Hong Kong history on the MTR

Submitted by David on Thu, 03/02/2006 - 09:00

If you'll be using the MTR (the local subway/underground railway) while you're in Hong Kong, print this out and get a quick history lesson from the route map that is displayed in each carriage.

Early 1800's If you were alive then and knew of Hong Kong, you were probably a sailor, fisherman, or pirate. Many of the station names date from that time, simply describing the area as seen from a boat.

You'll find ('Wan', meaning 'Bay') appears in many station names, such as Cheung Sha Wan (meaning 'Long Sandy Beach'). The word 'Sha' (meaning 'Sand) also appears in Tsim Sha Tsui (meaning 'Sharp Sandy Mouth').

Of course if you look at these places from the sea today, the only chance to see sand will be on a construction site. Reclamation means that both places lost their beaches many years ago - Tsim Sha Tsui had already lost its beach in the late 1800's.

The other station name that would be familiar to someone from those days would be 'Tin Hau', the name of a goddess that protects fishemen and sailors. The Tin Hau station gets its name from the Tin Hau temple in the area. You'll find many Tin Hau temples along the original coastline of Hong Kong, though again reclamation means that many are now some distance inland.

1841-1899 The development of the city of Victoria on Hong Kong island meant that many new names were created. Causeway Bay is a good example, named after the causeway that was built across the silted bay in the 1840's. The name of the road that ran along the top of the causeway is still 'Causeway Road', but once again the bay has been reclaimed, with Victoria park on the North side, and sports fields to the South.

Back toward the Western end of the island, and the station names follow the district names that the Chinese residents gave to the new city. The first station is 'Sheung Wan' ('Upper District'), and then comes 'Central' ('Central District' in Chinese). Next you'd probably expect to find the Chinese characters for 'Ha Wan', meaning 'Lower District'.

On a map dated 1888, it is called exactly that, but a large reclamation to build the Naval dockyard meant that by the 1930's, maps are just showing it as the 'Admiralty lot', and the new name stuck.

1900's The early 1900's see the development of Kowloon accelerate, with names assigned accordingly. The 'Jordan' station gets its name from the busy Jordan Road in the area. The road appears as 'proposed' on a 1902 map, and 'Jordan Road' appears in goverment minutes from as early as 1912. I'm not sure where the name comes from, but guess it was from a government official in office at the time, as they seem to be a ready source of street names. The Chinese characters for this station are chosen for their sound instead of their meaning. They are pronounced 'Jaw Dun' in Cantonese, similar to the English sound. This is a common practice when the English word is a person's name.

The other station name in Kowloon from this era is 'Prince Edward'. This station also gets its name from a road, the nearby 'Prince Edward Road', which first appears on maps in the 1920's. Here the Chinese characters 'Tai Ji' translate simply to 'Prince'.

2000's Three new stations, Sunny Bay, Disneyland resort, and Tiu Keng Leng, show that one of the themes of the last 150 years is still continuing - all are built on reclaimed land! The Sunny Bay and Tiu Keng Leng stations also have something to say about peoples' attitudes in the 2000's, as both have had a name change to make them more palatable. Wikipedia has a good explanation of both:

Sunny Bay
Sunny Bay (欣澳) [approximately Yan O in Cantonese] is a recent incarnation by the Hong Kong Government, replacing the original name 'Yam O'. The new name emerged after the plans to build Hong Kong Disneyland Resort on nearby Penny's Bay. This was done so because Yam (陰) in Cantonese means dark (the same word as the Mandarin yin, well known to most English speakers from the expression yin-yang); while Yan (欣) means happy - a significantly more suitable name for the Disneyland rail link.
Tiu Keng Leng
Tiu Keng Leng (also Rennie's Mill; Chinese: 調景嶺) is an area of Hong Kong adjacent to Tseung Kwan O (Junk Bay). Rennie's Mill got its name from a Canadian businessman named Alfred Herbert Rennie, who established a flour mill at Junk Bay. The business failed, and Rennie hanged himself there in 1908 [Update: he didn't hang himself - see the commments below]. The incident gave the Chinese name for the site 吊頸嶺 (Tiu Keng Leng), meaning "Hanging (neck) Ridge". The name was later changed to the similar, but more auspicious sounding 調景嶺 (Tiu King Leng).

Before the 'Chinese' arrived In the example of Jordan station above, the Chinese characters were chosen to sound like an English word. There is also the suggestion by K Barnett that some of the current names actually represent the sounds used by the aboriginal tribes that lived in this area in the 14th century and earlier. An example that he quotes is 'Yau Ma Tei', the station North of Jordan.

The sounds 'Yau' and 'Ma' are similar to names of a local hill-tribe, and the local boat-people respectively that lived in the region before the Cantonese-speakers arrived. As 'Tei' means 'place', he suggests that this marked a place where the two tribes would come together for trade.

+ + +

If you find any mistakes, or you have any notes to add on the MTR station names, please do leave a comment. MrB

References: - "Do Words From Extinct Pre-Chinese Languages Survive in Hong Kong Place Names? (1958)" K. M. A. Barnett, from the Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. 14 (1974 )


Reader 'moddsey' to the rescue again:

Where did the name 'Jordan Road' come from?
The Hong Kong Government Annual Report of 1908 under Public Works states that Sixth Street and Gascoigne Rd South was renamed Jordan Rd. I believe his name is also associated with Jordan Valley in Ngau Tau Kok.

Sir John Jordan was the British Minister to the Imperial Court and helped shaped Ango-Chinese diplomacy after his arrival in Peking in 1906. He was a very influential diplomat in his day. He witnessed the overthrow of the Ching Dynasty and the Chinese Revolution of 1911.

This site mentions:

"Sir John Jordan was a well-known figure in China, greatly respected by both Chinese and foreign officials. Unlike his successors, he was not a career diplomat moving round the world from embassy to embassy. Sir John was a specialist in Chinese affairs. He had come to China as a very young man in the consular service, already well-versed in the language, and he spent his entire working life in China. He was an extremely capable person, a sinologue and sinophile, and his knowledge of all things Chinese was vast. He was not a man to overlook errors or omissions, and any consular officer reporting to him prepared his despatch with the greatest care".

A book about his career in China is detailed below:

in the careers of
Sir John Jordan and Yˆ¢an Shih-k'ai

Finally his picture can be seen at the National Portrait Gallery website.

I also asked moddsey if he knew why the Chinese name for 'Admiralty' MTR station is 'Gum Jung', translating to 'Golden Clock' and seeming to have no connection to the word Admiralty. He replies:
There was such a clock that used to adorn the entrance to Wellington Barracks (Royal Navy) facing Queensway in what is now I believe Admiralty Gardens. I will send you a scanned picture of the building later. In the old days, military buildings and warehouses lined the whole of Queensway from Murray Road onwards to Arsenal St and on the opposite side of the road after Garden Road eastwards (where Queensway Govt. Offices and Pacific Place are today).
He later added:
The "Golden Clock" of Wellington Barracks can be seen in the middle of this picture. Other references mention Admiralty as "Golden Bell" perhaps after HMS Tamar's ships bell that used to hang near the main entrance to the land-based headquarters of HMS Tamar. The original HMS Tamar was scuttled during the early days of the Japanese invasion in December 1941 and sunk to the bottom of Victoria Harbour.

In my previous email I mentioned Admiralty Gardens. The park may be called Harcourt Gardens.

Moddsey has also sent in some pictures showing Causeway Bay at different times.

In the 1910's, this picture of the bay shows that the inland side is already reclaimed, but the sea side (present-day Victoria Park) is a typhoon shelter. These pictures of a tram and tram station on the causeway also clearly show boats tied up on one side of the causeway.

There is little change in this 1950's photo, but by the 1960's we can see the newly reclaimed Victoria Park, so both sides of the causeway are now landlocked.


Reader moddsey has some comments on the origin of the Yau Ma Tei name as described above, plus a couple of photos of that area at the start of the 20th century:
As for Yau Ma Tei, I am not too sure about the Yau and Ma families. My recollection is that its name comes from oil (YAU) and hemp (MA). Here is the information that I had read many years ago:

Source: Old British Kowloon by J. W. Hayes, Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society Vol. 6 (1966)

'Yau Ma Ti is not mentioned by name in the Commisioners' Report of 1862, and its earlier origin is therefore in question. However, at the latest estimate, its principal temple, dedicated to Tin Hau, the Queen of Heaven, was located there soon as the Kowloon Peninsula changed hands: two stone lions standing outside the present building are dated 1864. Some years later the Registrar General included a brief mention of Yau Ma Ti in his Census Returns for 1876 in which he wrote:

"Yau Ma Ti in Kowloon has become a new Town within the last few months, and it will continue to increase if facilities are afforded to the boat builders and to the junk people who repair thither to careen and repair their vessels, for on these the trade of the place chiefly depends".

In 1882 Osbert Chadwick wrote of the formation of the "irregular group of houses" and the "lack of proper streets" in growing villages like Yau Ma Ti. He went on to describe the environs of the town as follows:

"To the north of Yau Ma Ti the shore is lined with establishments for boat people or other trades connected with shipping.... Just to the south of Yau Ma Ti is a sort of mud-dock which dries at half ebb or little bit later. This is occupied by many boats some of which are too old and leaky to go out, and lie here permanently, being used as dwellings. This causes a serious nuisance".

Continuing on....

Under Note 38 of reference to Yau Ma Ti: The name means Oil and Hemp Ground.'

The RAS also published a few years ago a hard cover book titled "In the Heart of Metropolis - Yau Ma Tei". You may wish to check it out to see if they have more information about the origin of the district.

P.S. I have attached picture postcards of Yau Ma Ti from the 1910s and 1920s for reference.

I paid a visit to Central library to check the book Moddsey mentions above, and see if there was any other sign of the Yau Ma Tei name. If it only came into use after the 1860's, it should definitely be translated literally. If it could be considered a phonetic translation of two old tribes names, the name should have been in use for several hundred years.

First I looked for references to 'yau ma ti' in the old newspapers that are available for search online. The earliest reference I could fins was in the October 20, 1869 issue of the China daily: "ROBBERY AT YAU-MA TI. Lee Ashui, Lee Asee and Tsun Afook were next placed in dock charged with the robbery (with menaces) from the house of Jeremiah Foley, constable at Yau-mah-ti on the 29th of August last."

Next stop was the book 'Mapping Hong Kong - A historical atlas' by Hal Empson, which has a range of English- and Chinese-language maps. That takes us a little earlier, with an 1866 'Map of Sun on district' by Italian missionary Simeone Volonteri showing 'jau ma ti' (sic). None of the earlier Chinese-language maps show it, but then they tend to cover much larger areas and only refer to islands and large towns.

Finally to the "In the Heart of Metropolis - Yau Ma Tei" book, which has an article 'Nineteenth Century Yaumatei' by the same author as the 'Old British Kowloon' article mentioned by Moddsey. Here are a few pargraphs that are relevant to the question:

"In Kwangtung Province the typical small settlement was the lineage based agricultural village. Other types of settlement also existed. One such was the coastal settlement which developed around an anchorage. In the Hong Kong area such settlements are possibly older than the agricultural. Archeological evidence rlating to the Bronze Age points more to occupation by sea-coast people rather than landsmen at that date. It is natural to expect settlements related to a water economy in this river, delta and coastal area, studded with islands, beaches and anchorages. Except for the fertile plain near Deep Bay and along the Sham Chun River whree the Five Great Clans of the New Territories settled, the opportunity to develop easily and profitably a large scale agricultural economy was limited in the immediate hong Kong area."

"[In 1864] Yaumatei possessed a good, safe anchorage for sampans in a shallow, but substantial, creek, of some six acres in area. This long-reclaimed creek ran inland for some three hundred yards in two branches. One went as far as the junction of today's Jordan Road and Parkes Stereet, the other to the eastern side of today's Nathan Road, in the vicinity of Saigon Street. The innermost parts of both branches were further protected by breakwaters. Today's pak Hoi Street runs close to where the northern shore of the creek used to be and doubtless takes its name from this fact. This creek is very like many other favoured anchorages in the New Territories: it was protected by a military post from about 1800. The anchorage was thus in use well before 1860, with its temple nearby, but the growth of this anchorage into something which could be called a genuine market town began only in 1864.

Later in the article, the section discussion Yau Ma Tei's economy begins: "Yaumatei means "Oil Sesame ground". An area to the north of the town was called "Ma Tei" ("Sesame ground"). At some date, the oil-sesame plant was presumably grown and harvested here. The name of yaumatei suggests that the town looked to the land for its basic economy, but in fact the town was originally predominantly seaward-looking."

Where does that leave us? Well, the name certainly pre-dates the British arrival in Kowloon, but does it also pre-date the Cantonese speakers? The author above uses the direct translation "Oil Sesame Ground", implying it is a Cantonese name. But their description of the early settlement and its focus as an anchorage rather than a town also fits quite nicely with the idea of a place where seafolk and land-based people would meet.

Short of time travel, I guess there is no way to be sure of the answer, but it's an interesting twist to think that some older languages may still exist in the local placenames.


Submitted by
tngan (not verified)
Fri, 04/06/2007 - 17:17

Hi there,


The other station name in Kowloon from this era is 'Prince Edward'. This station also gets its name from a road, the nearby 'Prince Edward Road', which first appears on maps in the 1920's. Here the Chinese characters 'Tai Ji' translate simply to 'Prince'.

End Quote>

The phrase 'Tai Ji' actually means a [Crown Prince]. If it is just a Prince, it would be 'Wong Ji' in Cantonese/Guangzhou hua. Well, that particular Prince was once a Crown Prince, right?


Submitted by
zerocube (not verified)
Mon, 02/18/2008 - 14:03

In the very early days, Mongkok and Yaumatei station are named Argyle and Waterloo respectively. They were also originally named 'Ah Kai Loh' and 'Wor Ta Loh' in Chinese. Mongkok name was very soon changed right after the train service started back in 1979, along with the Chinese name of Yaumatei station (where its English name remained as Waterloo for about 6 to 7 years).

Submitted by
Zerocube (not verified)
Tue, 02/19/2008 - 16:07

"Rennie's Mill got its name from a Canadian businessman named Alfred Herbert Rennie, who established a flour mill at Junk Bay. The business failed, and Rennie hanged himself there in 1908. "

Alfred Herbert Rennie did not hang himself. In fact, he jumped off a boat. He had a boat for him to commute between central and his factory. The name has been there before Rennie died.

Zerocube, thanks for writing in. I'd heard the hanging story several times in the past, but you are right, that is just a made up story. The April 14, 1908 edition of the China Mail had an article 'Death of Mr Rennie. Body found in Harbour" which includes the text:

Just as we go to press we learn that the body of Mr. A. H. Rennie, manager and founder or the Junk Bay flour mills, was found floating in Lyeemoon Pass this afternoon.


We now understand that Mr Rennie accidentally fell overboard from his launch, Canada, whilst going to Junk Bay, and his body was picked up by the launch after a search.

This website has more on the story, and says:

The Mill started operation in 1905 and closed in April 1908 because of high production cost and poor quality of product. The failure in business had made Mr. Rennie so disappointed that he jumped into the sea and drowned himself at Lei Yue Mun, 3 km from his flour mill on 14 April 1908.

Thanks again for the correction,


Before King's Road was built in 1935, Prince Edward Road was known as "Ying Wong Ji Do", or "British Prince Road".

Since the Chinese translation of King's Road was "Ying Wong Do", or "British King Road", to avoid confusion Prince Edward Road was renamed "Tai Ji Do". 'Tai' means 'the great' - as in 'Tai Chi' (or 'Tai Gik' in Cantonese) - and thus 'Tai Ji' stands for Crown Prince, which is in fact a more apt description in my opinion of Prince Edward.