The ABCs of the History of Hong Kong

Reading Time: 12 minutesHow well do you know Hong Kong? Learn the history and stories behind the streets and neighbourhoods of Hong Kong with Playtimes’ A – Z guide.


The fishing port of Aberdeen was given its English name in 1845 in honour of Lord Aberdeen, who was the British Foreign Secretary when the British took possession of Hong Kong in 1841. The area was used for the manufacturing of incense sticks and subsequently became known as Heung Gong (“Fragrant Harbour”) because of the scent of sandalwood. Gradually the name came to refer to the whole island.


From 1878 until the 1970s, this area was known as “Admiralty Dock”, because it was home to the British naval yard. The dock was later destroyed when the land was reclaimed and developed as the HMS Tamar naval base. The Cantonese name for Admiralty, Jin Chung, which translates to “Golden Bell”, refers to a golden bell once housed at the docks.

Big Wave Bay

Known as Tai Long Wan in Cantonese, this bay is noted for having the largest waves on Hong Kong Island. The area is also home to a collection of ancient rock carvings – the first to be declared a monument by the Hong Kong Government. First discovered in 1970 by a police officer, the carvings have geometric patterns with hints of human or animal images. It is unknown who was responsible for these carvings, but their state of weathering indicates their long history.

*Top Tip: There is more than one Tai Long Wan in Hong Kong so always check to make sure you are going to the right one. 

Bowen Road

The road was named after the ninth governor of Hong Kong, George Ferguson Bowen. Bowen Road was known colloquially as “Third Road” because it was the third east-west road from the shore. The famous “Lovers Rock” is located along Bowen Road, and is said to give those who worship it the gift of a happy marriage.

Boundary Street

Boundary Street, located near Kowloon Tong, was originally a line of bamboo trees used to mark the boundary between the southern part of Kowloon (ceded by Qing China to the United Kingdom in 1860) and the northern part of Kowloon. The northern part of Kowloon remained part of China until it was leased as the New Territories to the United Kingdom in 1898 for 99 years. Although the street is the historical boundary, the actual road did not come into existence until 1934.


When the British took possession of Hong Kong in 1841, the initial fleet of settlers landed at Possession Point in Sheung Wan. The British officials soon decided to build a city on the north coast. The present-day Central was chosen to house major military facilities and act as an administrative centre. Central soon attracted both Westerners and Chinese for trading and residential purposes. In official documents, Central, or Chung Wan (Middle Circuit), is still referred to by its early designation as the City of Victoria. 

Causeway Bay

This area has changed names many times; from Wong Nai Chung to Bowrington and, until the 1930s, Causeway Bay was known as East Point. Before urban development and massive land reclamation, Causeway Bay was a heavily silted bay. Its former shape can be found on old maps of Hong Kong by tracing Tung Lo Wan Road, which ran along the former waters-edge. In the early stages of the bay’s development a causeway was built, hence the name Causeway Bay.

Discovery Bay

Discovery Bay – also affectionately referred to by locals as Disco Bay or DB – was originally conceived by Hong Kong Resort Company Limited as a public holiday resort. The plan was later transformed into a residential development.

Diamond Hill

Contrary to its name, the area has never been home to a diamond mine. There are a number of popular myths as to the name’s origin, but the most commonly accepted derivation is that it is a mistranslation of the Cantonese name Jin Shek Shan, as in “to mine or quarry”, and not as an adjective describing the type of gemstone.

D’Aguilar Peninsula

D’Aguilar Peninsula was named after George Charles D’Aguilar, a British Army Major-General and Lieutenant Governor of Hong Kong. This area is home to the Cape D’Aguilar Lighthouse, which was declared a historic monument by the Hong Kong Government. It is the oldest lighthouse in Hong Kong.

Elgin Street

Elgin Street is located in Central and is named after James Bruce, the 8th Earl of Elgin. One of the earliest designated streets in Hong Kong, the road was also known as “Mud Street” by locals, as the rain and the street’s steep slope made it a muddy thoroughfare.


The name Fanling is a shortened form of the Cantonese name Fan Pik Leng, which means “pink mountain”. For hundreds of years, the villagers here have worshipped a nearby pink rock, which is thought to bring good fortune to the village.

Gutzlaff Street

This street was named after the 19th-century Christian missionary Karl Gutzlaff. During his lifetime, Gutzlaff was one of the few Westerners living in Hong Kong who spoke Chinese. To raise money for the printing of Christian Bibles, Gutzlaff reluctantly worked as a translator for opium traders. Gutzlaff went on to work for the Hong Kong Government as the Secretary in Charge of Chinese Affairs.

Government Hill

There’s no surprise about the origin of this name. Since the establishment of British rule, the area has housed Hong Kong’s administrative headquarters, including Government House.


Glenealy is one of the few roads in Hong Kong without a suffix. It was formerly known as Elliot’s Vale after Charles Elliot, the first British administrator of Hong Kong. The road led to a house named Glenealy, which is now the site of a Roman Catholic Church, and so the road became known as Glenealy.

Hong Kong Wai

This is one of Hong Kong Island’s oldest remaining villages. Before Hong Kong was established as a British colony, the area was a minor riverside port from where fragrant wood was exported. Hong Kong Wai still has a number of old buildings, some of which are over 100 years old.

Happy Valley

The name originated in the early years of British rule as a morbid reference to the number of deaths in the area caused by malaria, as well as the subsequent proliferation of cemeteries.

Ice House Street

This street was originally the site of a large 19th-century ice depot that stood at the junction with Queen’s Road Central. The depot was owned by the Hong Kong Ice company. The trade in ice continued here until 1874 when the company built an ice manufacturing plant in Causeway Bay.

I Shing Temple

I Shing Temple is situated at the multi-clan village of Wang Chau in Yuen Long. The temple was constructed by the villagers around the 57th year of Kangxi (1718) to promote communal spirit. It was dedicated to the worship of the two deities, Hung Shing and Che Kung. The building uses a two-hall structure with an open courtyard in between. Although it underwent renovations in the 1970s and 1980s, most of its original features were kept intact. The temple was declared a monument in 1996.


Jordan is not an official district of Hong Kong. The MTR station and connecting road, which bear the name, are thought to be named after a civil servant in the colonial government at the time of construction. The area is also known officially as Kwung Chung.

Jardine’s Lookout

This area is named after Dr William Jardine, one of the two founders of Jardine Matheson Group, a company which pre-dates British occupancy in Hong Kong. Jardine started out as a ship’s surgeon who then became involved in the opium trading business in China.

kowloon road sign
Kennedy Town

Kennedy Town was named after Sir Arthur Kennedy, Governor of Hong Kong from 1872 to 1877. The area was developed during his time in office as a suburban housing solution for the rapidly expanding population.

Kowloon City

The name Kowloon is the English pronunciation of “nine dragons” in Cantonese. The name “Nine Dragons” represents the eight mountain peaks on Kowloon that can be seen from Hong Kong island, plus the emperor – the ninth dragon. This particular district contains part of what used to be the infamous Kowloon Walled City, now known as Walled City Park. Kowloon Walled City was China’s tiny enclave in the middle of British Hong Kong, which stood for decades and remained under Chinese control, until it was torn down in 1993. It was used as a makeshift spy centre to check on British influence in the area. For many years the area surrounding it remained largely undeveloped, used by the British mainly for tiger-hunting expeditions.

Kwun Tong

Located in the eastern part of the Kowloon Peninsula, this area was formerly called Koon Tong. Some say it was named after the Koon Fu salt yards, set up by the government to secure central administration of the salt trade and prevent unauthorised salt trading. Despite the government’s close watch, an illegal salt trade was still active on Lantau Island. When the officials found out, a full-scale crackdown was initiated. The Lantau villagers instigated an all-out uprising of salt farmers, leading finally to a major civil riot.

Lam Tin

The area of Lam Tin was once known as Ham Tin Shan. It was settled in the ninth century BC by the Nan Yue people. Ham Tin Shan, which means “salty field hill”, was part of the Kowloon Bay salt-fields. The British acquired the western half of the salt-fields in 1860 and the eastern half in 1898. Under British rule the salt-fields were destroyed to build Kai Tak Airport. The area was renamed Lam Tin, meaning “produced from the blue fields in jade”, to reflect the change in land usage.

mong kok
Mong Kok

The name in Chinese means “flourishing/busy corner”. Recent road works uncovered pottery typical of the Jin Dynasty (265-420), which suggests the area may have been inhabited as early as 265 AD. The Guinness World Records once listed Mong Kok as having the highest population density in the world.


The name is derived from the fact that the area is located halfway up Victoria Peak, directly above Central. Until the late 1950s, Mid-Levels was a place of winding tree-lined roads with gracious mansions and terraced gardens. The property boom of the 1960s and 70s meant that many old mansions were sold for development. The Central-Mid-Levels escalator was opened to the public in 1994, in order to make the steep incline easier for residents. The escalator is 800 metres long, making it the longest outdoor escalator in the world.

North Point

As you would expect, North Point is the most northerly point on Hong Kong Island. In the 1920s, people could alight from the tram at North Point and go swimming in what was then very clear, unpolluted water. By 1941, North Point was home to a power station, a refugee camp built to house Nationalist soldiers (later used to house Canadian prisoners-of-war during Japanese occupation), a few factories and not much else. In the 1950s North Point became more built up and was known as “Little Shanghai”.

Ngau Tau Kok

Ngau Tau Kok means “ox horn”, which is a reference to the coastline’s shape prior to reclamation of Kowloon Bay. Ngau Tau Kok has a long history of Hakka habitants, a subgroup of the Han Chinese people.

Old Peak Road

This was the only road up to The Peak and so the main form of transit until the construction of the Peak Tram in 1888. It was originally just Peak Road, but a newer Peak Road was built on Cheung Chau, and so the name was modified to Old Peak Road.

Old Bailey Street

Old Bailey Street, located in Central, takes its name from “Old Bailey”, the Central Criminal Court in London. Hong Kong’s first prison was built on the street in 1841. As the city’s population grew, a larger prison was needed and, in 1925, construction began on what became Stanley Prison.

Po Toi O

Po Toi O is a small fishing village on the Clear Water Bay Peninsula in the New Territories. Po Toi O literally means “a sack” in Cantonese – a reference to the sack-like shape of the bay. Interestingly, everyone living in the village near the bay has the same surname: Po.

Pok Fu Lam

Pok Fu Lam, meaning “waterfall bay”, was among the first places on Hong Kong Island to be visited by European explorers. It was known to ships en route to Guangdong, formerly known in English as Canton, as a reliable source of fresh water. There was little here other than unsanitary squatter residences that remained until the early 1950s. Little further was developed here until the years immediately preceding the outbreak of war with Japan. It was also the place where Hong Kong’s floral emblem, the Bauhinia blakeana, was first discovered.

Quarry Bay

Quarry Bay is an area beneath Mount Parker on Hong Kong Island. The area was used to quarry rocks from the hillside for construction or road building. Once quarried, the rocks were transported by ship.

Queen’s Pier

The pier has been rebuilt twice.

The first was a wooden structure known officially known as “Queen’s Statue Wharf”. It was a ceremonial landing area for the British Royal family. The pier was rebuilt in 1925 and given the name “Statue Pier”, but was renamed “Queen’s Pier” a few months later in honour of Queen Victoria.

repulse bay hong kong
Repulse Bay

Tsin Shui Wan, as Repulse Bay is known in Chinese, can be translated as “Shallow Water Bay”. However, it acquired its new English name in commemoration of the HMS Repulse, a Royal Navy vessel that visited Hong Kong waters in the 19th century. Repulse Bay was an important strategic location during the Battle of Hong Kong and World War Two. In the 1910s, Repulse Bay was developed into a beach.

Rednaxela Terrace

Rednaxela is Alexander spelled backwards. The street was named as such because the Chinese street sign painter couldn’t read English. Up until the early 20th century, the area comprised a series of dingy terraced streets running off of Shelley Street. They provided “cheek-by-jowl” terraced accommodation for less well-off members of Hong Kong’s local Portuguese community.

Sha Tin

The original name for Sha Tin was Lek Yuen, which means “trickling source of clear water”. Allegedly, when British surveyors first visited Sha Tin Wai (a village in the area), they asked what the area was called. The villagers answered Sha Tin and the British mistakenly recorded this as the name for the whole area, replacing Lek Yuen.

Shau Kei Wan

Shau Kei Wan means “rice basket bay” in Cantonese. The area closely resembles the shape of a rice basket in old photographs and on old maps. However, this is not the case today, as the coastline has been altered by reclamation. The original settlement pre-dates British arrival by centuries.

Shouson Hill

Located between Deepwater Bay and Aberdeen, Shouson Hill was named after Chow Shouson, a high-ranking official in China, before the 1911 revolution. He was an active businessman and politician in Hong Kong thereafter.


The area was named after Lord Stanley, Secretary of State for the Colonies when Hong Kong was ceded to Great Britain in 1860. During the reign of the Chia Ching Emperor in the late 18th century, the notorious local pirate Cheung Po-Tsai had a headquarters in the area. Cheung’s notoriety is still evident in the Tin Hau Temple at nearby Ma Hang.

clock in stanley, hong kong
Tsim Sha Tsui

Several villages were established here before Kowloon was ceded to the British in 1860. Tsim Sha Tsui means “sandy mouth” and was a place used in the exportation of incense trees. Thus, the area used to be known as Heung Po Tau, “the fragrant quay”. In 1888, the Star Ferry was built for transportation between Central and Tsim Sha Tsui and the area has flourished ever since.

Tin Hau

Tin Hau, Queen of Heaven, is an ancient Chinese deity. She is venerated as the patron deity of the boat people in Hong Kong. The area takes its name from the Tin Hau Temple. All Tin Hau temples are meant to be located very close to the seashore – and this one used to be. The temple hasn’t moved, but the shoreline has by several hundred metres. A Tin Hau Temple, albeit smaller and less elaborate than the current version, stood on the site several decades before the British arrived in Hong Kong.

Upper Albert Road

Named after Queen Victoria’s Consort Prince Albert, it surrounds Government House, the residence of former Governors of Hong Kong and the Chief Executive of Hong Kong.

Upper Lascar Row (Cat Street)

“Lascars” were seamen from the East Indies who frequented the area, giving it a reputation for lawlessness and criminal behaviour. In the past it was a common joke that, if you had something stolen, you were almost certain to find it for sale back in Cat Street. In Cantonese slang, thieves are called rats, and the dealers who purchase goods from the rats are cats. Thus, this street is also known as “Cat Street” in Cantonese.

aerial shot of hong kong
Victoria Peak

Victoria Peak is a mountain on Hong Kong Island. During the late 1800s, the area became a desirable retreat for Hong Kong’s more affluent residents due to the cooler temperatures it enjoys during Hong Kong’s humid summers. In 1968, Hong Kong Governor Sir Richard MacDonnell built his summer home in the area, cementing its prestigious reputation.

Victoria Park

Victoria Park was built on top of Hong Kong’s original typhoon shelter. In 1950, the land was reclaimed and a new typhoon shelter was built further out to sea. The reclaimed land was used to create Victoria Park. The park takes its name from the statue of Queen Victoria which stands in the park. Originally the statue stood in Statue Square. During World War Two, however, the Japanese removed the statue for scrap metal. When the statue was recovered after the war ended, Queen Victoria’s statue was re-mounted in Victoria Park. The name in Chinese characters on the statue still reads “Empress’ Statue Square”.

Wan Chai

Despite its present-day form of busy roads and high-density buildings, the name Wan Chai, reflects a quieter past. Wan Chai means “small bay” in Cantonese and the area was once a quiet sandy bay on Hong Kong’s northern shoreline.

Wong Tai Sin

Wong Tai Sin district’s name is derived from Wong Tai Sin Temple, a Taoist place of worship and one of the most famous shrines in Hong Kong. The temple was established in 1921 and is dedicated to the Chinese deity Wong Tai Sin, or the “Great Immortal Wong”. The influence of Wong Tai Sin spread from Guangdong Province to Hong Kong in the early 20th century.

Yau Ma Tei

The name Yau Ma Tei cannot be found in any historical document prior to British rule. However, the area was traditionally known as Kwun Chung, a name which can be found in numerous documents. Kwun Chung was a river valley and home to a village. The area was home to Kwun Chung Fort, which was built by the Chinese to fend off the British. The fort was instrumental in keeping Kowloon from British takeover during the Battle of Kwun Chung in 1839. The fort with the hill was demolished for development during early British rule of Kowloon.

Yuen Long

Yuen Long, also formerly known as Un Long, has a very long history. The earliest significant settlements in Yuen Long can be traced back to the Sung Dynasty (960 – 1279 AD) For centuries the area was a traditional market town.

Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical gardens

The gardens were first established in 1860, and were originally set up to determine what plants could grow best in the local soil and climate.



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