- Travel Home
- Travel News
Unfathomable street signs in Hong Kong
The real stories behind those street signs that make us do a double take
Hong Kong street signs often carry intriguing tales that reflect the rich history and culture of the city.
For example, the cracked pavement of Lyndhurst Terrace carries two different histories of Hong Kong. One, reflected in the street's English name, is a story of polite colonial power -- John Lyndhurst was an assistant magistrate in the 19th century. The other version is behind the street's Chinese name.
Loosely translated as "Arrange Flowers Street," 擺花街 is named after the neighborhood's colorful past life. Lyndhurst Terrace used to be lined by upscale brothels, and florists made a good trade selling bouquets to men paying a visit to their girlfriend for the night -- hence the Chinese name.
Lyndhurst Terrace is just one example of how the stodgy colonial narrative encoded in Hong Kong's English toponymy doesn't always reflect the more indecorous reality of the city's past.
"The historical buildings are mostly gone, so the real history is in the street names," says Gillis Heller, the co-author of "Signs of a Colonial Era," a book about the origins of Hong Kong's street names.
Calling it a spade
Heller has been curious about Hong Kong's place names since he moved here from Seattle in 1984. His uncle and co-author, Andrew Yanne, has been taking photos of the city's street nameplates for years. After the handover in 1997, they realized those street signs would end up being the last visible reminder of Hong Kong's colonial history.
Few things are more political than place names, so Heller and Yanne naturally assumed that, as the years progressed and Hong Kong became more comfortable in its new role as a Special Administrative Region of China, its colonial place names would go the way of red mailboxes and green-uniformed police.
"But the good news is that basically nothing has changed," says Heller. That's true even for streets that honor the most despicable of British rulers, like James Bruce, the Earl of Elgin, who ordered the complete destruction of the Summer Palace in Beijing -- but not before he and his troops looted its most valuable treasures.
It turns out that a far greater problem than historic revisionism is the sheer blandness of Hong Kong's newest street names. Whereas streets in the colonial era were named after public figures, old local traditions and geographical landmarks, streets built since the handover are given the most generic and least offensive names possible.
In Tseung Kwan O, for instance, all of the street names start with 唐 (tong) and all of the arterial road names start with 寶 (po), followed by a random character with an auspicious meaning, like 康 (hong), which means "healthy."
Heller would like to see a return to more distinctive names that are rooted in Hong Kong's history and culture. He says the new road that has opened on Central's reclaimed waterfront should be named after Queen's Pier, which was demolished to make way for the reclamation. Instead, it has been named Lung Wo -- "Dragon Harmony" -- Road.
Fortunately, some more flavorful street names still exist. Here are some of our favorites:
This bizarre name makes a lot more sense if you read it backwards.
Originally named Alexander Terrace after the owner of the surrounding property, it was spelled backwards by a clerk when the name was registered. The Chinese name of the street, 列拿士地 (pronounced lit naa si dei in Cantonese) reflects the mistaken transcription.
Located near the Jamia Mosque in Central, just uphill from Prince's Terrace, Rednaxela is best remembered by passers-by for the plaque at its entrance that commemorates the Filipino hero Jose Rizal, who lived in the area in the 1890s.
Beacon Hill Road
Surrounded by streets with names like Warwick, Alnwick and Eastbourne, you would think that this road in posh Kowloon Tong is just another homage to the English countryside.
But the Beacon Hill in question is not some quaint suburban invention; it is a reference to the 1661 evacuation of the South China coast by the Qing emperor Kangxi, who forced everyone to move inland in the hope of preventing an invasion by Ming dynasty rebels based on Taiwan.
Military outposts known as beacons were built throughout the evacuated area, including one around present-day Beacon Hill.
San Francisco Path
Named in 1925 by the Portuguese property developer Francisco Soares, San Francisco Path’s Chinese name, 舊 金 山 meaning "Old Gold Mountain," reflects the older Chinese name for San Francisco, which made reference to the migrants who left China to seek fortune in the California gold rushes of the 19th century. (The city's modern Chinese name is the less evocative 三蕃市, pronounced saam faan si).
Soares named some of the area's streets after World War I -- Liberty, Victory and Peace -- and others after his wife, Emma, and daughter, Julia. It's not clear whether Soares left his heart in San Francisco or he liked the city because they share the same name.
Upper Lascar Row
Few of the tourists who visit the quiet strip of curios shops -- commonly known as 'Cat Street Market' -- realize it has three names.
Lascars were sailors from the Indian subcontinent that lives in this part of Sheung Wan when they were docked in Hong Kong, hence the English name. The Chinese name 摩羅上 (pronounced mo lo seung) is derived from "mo lo cha," an outdated and somewhat derogatory term for South Asians.
The street came to be known as Cat Street finally because it was once notorious for dealers of stolen goods, who were known as "cats" in Cantonese (the thieves who sold them the stolen items were called rats).
Pine, Fir and Ivy Streets
The streets in Tai Kok Tsui are named after various types of trees, including ash, oak, beech, cheery, walnut and maple -- obviously the work of some nostalgic British colonial, since most of the trees do not grow in Hong Kong.
Something was lost in translation too, because the Chinese name for Pine Street is 杉樹, which means "fir" and the name for Fir Street is 松樹, which means "pine."
The "ivy" in Ivy Street was not translated at all, but rather given the Chinese transliteration of 埃華 (oi wah) which unfortunately can be taken to mean "dirty China."
Even stranger is the fact that the streets of Tai Kok Tsui are among the most treeless in Hong Kong.