When: The photo was taken in 1902 by R C Hurley . He included it in his book "Views of Hongkong", published the same year.
Where: He was looking west along Praya East. In 1902 that was the Wanchai seafront, today it's called Johnston Road.
What: We rarely get to see views of this part of Hong Kong's seafront, so we can use this chance to learn more about the area at the turn of the century. Whenever I need to know about the history of this area I turn to Carl Smith's "Wanchai: In Search of an Identity" , and I'll be quoting from it often below.
I'm also going to use a couple of contemporary maps of this area to help work out what we're looking at:
The top, coloured map  is from 1903, and it shows the lots of land together with their lot numbers. As they had access to the sea they were all Marine Lots.
The lower, black & white map  is from 1897 and is much more detailed, showing outlines of individual buildings and their street numbers. I've added the red lines to help me match up the maps and the photo. I've linked the edge of a building in the photo to where I think that edge is shown on the two maps. (You can zoom in on the map if you'd like to see more detail.)
Now back to the photo, starting with the building furthest away from us along the Praya.
Methodist Sailors' and Soldiers' Home 
We can just see this building peeping out from behind the larger building on the left.
The land appears to be empty on the 1897 map, but occupied on the 1903 map. That makes sense, as the building opened in 1901. Here's a closer view:
The Blue Buildings, 1-4 Praya East 
Next come four large buildings known as the Blue Buildings, at 1-4 Praya East. (I'm using the street numbers from the 1897 map.)
They continue the nautical theme: the right-hand pair of buildings was rented by the Royal Navy, and used as their canteen:
5 & 6 Praya East
The photo isn't clear enough to be 100% sure, but it looks as though the building was being demolished when this photo was taken:
7 & 8 Praya East
There are a few questions about the previous two buildings. According to Smith:
"The Sisters of Charity of St Paul of Chartres owned the lots next to the Blue Buildings (ie Marine Lots numbers 23 and 24). On the seafront of their property they built European-style residences similar to the Blue Buildings and leased them in 1863 to Joao Joaquim dos Remedios, a wealthy Portuguese merchant. He, in turn, subleased them to tenants."
The 1897 map shows four buildings along the seafront of these two lots, numbered 5, 6, 7, and 8, Praya East. The building marked "French Convent"  on the map occupies the western two buildings, numbers 5 & 6. I'm not sure if they're the same "European-style residences" from the 1860s that Smith describes, or later buildings erected on those sites.
The 1903 coloured map adds to the confusion. It shows Marine Lot 23 (ML23) much wider than ML 24, and with "French Convent" extending across the front of the lot as though it would occupy buildings 5, 6, & 7.
The photo and the 1897 map look more consistent, with the land split equally between the two lots & buildings. So in this case I think there was a mistake on the 1903 map, where Marine Lots 23 and 24 weren't drawn at the correct size. The map was commercially produced, and below we'll see it has at least one other mistake.
New Gwulo talk: 17th May 2017
This photo is part of my latest talk, which I'll present for the first time on Wednesday evening, 17th May 2017. The talk is open to the public so please come along if you're free.
For more information about the event, and details of how to reserve seats, please visit the RAS website.
9 & 10 Praya East
These are unusual for being the only single-storey buildings along the Praya.
The 1897 map shows two long buildings running back from the seafront, with a lane between them. I believe the archway in the centre of the facade in the photo was the entrance to that lane. The lane was (and still is) named Li Chit Street, after a member of the family that owned this land.
11 Praya East
This building stood on Marine Lot 29. On the 1903 map the lot is shaded, and is one of the few to have a name attached, "Wanchai Warehouse Co":
12 Praya East
Just in front of 11 & 12 Praya East / Marine Lots 29 & 30, the maps show a short pier. If you'd been here in the early 1870s, you'd have seen a much more impressive pier. Here it is, with a couple of large sailing ships moored alongside:
The pier was 1,000-foot long, built by the Hong Kong Pier and Godown Co . Their godowns (warehouses) occupied the Marine Lots 29 & 30 we've just looked at. The company went bust c.1873, and the pier disappeared soon after - I don't have a firm date for its disappearance yet, but I guess the 1874 typhoon played a part.
13 Praya East
When seen from the sea, this was the only section of the seafront that had a gap in the line of buildings.
Here we're seeing it at an angle instead of face on, but by comparing it with the map we can see it shows:
- a two-storey building, furthest from the camera, numbered "13" on the map
- to the left of it is an open piece of ground, with a crane standing in front of it at the water's edge (we'll talk about the crane more below)
- nearest the camera is another two-storey building, which isn't numbered on the map.
14 Praya East
This is a larger, three-storey building, on the corner of the Praya and Ship Street.
Back to the crane: buildings 13 &14, and the unnumbered building between them, were all built along the seafront of adjacent Marine Lots numbers 31 & 36. Both lots belonged to a single owner from 1856 on, and housed a succession of shipyard, engineering, and blacksmithing businesses. At the time of this photo, George Fenwick owned the land and ran his business here. Smith describes the site:
"[...] there had been a creek running through the lot from which ships were launched. Then the government closed the creek and the drawbridge at the Praya. This forced the company to stop building larger vessels, though small launches were still built and carted across the Praya to the sea. When the Tramway was built on the Praya in 1904 this last measure had to stop also and the company began to transfer their business to a new site in Causeway Bay. In 1911 the company went into liquidation."
So in 1902 they were still building launches here. The crane was likely used to lift the launches in and out of the sea, and to unload materials used in the shipyard and engineering works.
15-22 Praya East
The scene changes again, and the last buildings we'll look at are two short terraces, each made up of four, two-storey houses:
They were built along the seafront of Marine Lot 64 (the coloured map mistakenly labels it number 84). Originally this lot was like the other lots we've seen, belonging to a single company and housing a handful of large buildings. But by 1860 the lot had been re-developed for residential use. Terraces of small houses were built, shown clearly in the photo and the 1897 map.
These houses were a template for how the rest of this area would soon be changing.
Look at the 1903 map again and note the roads, marked in brown. See how few roads there were between Queen's Road East (just off the top of the map) and the Praya? Between Arsenal Street on the right and Ship Street on the left there is only a single, unnamed road (today's Anton Street).
But left of Ship Street are two more roads in quick succession, Tai Wong Street down the middle of the lot, and Tai Wong Lane along its other side. When a lot changed from industrial to residential use, the residents needed easy access to their new houses, so new roads were built.
Soon after this photo was taken, several more of the lots were re-developed and turned into housing, so more of those access roads were needed. The four additional roads across this land that we see on modern maps are Landale Street, Li Chit Street, Gresson Street, and Lun Fat Street. They were all in place by 1920.
I wonder how much of the change to residential use can be traced to the arrival of the trams in 1904? On the one hand the tramlines meant the lots along the Praya no longer had easy access to the sea. That made them unattractive for use as Godowns or by businesses like Fenwick's. Then at the same time the trams improved communications and reduced commute times, making Wanchai more attractive as a residential area. It makes me think of Kennedy Town today, and how the arrival of the MTR has changed it so quickly.
Sailors Home / Naval Canteen / Shipyard / Ship Street. It's not hard to see that the area was popular with sailors!
As well as the working sailors, the photo shows the area was also popular with people who sailed for leisure. We can see several of their boats moored in the foreground, looking very different from the junks and sampans around them.
Just beyond them is a larger pleasure boat, pulled up out of the water on a slipway:
I believe the slipway belonged to Ah King, a well-known boat builder in Hong Kong. Ah King and western-style sailing boats were closely interlinked. First, Ah King's shipyard was known as one that understood the design and construction of western-style sailing boats, so they may have built some of the boats shown here.
The people who sailed these boats got together and formed the Hong Kong Corinthian Yacht Club (HKCYC) . As Stephen Davies has previously noted, that club was also connected to Ah King:
In Gillian Chambers' history of the RHKYC, Eastern waters Eastern Winds, she mentions that the [HKCYC] at one stage early in the game had their clubhouse in a loft over Ah King's boatyard. The reason for this seems to have been that following the shift towards smaller boats that emerged from changes to rules by the Yacht Racing Association in the mid-1890s, Ah King proved a whizz at building the new craft and hospitable to the chaps who sailed them, who weren't part of the affluenza who could afford the whoppers favoured at the HK Yacht Club. Something like that.
Finally, when the HKCYC opened their own club house in 1906, it was "situated on a very convenient spot on Praya East, between A King's slipway and No. 2 Police Station.", ie just off to the left of the foreground of this photo, and a close neighbour of Ah King.
I hope you've enjoyed this look at turn-of-the-century Wanchai. If you can add any other old photos of this area, they'll be very welcome. Also a big thankyou to Janet Hayes, who kindly donated this photo to Gwulo.
Gwulo photo ID: NDA02
This week on Gwulo ...
Readers ask for help:
New photos, posts & comments:
- Robert Crisp HURLEY [c.1848-1927]
- "Wanchai: In Search of an Identity" by Carl T. Smith appeared as a chapter in the book "Hong Kong: A Reader in Social History", published by Oxford University Press.
- 1903 Map of HK Island north shore, original held at UK National Archive, their reference: MFQ 1/1363/9
- 1897 Map of HK Island north shore, original held at UK National Archive, their reference: MPHH 1/412
- Methodist Soldiers' and Sailors' Home (1st location) [1901-????]
- Blue Buildings - Praya East [????-1926]
- French Convent, Wanchai [????-????]
- 1,000-foot Pier at Wanchai [1872-????]
- Hong Kong Corinthian Yacht Club [1906-1920]