Across the world, place names change over time. Universal designations become anachronistic and, eventually, archaic. Shifting political considerations cause a new name to be adopted as a symbolic fresh beginning. Dramatically changed physical geography – mountains quarried away or coastlines altered by reclamation, as has happened throughout Hong Kong’s urban history – also renders earlier designations obsolete. And so it is today, with what is now known as the new Greater Bay Area.
Early European travel accounts refer to the waterways around the Pearl River estuary as the Canton Delta; reasonably enough, as that city was the main destination for international trade and commerce for centuries. Memoir accounts simply reference the river system as “the Pearl”; much like “the Yangtse”, “the Ganges” or “the Amazon”, this name was so well known internationally that further elaboration was redundant.
The opposite side of the delta to Hong Kong was known as the West River districts, referencing the major tributary that flows into the Pearl River at Sanshui, just above Guangzhou. Literally “three waters”, Sanshui – now part of the greater Guangzhou conurbation – marks the confluence of the West, North and Pearl river systems, which, with their tributaries, drain much of Guangdong and Guangxi.
After Shenzhen and Zhuhai were designated as special economic zones in 1979, inward investment into the delta region, and relocation of Hong Kong factories to districts with significantly lower labour costs, saw the area transformed into one of the workshops of the world. Leveraging long-standing clan, native-place and dialect group allegiances was a key component of this economic take-off.
Associations organised along these lines, established in Hong Kong since the mid-19th century, and elsewhere in the Cantonese-speaking diaspora from San Francisco to Melbourne and beyond, all played a role in inward investment. Where early immigrants had settled overseas marked where investment came from a few generations later; Toishan saw most inward capital flows from North America, while Zhongshan received more from Australia.
Major infrastructure projects designed to closely integrate the delta’s major cities were built or further planned through the 1990s. Among the most ambitious early projects was a massive bridge that spanned the entrance to the Pearl River at Humen. This historic location, where Commissioner Lin Zexu destroyed foreign opium in 1839, had seen the beginning of the first Anglo-Chinese war. Close to the original Bocca Tigris forts, the bridge was designed to link the burgeoning industrial city of Dongguan with emerging development zones in the western delta, and was completed in 1997.
By the 1990s, the Pearl River Delta region was internationally recognised by the acronym PRD. Known in Chinese as Chu Sam Kok, this three-character acronym translates as “pearl three corners” and referenced the major cities – Hong Kong, Macau and Guangzhou – at each point of that geographical triangle.
As time went on, and Shenzhen, in particular, evolved from a ramshackle factory-district overspill into a major hi-tech city in its own right, and other formerly sleepy regional centres expanded, the PRD designation – which downplayed the importance of other regional cities – began to appear dated.
Over the past couple of years, a new term for the Canton Delta has been unveiled. The Greater Bay Area is intended to link Hong Kong and Macau with nine other cities into some never-before-seen, hi-tech economic powerhouse. Saturation marketing campaigns by local, regional and national government departments, and those who wish to curry favour with them, all ensure that this geographically inaccurate term – we are part of a river delta, not a bay – has gained rapid traction.
Carpet-bagging businessmen with their sights set on the near-limitless opportunities the PR material would suggest exist, should soon be pouring forth across the recently opened world’s longest sea bridge in droves.