On every sunny weekend for the next few months, beaches from Shek O to Tuen Mun will be thronged with people enjoying a relaxing day of sun, sand and associated outdoor pleasures.

Hong Kong has ocean beaches to suit all tastes, from the safe, easily accessible coastlines around Hong Kong Island’s southern districts and outlying islands such as Cheung Chau and Lamma, to remote, almost wild strands on south Lantau and in the more inaccessible parts of the Sai Kung peninsula.

Nineteenth-century travel accounts mention Hong Kong’s beaches in passing terms; sea bathing became popular only at the end of the century, and widespread after the first world war. Improved road transport by the early 1920s gradually made Hong Kong Island’s southern coastline more accessible. Rapid social change in the years following the conflict saw a broad range of social mores challenged; in particular, bathing costumes became more practical and comfortable.

Changing international fashions gradually took hold locally as well, at least as far as Europeans were concerned. Suntans became a status symbol in Europe during the Roaring Twenties; the craze was created, at least in part, by publicity-seeking fashion designers such as Frenchwoman Coco Chanel. Until then, a suntanned complexion meant one had had to earn a living in the open air, probably as an agricultural labourer; it had definitely not been something for the wealthy to emulate.

Among urban Chinese, pale complexions remained a coveted status symbol for decades after the social horror of being too brown had worn off in the West. As the ongoing local demand for skinwhitening cosmetic products demonstrates, being unnaturally fair remains a priority for many.

While healthy concern for one’s skin is usually the stated reason, being able to pass oneself off as Korean or Japanese when abroad, rather than Chinese – and certainly not risk being mistaken for any one of various Southeast Asian ethnicities – is at least part of the motivation for some.

New Territories beaches from Tsuen Wan towards Castle Peak, such as Cafeteria Beach, Kadoorie Beach and Butterfly Beach, became popular in the interwar years. Wealthier urban families maintained holiday homes along this stretch of coast; the most substantial surviving example is Boulder Lodge, in Tuen Mun, the former home of Horace Kadoorie. The late local business magnate’s extended family still use the house and grounds; as they often travel by private helicopter, the secluded promontory resembles a James Bond film set on some weekends, especially when seen from the water.

Worsening water pollution from the 50s steadily diminished the appeal of Hong Kong’s beaches; foul water quality regularly saw beaches closed.

Those closer to the Kowloon/ Tsuen Wan conurbation, such as Ting Kau, Sham Tseng and Tsing Lung Tau, became more or less permanently closed to bathers. “Skull and Crossbones” signs along the beachfront told their own grim story.

By the 70s, the constant presence of various “floating horrors” meant that at certain times of year, swimming at Repulse Bay, Deep Water Bay and Stanley – forget about the inner harbour areas – was really just about “going through the motions”.

Water quality has steadily improved due to better sewage treatment and pollution control, and beaches long closed to the public are now open again – proof that at least some environmental initiatives in Hong Kong eventually yield positive results.

For more on Hong Kong history and heritage, go to scmp.com/topics/old-hong-kong