Hong Kong housing

How Hong Kong’s first land reclamation project sprang from a devastating fire

  • The British colonial authorities used the debris left by the Sheung Wan blaze in 1851 to extend the shoreline by 50 feet
  • The reclamation, the first of many, also gave the impetus for the city’s business elite to build its empires, many of which still reign today
PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 December, 2018, 10:17am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 December, 2018, 11:08am

Bonham Strand in Sheung Wan on Hong Kong Island is known for its dried seafood, but where it stands was seawater 170 years ago – until a devastating fire in the early days of British colonial rule triggered the city’s first ever reclamation project.

A major blaze in Sheung Wan in 1851 burned down 450 houses, killed two British officers, and over 200 Chinese were reported missing.

The government decided to put the rubble to good use by combining it with debris from hill slopes and depositing it in Victoria Harbour to build a 50-foot wide road by the waterfront. It also gave officials a chance to rebuild the area, known for its densely packed back-to-back tenement houses, which led to poor ventilation and sanitation.

The reclamation project then set off 30 years of bitter disputes between the government and landowners over the need for further reclamation.

As Hong Kong debates the need for a new round of massive reclamation, historian Dr Joseph Ting Sun-pao looks back on how the first ever such project the city mounted was, beneath all the political wrangling, at its core “all about profit”, and an opportunity for British colonisers to create their own business hub and playground.

Ting, the former chief curator of the Hong Kong Museum of History, credited Catchick Paul Chater, an Indian-born businessman of Armenian descent, as the man who helped break the deadlock in setting in motion a string of reclamations on Hong Kong Island.

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Hongkong Land was a big winner in all of this. I believe that’s what helped them earn their first pot of gold
Dr Joseph Ting, historian

“He was a legendary man,” said Ting, who is giving a series of seminars on reclamation throughout the city’s history this month and next.

One of the major projects Chater proposed was to create 59 acres of land between 1889 and 1903 to run from Whitty Street in Sai Wan to where the City Hall multi-storey car park in Central currently stands, historian Ho Pui-yin wrote in her book Making Hong Kong.

According to Ting, Chater proposed reclamation as a solution for a hygiene problem of waste accumulated on the shoreline, which people at the time believed would let off toxic fumes.

“It was a reason that no one would refuse … but of course behind all of that he stood to benefit from it the most,” Ting said.

Chater, who was also an unofficial member of the Executive Council, went on to found property developer Hongkong Land, which is now the city’s largest office landlord in Central.

The Landmark Mandarin Oriental Hotel, the Prince’s Building and Alexandra House were all built on the reclaimed land Chater proposed, and are owned by the firm.

“Hongkong Land was a big winner in all of this. I believe that’s what helped them earn their first pot of gold,” Ting said.

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Landowners occupying prime waterfront parcels had initially opposed reclamation, for fear of losing docking rights by the coast, according to Hong Kong Memory, a multimedia online archive of local history cooperated by the government. They later made a U-turn to back such projects when the government allowed the private sector to pay for reclamation costs in exchange for the ownership rights of new land.

Ho, in her book, suggested that Chater’s proposal was able to get off the ground because the seabed of the island’s northern coast had become increasingly shallow, meaning that larger vessels could not berth at dockyards owned by many foreign and Chinese merchant firms. Reclamation works would help deepen the coastal channels to solve berthing problems.

Reclamation in the 19th century also represented much of the city’s colonial past, Ting pointed out.

Next to banks and commercial properties in the vicinity of Statue Square, stood the former Supreme Court (now the Court of Final Appeal), the former Hong Kong Cricket Club playing grounds, and the prestigious Hong Kong Club, which was open to foreigners only until 1964.

How the old Hong Kong Cricket Club made way for Chater Garden

“Everything the Westerners needed was all there,” Ting said.

About 7,000 hectares of land in Hong Kong has been formed by reclamation, representing 6 per cent of the city’s total land area, according to 2016 data.

Reclaimed land accommodates about 27 per cent of the city’s population and 70 per cent of its commercial activity.

Reclamation has stalled for much of the past decade, but Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has pushed to realise an ambitious plan, called Lantau Tomorrow Vision, which would be the city’s biggest and most expensive reclamation project to date.

The artificial islands, spanning 1,700 hectares, could house up to 1.1 million people over the next two to three decades.

The controversial project, expected to cost upwards of HK$500 billion (US$63.9 billion), has drawn criticism from some quarters, with critics saying it would serve only to benefit private developers and Beijing’s Greater Bay Area plan.

Ting, for his part, believes reclamation is “unavoidable”.

“Looking back at our history, if there was no reclamation, there would not be any new towns in the New Territories,” he said. “As to where and how to reclaim, that’s not my expertise, but a city needs development.”