Hong Kong district history: Quarry Bay – the story behind city’s original company town
Religious missionaries travelled there in the mid-1800s but it was the Swire conglomerate’s transformation of Quarry Bay in the early 20th century that put it on track to becoming one of Hong Kong’s highest profile business districts
Quarry Bay used to be quiet on Sundays, but on this particular afternoon, there is quite the murmur of activity coming from the streets surrounding the glassy office towers of Taikoo Place. It has been like this every weekend since 2012, as Island East Market and its successor, the Tong Chong Street Market, have brought street food, artisanal products and farm-to-basket produce stalls to this corner of Hong Kong.
“There are very few places in Hong Kong that have the amount of open space to house such a market and yet be so well connected,” says food writer Janice Leung Hayes, who co-founded the market. “More great things have happened at the market than I could have ever imagined – pop-up food stands becoming bricks-and-mortar restaurants, people getting to meet local farmers, watching vendors collaborate with each other.”
Stories behind Hong Kong districts: Tsuen Wan – from Hakka farms to textile mills to a post-industrial future
The market’s polished atmosphere – with tastefully decorated stalls selling everything from organic greens and matcha lattes to craft beer and an eclectic assortment of cooked food – would have been unthinkable in the Quarry Bay of old. For most of its history, this neighbourhood on the north side of Hong Kong Island was an industrial backwater – important to Hong Kong’s economy, but hardly the kind of place anyone would visit by choice.
Like so many places in Hong Kong, Quarry Bay has two names – one in English and another in Chinese – that reflect two different histories. The Chinese name, pronounced in Cantonese as tsak yue chung, refers to a small stream where Hong Kong’s indigenous inhabitants caught crucian carp, a medium-sized white fish with a delicate taste.
After the British arrived, Hakka stonemasons began quarrying the nearby hills to supply granite to the burgeoning city to the west – hence the English name.
Quarry Bay was linked to Victoria (as central Hong Kong was then known) by road as early as 1843. As stone travelled west, missionaries travelled east. In the mid-19th century, the Reverend George Smith, who later became the Anglican bishop of Hong Kong, recalled travelling to Quarry Bay with Karl Gützlaff, a “fire and brimstone clergyman” who spoke fluent Cantonese.
“We met in some Chinese dwellings, Mr Gützlaff stationing himself at the door to allow free ingress, but to prevent the egress of any refractory individual,” Smith noted.
By the turn of the 20th century, the dogma of religion had been replaced by that of profit. John Samuel Swire was the scion of a UK cloth-trading family who made a fortune in cotton. When the American civil war disrupted the family business, he expanded to Asia.
He opened an office in Shanghai, where he branched out into shipping and sugar. In 1884, Swire’s firm opened a sugar refinery in Quarry Bay to compete with the Jardine Matheson sugar refinery in East Point (today part of Causeway Bay).
Swire outdid Jardine by some measure. In the early 20th century, the Taikoo Sugar Refinery was the largest in the world.
That is where Swire’s shipping business came into play. In 1908, the company began work on the Taikoo Dockyard, which would allow it to build and maintain the very ships it needed to send its sugar around Asia. There was very little flat land along the Quarry Bay shore, so Swire’s chief engineer, a recent transplant named Donald MacDonald, came up with a space-saving reclamation scheme that allowed Swire to build its docks parallel to the shore. The largest dock was 787 feet long – a good deal longer than the world’s largest ship at the time, the Oceanic, which measured 685 feet.
By the time the dockyard was up and running, Quarry Bay had become something unusual in Asia: a fully-fledged company town. Like a scene out of England’s Midlands, the chimneys and pitched-roof warehouses of the Taikoo refinery towered over stone town houses that were home to workers and their families. There were schools, recreational facilities, playing fields, a reservoir and water channels that brought water down from the mountains. There was even a cable car system that took British managers up into a hillside sanatorium where they could escape the summer heat.
Quarry Bay residents even enjoyed a beach, which had a clubhouse for Taikoo workers, a public pier and matsheds that could be rented for 10 cents a day. “Early in the morning there were about two dozen people enjoying a first swim at Quarry Bay,” noted the South China Morning Post on May 2, 1927, the first day of the official bathing season. There was no mention of how clean the water was.
Unlike the Whampoa Dock across the harbour, the Taikoo shipyard was spared destruction during the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong in December 1941. Japanese conglomerate Mitsui took over operations during the occupation, and the refinery continued to operate, supplying sugar to Japan as well as to the Southeast Asian countries it was occupying. But constant Allied bombing made it difficult for the Japanese to sustain operations, and by the end of the war, both the docks and the refinery were in ruins.
Plans to rebuild the facilities were drawn up in England even before the end of the war. But the writing was on the wall for the old company town. Ships in the post-war era were getting bigger and bigger and Taikoo couldn’t compete with newer, larger shipyards in Europe and Japan. And while sugar was Hong Kong’s most valuable export in the 1960s, Swire was beginning to realise that the land it occupied was worth more than what it produced.
After it switched the refinery’s power source from coal to oil, Swire sold some of its coal storage facilities. These were redeveloped into factories and working-class housing like the so-called Monster Building, an enormous complex of five mixed-use blocks completed on King’s Road in 1972. Market stalls and dai pai dong-style eateries sprang up around these buildings as soon as they opened.
It was also in early 1970s that Swire left the sugar refining business entirely. It pulled down the refinery and redeveloped it into Taikoo Place, an office district that drew tenants like the South China Morning Post, which boasted “the most up-to-date publishing centre in Asia”.
Staff weren’t quite as enthusiastic about leaving the newspaper’s old offices on Wyndham Street, though. “The prospect of working in Quarry Bay was greeted with despair by many newsmen,” reported Kevin Sinclair in 1995. “Tong Chong Street? What stories ever happened there? How were reporters, and even more urgently, photographers, to get to where big stories were breaking?”
When Swire knocked down its dockyard and turned it into Taikoo Shing, a vast middle-class housing estate home to more than 36,000 people, traffic was so bad that Swire convinced the government to establish a “hoverferry” route linking Taikoo Shing with Central. Things finally improved in the mid-1980s when the eastern extension of the MTR’s Island Line and the Island Eastern Corridor motorway opened.
Now Quarry Bay is one of Hong Kong’s most coveted business districts. Swire is currently busy redeveloping many of the older office blocks into new towers in a project costing HK$15 billion (US$1.9 billion). When it is completed in 2021, the project will add two million square feet of high-end office space, along with 70,000 square feet of new public space.
Stories behind Hong Kong districts: Ngau Chi Wan and Choi Hung – from lively rural village to the first low-cost housing estate
Swire has already opened a revamped ArtisTree, the arts and culture space that was displaced when Cornwall House was torn down last year. In May, it will play host to a Swire-backed English-language musical, Project After 6: Cube Culture.
“[Taikoo Place] is a carefully planned community that seamlessly combines work and everyday life,” says Don Taylor, the director of Swire Properties’ office division. “Placemaking for Swire Properties really goes back to building communities, and specifically vibrant, sustainable communities that improve the lives of office workers and residents.”
Just like when Swire built its own city-within-a-city around the old sugar refinery and dockyard, Quarry Bay is still a kind of company town. Swire is presiding over sleek new public spaces, cultural venues and, of course, the Tong Chong Street Market – a new kind of Quarry Bay for a new kind of Hong Kong.