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Here you'll find over 50,000 pages about old Hong Kong to explore, including over 30,000 photos. The content is added by a friendly community of people who enjoy sharing what we know about Hong Kong's history, and you are very welcome to join us.

Kind regards, David

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How did Hong Kong's Walla Wallas get their name?

Submitted by David on Sun, 04/21/2024 - 14:00

What's a Walla Walla?

Walla Walla was the local name for a small motorboat that was available to hire, a water taxi. A common use for them was to cross the harbour between TST and Central late at night, after the Star Ferry had stopped running, but they ran in daytime too and could take you to other points around the harbour.

1966 Water Taxi (Walla Walla) off Wanchai Waterfront
1966 Water Taxi (Walla Walla) off Wanchai Waterfront , by moddsey


Where does the name come from?

The usual explanation is that 'walla walla' is the sound the boat's engine made as it chugged around the harbour. But according to the late Betty Clemo, the boats were named after the city of Walla Walla in Washington State, USA.

In an RTHK interview recorded in 1970, Betty explained:

Very few people in Hong Kong know this. Years and years ago, about 55 years ago, [an American] friend of my father's called Mr Lee Nagel, came to Hong Kong. [...] He had a great idea to build motor boats to go to Kowloon - there was very little conveyance to Kowloon in those days.  [...] Eventually he built six little motor boats. We went to the christening and launching, but what to call them? My father said why don't you call them your hometown's name? [Nagel] said, 'Well I come from Walla Walla, USA, let's call them Walla Walla. So they were named Walla Walla One, Two, Three, Four, Five, and Six, and that's what it started off from. And today everyone refers to them as a Walla Walla, even the Chinese do.


Update on the "Gwulo's Farewell" talk

Yesterday evening we passed 50% seats booked, so the theatres are filling up! Here are the links again:

(The venue for 22 May is the smaller of the two and is already 90% full, so best book soon if you're planning to go to that talk.)


When were the first Walla Wallas built?

Betty remembered Lee Nagel arriving 'about 55 years ago', or in about 1915, so he'd have started his motor boat business some time after that.

A search for Walla in the old newspapers finds the first mention in July 1920. The report is of a court case involving non-payment for work done, but we also get a glimpse of Mr Nagel and his Walla Walla No. 1:

Lee Orlando Nagel, salesman employed by J. T. Shaw, Tailor, said that about the beginning of 1919 he bought a motor boat called the Tsun Wan, now Walla Walla No. 1. It was simply a wreck, needing a lot of repairs. He entered into a contract therefore with Leung Shing. The amount of the contract was $700. The boat was purchased in Causeway Bay and was left there for repair.

So it looks as though Walla Walla No. 1 was first in service sometime around 1919-20.

When did Walla Wallas disappear from the harbour?

I'm not exactly sure, though 1972 is an important year in the story of their decline. That's when the Cross Harbour Tunnel opened, and Walla Wallas suddenly faced competition from regular taxis for those late-night journeys across the harbour.

Another competitor for late-night traffic arrived in 1980, when the MTR's new tunnel beneath the harbour opened for business.

When I first arrived in Hong Kong in 1989, the guidebook I'd bought suggested Walla Wallas were still popular:


After the MTR closes at 1 a.m. and the Star Ferry at 11:30, you can still ride across the harbour in a small motorboat called a walla-walla (supposedly named for the hometown-Walla-Wall [sic], Washington, USA-of this craft's original owner. You can also take a taxi or bus through the cross-harbour tunnel, but if you are staying in Tsimshatsui and end up in Central-or vice versa - -the direct cross-harbour water route by Star Ferry, MTR or walla-walla is the fastest and cheapest means of transportation. On Hong Kong Island, walla-wallas are located at Queen's Pier to the East of the Star Ferry concourse (to the right as you face the harbour, in front of City Hall) while in Kowloon, they are located at Kowloon Public Pier, (to the left of the Star Ferry as you face the water, opposite the Ocean Terminal). The cost is HK$4.50 per person or HK$45 for an entire boat if you are impatient.

So after a late night out in Central when I needed to get home to TST from Central, I asked local friends about catching a Walla Walla. No-one knew what I was talking about!

I never did get to ride in a Walla Walla. Instead if we needed to cross the harbour late at night, the choice was either a taxi or a white-knuckle ride in a red minibus.

Do readers know if there was ever a clear end to the Walla Wallas' service, e.g. because of some change in licensing? Or did they just become uneconomic to run, and gradually fade away?

And if you have any memories of the Walla Wallas you can share, please leave a comment below or upload a photo.


Further reading:


  • Adam West, the actor who portrayed Batman in the 1960s, was born in Walla Walla, USA

New on Gwulo: 2024, week 15

Submitted by David on Sun, 04/14/2024 - 12:30

What's new and updated on the Gwulo website:



Gwulo's news

  • There's a Gwulo meetup lunch this Tuesday, 16 April, all welcome. We usually get around 6-12 people show up to have a chat about Hong Kong's history. Click here for details, and please let Annelise know by Whatsapp if you're joining us.

  • Tickets are selling steadily for the Gwulo's Farewell talks on the 8th & 22nd of May - by Friday one quarter of the seats were already filled. You can book tickets via the EventBrite website.

  • We're the subject of the next video interview from Bristol University's Hong Kong History Centre, Video #5: David Bellis, Gwulo.com. It has had a good reception so far, with over 16,000 views.
  • I've edited the automatic subtitles to the recent talk, Who in these 1880s-1950s photos called Hong Kong 'home'?, to correct some mistakes and make them easier to read. You can see the updated video & subtitles on Youtube.
  • Thank you to everyone who came along to my recent talk at the USRC showing Hong Kong photos with a military connection, and to the Orders & Medals Research Society (OMRS) for arranging it. You can read their write-up of the event on the OMRS website.



Gwulo's plans for 2024

Submitted by David on Mon, 04/08/2024 - 18:00

The big change for the Bellis family in 2024 will be our move in July, leaving Hong Kong to go and live in the UK. Here's a look at how that affects this year's plans for Gwulo.


  • First half of 2024
    • Farewell talk
    • Upgrade the website software
    • Relocate to the UK
  • Second half of 2024
    • Will there be any effects on the Gwulo website?
    • London talk
  • Medium term
    • New website features
    • Try videos
  • Long term
    • Passing on the baton
    • Keeping the data safe



1.1 Farewell talk

Before we leave I'd like to give one last talk, looking at some of the highlights since I posted my first page about Hong Kong's history back in 2006.

I'll show some of my favourite photos and tell their tales, and we'll revisit some of the other stories which Gwulo has been involved with that I've found most memorable. I'll also take us on a quick whistle-stop tour of how the website has changed over the years.

We've booked two theatres that have sharp projectors and tiered seating, so that everyone gets a clear view of the photos:

  • 8 May, 7:30 pm - Lecture hall, HK Science Museum, TST - $150 / $75 - Book tickets
  • 22 May, 8 pm - Louis Koo Cinema, HK Arts Centre, Wanchai - $200 / $100 - Book tickets

As the Science Museum's lecture hall seats well over 200, and the Louis Koo Cinema seats over 100, I'm a bit nervous they'll look empty! Please help fill them up by letting any friends who are interested in Hong Kong history know about this talk.

1.2 Upgrade the website software

Meanwhile, down in the boiler room ...

New on Gwulo: 2024, week 12

Submitted by David on Wed, 03/20/2024 - 23:00

What's new and updated on the Gwulo website:

Gwulo's talks

  • On Tuesday next week (26 Mar) I'll give a new talk, using old photos to investigate Hong Kong's military history. The venue is a perfect fit for the topic, as we'll be at the United Services Recreation Club (USRC) in Jordan - the club opened in 1911 to offer recreational facilities to the British armed services. The talk is hosted by the local branch of the Orders & Medals Research Society: you'll find full details of the talk on their website.

    If you'd like to attend please click here to contact their Hon. Secretary, Martin Heyes, by e-mail <martin.heyes@gmail.com> and make your reservation (and also to make sure that seats are still available).

  • Last week's talk, Who in these 1880s-1950s photos called Hong Kong 'home'?, was recorded and can be viewed online at Youtube or Facebook (skip ahead to 1:05 to go to the start of the talk).

    Thank you to Gary at the Vibe book and music shop in Silvermine Bay for hosting the event, and to Phil Whelan for managing the multiple microphones and video streams to produce the recording shown above.

    I'd also given that talk a few days earlier, to members and guests of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong. The last few attendees arrived soon after I took this photo, so we had a full house:

    The audience at last week's talk to the RAS


  • Looking further ahead, I'll be giving another new talk in May, first on the 8th, then again on the 22nd. It'll take us through the last 18 years of running a Hong Kong history website, showing some of my favourite photos and finds, and also sharing my favourite stories - both stories of Hong Kong's history, and some of the moving personal stories we've heard. 

    The talks in May will be a bit different as we've booked the venues ourselves for the first time. Both venues have large screens and theatre-style seating, perfect for showing high-resolution photos at their best!

    Booking details will follow in early April, but please keep the dates free as I'd love to see you there.





Free Gwulo talk tomorrow, online and in-person

Submitted by David on Fri, 03/15/2024 - 08:57

Overseas readers, here's your chance to see a Gwulo talk live.

And for local readers, if you couldn't get tickets to last night's talk, there's another chance to see it tomorrow at VIBE on Lantau.

See you there!

20240316 Talk Flyer


The talk begins at 2:30 PM on Saturday 16th March, Hong Kong time (see the time in your timezone).

In person:

  • No registration required, just come along to the Vibe Book and Music Shop at: 

    Shop E, Silver Centre, Silvermine Bay, Lantau Island. (Map)


  • Open Vibe's Facebook Live page in your web browser a few minutes before the talk begins, then when the broadcast starts a pop-up window will appear that shows the live video.