Guide to Hong Kong: Maritime History
A series of stories, recommendations and tips on Hong Kong from people in the know. Explore our city based on the travel experiences that interest you and get itineraries for off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods.
Hong Kong is one of the world’s leading cosmopolitan cities, yet from the moment you set foot on its shores you can see how the modern-day status is inextricably linked to a rich maritime heritage. Before the city became the world-famous free trade port it is today, it was throughout its history a maritime base for pirates, a resource for Chinese traders, a home for traditional fishing villages, and a colonial staging post.
Living off the Sea
Long before the British hoisted a flag at Possession Point, Hong Kong was home to a myriad of communities living on—and off—the water. One such location is Tai O, an ancient stilted village that was once a shining port of the Pearl River Delta, thriving on salt production and fishing. Further north on the shores of Tolo Harbour in the New Territories is Sam Mun Tsai New Village, another quaint fishing community that grew up around salt production.
Living on the Sea
For a livelier water community, make your way to Aberdeen Typhoon Shelter, the city’s largest natural inlet providing protection from the elements. Over the years it has attracted a large population of hard-working Chinese settlers looking to make a living. Although the fishing industry is no longer what it once was, this stretch of water is still busy—riddled as it is with working harbor boats, fishermen’s sampans, luxury yachts and tour boats.
On the Shores
Hong Kong has such involved, complex ties to its waters that the best place to cover a lot of history in a short space of time is the Hong Kong Maritime Museum. With more than 5,000 artefacts and some 15 galleries of exhibitions covering everything from sea bandits to the making of Victoria Harbour, no exploration of the city’s past is complete without a stop here.
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Spotlight on: Eastern District
Spanning the length of Hong Kong Island’s easterly coastal reaches, the Eastern District played a significant role in the development of the city’s coastal defenses. From the very early years of Chinese settlement when the area was known by fishermen as Sai Wan, to its time as a strategic outpost for southern China, and as a military battlefield during World War II, the district’s maritime heritage still resonates today.
For an overview of the district’s maritime importance through the centuries, visit the Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defence, a British-built former fort that was a pivotal force during the 1941 Battle of Hong Kong. Now it contains the 600-year history of the city’s coastal defenses. Alternatively, the tranquil Sai Wan War Cemetery in Chai Wan honors Hong Kong’s war effort, containing the graves of those who died during the Japanese invasion.
One of the earliest indicators of the area’s fishing heritage is Tin Hau Temple in Causeway Bay. Built by the Hakka Tai family from southern China in the early 18th century, the story goes that the family happened upon a statue of Tin Hau, the Goddess of the Sea, in the rocks on the shore one day while scavenging for grass and erected a temple to protect it. It’s still managed by the Tai family today.
Seafood, Eat Food
For a district that thrived on the sea, here is where you should of course sample some fresh seafood. At Wong Lam Kee Chiu Chow Fish Ball Noodles the owners still buy their fish each morning from the Shau Kei Wan Typhoon Shelter and locals flock here for the spring onion fish balls in soupy noodles. Tung Po Seafood is another gem that delivers fresh, tasty produce: try the deep-fried shrimp, which is sold by the catty and flavored with handfuls of garlic crisps.
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