Hong Kong district stories: Repulse Bay, Deep Water Bay and Shouson Hill
The South Side of Hong Kong is known today for its wealthy inhabitants, but for centuries it was a collection of small fishing villages. The arrival of the British started its slide into affluence and exclusivity, with the founding of Hong Kong Golf Club and the building of the Repulse Bay Hotel
On a sunny day over the Christmas holidays, a small group of people squeezed through the narrow lanes of Wong Chuk Hang San Wai. To those zipping past on the MTR’s new South Island Line, this tight cluster of houses probably looks like a squatter village, but its history goes back farther than they might expect.
Chan leads the group to an old stone house with a strong granite base, grey brick walls, a colourful frieze and reptile sculptures that drain water from the roof while also warding off evil spirits. “You can tell it was built by a wealthy family,” he says. Not just any family: the Chow family, whose patriarch, Shouson Chow, later co-founded the Bank of East Asia and became the first Chinese member of Hong Kong’s Executive Council. Shouson Hill was named in his honour.
Live the history of Hong Kong, how it grew from colonial opium trading outpost to global finance mecca
Filmmaker Jenny Suen went to school nearby, and when she was a child in the 1980s and ’90s, she recalls, there were squatter huts tucked in between the mansions and upscale flat complexes. Chickens used to run free around Deep Water Bay Road, next to the Hong Kong Golf Club. “Everyone who drove up was really respectful of the chickens,” she recalls, as she sips a glass of Chenin Blanc in a beachside cafe in Repulse Bay.
The British quickly took a liking to the area. One military officer wrote in his journal that “the south side of Hong Kong Island is far more picturesque and less bleak than the north. The villages we saw, unlike the mat-huts in the harbour, are very neat in appearance with blue tiled and white walled houses”.
Hong Kong’s colonial elite soon put their stamp on the South Side’s landscape. The Hong Kong Golf Club opened in the lush valley behind Deep Water Bay in 1898 and quickly became a social hub. For years, the South China Morning Post ran a column entitled Gossip of Golfdom, and while its accounts of who played what where are hardly scintillating, there was some drama: in 1912, a man claimed to have spotted “the mysterious Hong Kong tiger” prowling around the links. He shot it with his sporting gun but it escaped into the bush.
“Time was when jaded islanders took their weekend pleasure and recruitment in trips to Macau. The necessity for this no longer exists,” reported the Post on the day of its opening. The hotel’s 50 metre veranda provided a spectacular view of the bay, and a 3,500 sq ft ballroom hosted regular dance parties. There was a sprawling 200,000 sq ft garden, and in the decades after the hotel opened, its saplings grew into magnificent flame trees.
Betty Steel, who grew up in 1920s Hong Kong, described an “era of dancing parties in the winter and swimming parties in the summer” in her diary, a portion of which is published on the history website Gwulo. “From the hotel veranda the view over Repulse Bay was quite lovely, especially so on nights when the stars shone and the fishing boats were out in the bay, each boat with a brilliant lamp for attracting fish,” she wrote.
In the summer, Steel’s friends rented a mat shed – a kind of cabin with a veranda and changing rooms – and spent entire days at the beach. “We swam before tiffin, walked on the beach afterwards, meeting friends, and swam again later,” she wrote.
The Kadoories soon expanded their Repulse Bay empire with the Lido, a beachside entertainment complex built in an art deco style. The development included an elaborate swimming raft, nicknamed the Lady Lido, which had a sun canopy and water slide. It also included public swimming cabins that did away with the need to rent a mat shed to enjoy the beach. When she officially opened the facility in the summer of 1935, Lady Southorn – wife of then-governor Sir Wilfred Thomas Southorn – praised the Lido for opening up Repulse Bay to a wider range of people.
“I admit that a bathing beach of one’s own would be the acme of delight, still as I am not a millionaire, I gladly share the sea and the shore with others, always provided they do not strew the country or seaside with banana skins and paper bags,” she said.
Lady Lido was destroyed just four years later when a typhoon tore it from its moorings and sent it drifting away. But the Lido remained a popular place to gather. “I had always liked the place because of its informality,” wrote a British colonel named P.H. Munro-Faure. Unlike the Repulse Bay Hotel, the Lido’s dress code was casual. “You could eat your dinner, and dance and talk, in shorts, and so keep cool. The charming English custom of dressing for dinner is ill adapted to the perspiring tropics.”
After the Japanese invaded Hong Kong in 1941, the Repulse Bay Hotel was converted into a military hospital. “We used to see lines of Japanese soldiers walking along Beach Road in their white hospital pyjamas for exercise,” recalled hotel manager Andrew Ostroumoff.
Repulse Bay underwent major changes in the post-war decades. An elaborate shrine to Kwun Yam was built in 1970, giving beachgoers a place to pray for good fortune. The beach itself was expanded with imported sand. High-rise flats mushroomed around the bay and the hotel fell to the wrecking ball in 1982, when it was redeveloped into a luxury residential estate. Some historic elements were saved and incorporated into a shopping centre that mimics the hotel’s old veranda. The Lido was converted into a shopping centre, which was itself replaced by The Pulse, an entertainment complex that opened in 2016.
But the scenery remained, and so did the beaches, drawing millions of beachgoers a year. In fact, beach attendance at Deep Water Bay, Repulse Bay, Middle Bay and South Bay beaches grew by more than 30 per cent between 2006 and 2016. The South Side may be expensive, but it isn’t necessarily exclusive.
Explore Hong Kong’s history: