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.
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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 )