stood.”

The old industrial area on the East Point waterfront was razed, too. In 1956, work began on what the Post described as “one of the colony’s latest and most ambitious building schemes” – 26 blocks of high-rise housing with retail space at the bottom. It was at the behest of the developer, a Jardines subsidiary, that Japanese department store Daimaru opened its first overseas location in one of the new towers on Great George Street.

Daimaru opened in 1962 with an extravagant cocktail party for more than 4,000 guests. The store included a supermarket, Italian-style tea room and a Japanese restaurant (“Internationalism is the theme,” reported the Post). More than anything else, it was Daimaru that transformed Causeway Bay into Hong Kong’s biggest shopping district. New cinemas and shopping malls were built nearby. Hong Kong’s first McDonald’s opened on Paterson Street in 1975.

Daimaru was eventually joined by three competitors, Matsuzakaya, Mitsukoshi and Sogo, and it attracted a host of small Japanese businesses, too, which turned Causeway Bay into the commercial hub for Hong Kong’s Japanese community.

“Prior to the war, there was no Japanese community in Causeway Bay,” says local historian Ko Tim-keung. “The Japanese mainly resided and worked in Wan Chai, which was sometimes referred to as Little Tokyo. I think the opening of Daimaru is the main reason why the Japanese community established itself in Causeway Bay.”

Thomas Ngan, who grew up in Wan Chai in the 1960s, recalls wandering down to the East Point waterfront at Paterson Street. “One could purchase live seafood from sampans down there,” he says. That was no longer possible by the 1970s. Land was reclaimed for the Cross-Harbour Tunnel and Gloucester Road was extended towards the east, cutting off access to the sea. Traffic roared down the new Canal Road flyover, which opened in 1972. Hong Kong’s largest hotel, The Excelsior, opened on the site of Jardines’ original office in 1973.

The Post dedicated a two-page spread to the changing face of Causeway Bay at the end of that year: “What of the next decade or so? Will the majority of relatively new but already decrepit multi-storey buildings be razed and an even taller lot built?”

The answer, of course, was yes. Times Square opened in 1994, on land that had once been a tram depot. And although Daimaru closed in 1999, a victim of the Asian financial crisis, Causeway Bay remains a shopping mecca, and the neighbourhood has grown busier and denser with every passing year. Mitsukoshi has been replaced by the 40-storey Hysan Place mall and office tower, and the courts recently struck down the government’s height restrictions on the land that was once Lee Gardens, opening the way for more intensive redevelopment.

It goes to show that, for all of its physical changes, Causeway Bay isn’t that different from its early days in the 19th century. Jardines still fires a gun from East Point every day at noon. And it’s still the same small club of landowners that shape and reshape the face of the city.