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.
“The name of Hong Kong may come from this village,” says Anthony Chan, who leads a new eco travel tour through the South Side’s built heritage and natural landscape. When the village was built in the 1860s, it replaced the old settlement of Hong Kong Wai. British sailors passed by the village in the early 19th century on their way to stock up on fresh water at Waterfall Bay, and some believe they took its name, which referred to the local incense trade, and applied it to the entire island on which the village stood.
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.
In a way, Chow was a precursor to the many wealthy and powerful people who now live on Hong Kong’s South Side. Shouson Hill, Deep Water Bay and Repulse Bay are today some of the most expensive neighbourhoods in Hong Kong, but as the makeshift houses around Shouson Chow’s old residence suggest, it has always been more than just a playground for the rich.
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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.
For centuries, the South Side was a lightly populated network of fishing and farming villages. When the British arrived in 1841, they conducted a census that counted 200 people in Hong Kong Wai, which was described as “a large fishing village”, 300 in Wong Nai Chung (“an agricultural village”), 20 in Tai Tam and 2,000 in Chek Chu, which later became known as Stanley.
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.
Sunbathers and swimmers joined the golfers in the 1910s, when the roads linking the north and south sides of Hong Kong Island were improved and beaches were developed at Deep Water Bay and Repulse Bay. In 1920, the Kadoorie family opened the Repulse Bay Hotel.
“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.
The hotel was by all accounts a magnificent place. “The closest comparison would be an English country mansion transported to the Orient,” wrote journalist Harry Rolnick in 1980. Ernest Hemingway, George Bernard Shaw, Marlon Brando, a Spanish crown prince and princess – they all stayed at the Repulse Bay when they visited Hong Kong. Celebrated author Eileen Chang used it as the backdrop to her 1943 novella Love in a Fallen City.
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.
The decades after the war saw more and more residential development on the South Side, along with refugees from China who built squatter houses in the hills. More people than ever were flocking to the beaches. A sneering 1948 editorial in the Post lamented the pre-war days when only the colony’s elite could enjoy the beach: “In the eyes of the best people, the tragedy that has overtaken Repulse Bay is its popularity. There the underprivileged now disport themselves in great numbers, and it is not longer a place for senior officials or the well-to-do.”
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.
Meanwhile, squatter settlements around the South Side were gradually cleared and fenced off, including one that once stood across the street from the Repulse Bay service station. High-end properties sprouted from the hills. A 1976 article in the Post rather pithily described the new development as “a sort of upper-middle-class resettlement area”.
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.
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