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


Walla Wallas were certainly around until the Tsing Bridge opened in 1974 as I used them daily to go to and from work. One colleague wherever he sat in the boat always seemed to get a slap in the face from a wave wherever he sat or how wary he was of the sea conditions.

Their main use was as ‘work’ boats conveying members of ships crews out to their vessels moored in the harbour and taking ship’s maintenance gangs and painters out to moored vessels, plus hungover crew stragglers who had missed their shipping companies’ regular boat from Blake Pier.

Occasionally at a weekend if there were particular ships moored out in the harbour I wanted to photograph I would hire a Walla Walla for a couple of hours for a chug around the harbour. Their crews seemed to enjoy this diversion. The cash-in-hand costs were minimal.

No dedicated marine photographers’ businesses have ever flourished in Hong Kong as far as I am aware, whereas in the UK, Beken of Cowes and AIRPHOTOS  have done very good business marketing images of shipping to owners, companies and crews.

As more container ships berthed far out at Kwai Chung container port and the outer harbour moorings off Lantau, the ubiquitous inner harbour confined Walla Wallas diminished. They worked alongside purpose-built motorboats  operated by shipping and dock companies also carry conveying shipping company office-based personnel, ships crews etc. These motorboats could service outer harbour shipping.

The harbour used to be criss-crossed by very large numbers of motorboats and Walla Wallas going about their businesses.

These days it’s a very dull sight as far as movement on the water is concerned.

I am always a bit of a sceptic about anecdotal memory and like to find something rather more evidentially substantial. 

There's no question that in c.1919 Mr Nagel bought a clapped out old motor boat called Tsun Wan (sic) and called it Walla Walla No. 1. The two issues are:

a. how long was Mr Nagel proprietor of the company and how many boats did he manage?

b. is the story we are told at some two removes about the origin of the name true or a later embellishment?

The answer to the first question is uncertain. A notice about a rise in harbour boat fares in 1921 indicates that "twelve years ago" (so 1909) some sort of informal, collective scale of harbour boat charges was agreed that, as warned by the 1921 notice, was to go up. At that time there were eleven motor boat companies: A. King; The Republic Motorboat Co (founded 1914); Moonraker Motorboat Co (("the noted green boats") in business by 1919); Walla Walla Motorboat Co.; Hung Tak Motorboat Co.; George Bing; Tak Ching; Wo Fat Motorboat Co.; Channy; Wing Cheung & Co.; Hon Wei Motorboat Co. By 1922 whatever had been the collective arrangement had brought all the companies remaining (don't know how many) under a single name, though retaining their 'brands', this was The Hongkong United Motorboat Co. That company hung in until sometime in the late 1920s or very early 1930s when another notice informed folk that the four remaining companies (A King; The Republic Motorboat Co. Ltd., Moonraker Motorboat Co. Ltd.; The Walla Walla Motorboat Co.), hitherto managed by The Hongkong United Motorboat Co "which has been dissolved by the effluxion of time", as of 1st December 1931 "will be operated and controlled by The Union Motorboat Company." There is clear evidence that boats with the name Walla Walla No. (something) were still operating in 1936 and that a company named Walla Motorboat Company (could be an SCMP typo) was around in 1939. Given Mr Nagel's personal story (see also below), it seems that he was no great shakes as a businessman and that he bowed out pretty early on, possibly after losing his Walla Walla 1 court case with A King Shipyard in 1922, and thus that he may not have been associated with more than one or two of the boats.

There is a story, however, that whilst it does not give the Walla Walla in the USA provenance, does give Mr Nagel credit...though it suffers from the same 'only a family story' difficulty. This is the funeral of Mr S. Musso, a long time Italian resident of HK, whose obituary appeared in the SCMP on 2 April 1938. One of Mr Musso's daughters married Lee Nagel, whose story is briefly summarised as having first worked for J. Shaw, tailor, then having "started the first Walla Walla motorboat services in the harbour", then being in charge of Gilman's motor service station and, in 1938, was "in India, where (he) represents Cowan's White Antservice (sic)." So, certainly Mr Nagel was the founder of the company called the Walla Walla Motorboat Co. and called his first boat Walla Walla No. 1.

But was he the coiner of the name? I have been in dialogue with Peter Crush about this story and he is also sceptical. This is what I have stumbled over so far:

1. It is clear that by the early 1920s (the etymologists give the earliest written record as 1929) the radio business had coined a new generic, "walla" for endless quiet repetition, so that multiple actors could generate the sound of a noisy crowd. Before that in 1910 came a spoof perpetrated by Virginia Woolf (then Stephen) and some friends. They made themselves up in exotic costumes and got the RN to give them a guided tour of the Dreadnought as visiting Abyssinian princes. It was big news at the time, headlining as "the Naval Hoax". What's interesting is that the hoaxers jabbered to each other in nonsense talk - which of course no one understood since it was purportedly Abyssinian - and this was described in a number of newspapers as "walla walla talk" (see Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 14 February 1910, p.5; Warwickshire Evening Despatch, same date, p.4; Yorkshire Evening Post, same date, p.5). By some time in the 1920s (the earliest record I can find (in the North China Herald) is 1931 but the term was clearly well-established by then) there was a generic use in expat circles of 'walla walla' to mean bargaining or gossip. The first record is a case of assault, which had followed some "walla walla" with some sing song girls. Another was some expat tai-tais having "a walla walla session on the Bund". Further, the US Marine Corps in Shanghai in c.1930 began a magazine for news about their lives, which was titled Walla Walla. So, the onomatopoeic use of the words was reasonably well-established and if the naval hoax story is to be credited, was around before it got applied to the harbour bumboats. 

And then, of course, there is the Anglo-Indian term for a factotum of any sort - a wallah or walla (both spellings were used). Pretty much anywhere that Anglo-Indian usage was common, like Singapore, HK or Shanghai, people would talk of punkah-wallas, rickshaw-wallas, and so on. It may have been that the harbour motorboat chaps were called bumboat-, or sampan-, or motorboat-wallas, so half the word was already in use. It may be also that people were in the habit of bargaining over the fare to be charged. Whichever, one can imagine 'walla'  or 'walla walla' being picked up by the Cantonese, ever ready to coin a slang term (q.v. ding ding), so that a single or double 嘩啦 used by the gweilos (嘩啦嘩啦) came into use because, like ding-ding, it sounded like the beast. (Though where the formal term 電船仔 ('small electric boat') might have come from, if I had to hazard a guess, looking at the early advertisements, it would probably be a classic Cantonese contraction - nothing to do with the means of propulsion and everything to do with the fact that the boats could be booked by telephone to be at a pier to pick someone up at a given time (so something in full like 電話船仔).)

2. By the early 1930s it is manifest that in HK the term 'walla walla' was being used as a generic for a harbour motor boat by pretty much anyone. By the mid-1930s the RN was even using it as a generic for a certain sort of locally HK built motor boat, like Hoover or Fridge. Perhaps a linguist can advise on what would be a normal rate at which a brand name could become a generic. It does seem to me a bit unlikely that a name entirely unrelated to HK and introduced from a foreign source purely as a result of a personal choice in c.1920 would so swiftly have entered everyday argot.

3. The harbour motorboat business seems to have been born in c.1900-1905 and to have been sufficiently of interest to government that in 1907 the first regulations governing their operations were gazetted, so harbour motor boats clearly well pre-date Mr Nagel's doings, which we also saw with the 1921 notice about fare scales having been agreed in c.1909. Clearly Mr Nagel did not in any sense 'found' harbour motor launches. For the period before WW1, however, motorboats were a very small part of the harbour small craft scene - in 1911 there were only 9 motor launches vis-a-vis 282 steam launches. The first multiple vessel operator seems to have been the first founded, in 1914, was The Republic Motorboat Co. There seems to have been a post-war boom beginning with the Moonraker Motorboat Co ("the noted green motorboats") in c.1919, which by 1921 operated a fleet of 18 launches.


So, my feeling is that the Nagel family story is at the very best a maybe. It would seem slightly more probable that the term was already around as part of everyday argot, since one does need to note a major flaw in the family story. Mr Nagel did NOT come from Walla Walla, Washington. The Find a Grave  reference David has found is clearly the right chap (born in Forman, North Dakota in 1889, died and buried in San Diego in 1959 and married to Edna Mabel Musso (b. 1902, died 1989 and buried in the same cemetery as her husband). So, whatever put the words into Mr Nagel's mind, it wasn't the name of his birthplace. 



Stephen, thanks for digging in to this, and for the nudge to investigate some more.

b. is the story we are told at some two removes about the origin of the name true or a later embellishment?

Are we at two removes? Betty says she attended the event of the christening and naming, so isn't hers a first-hand report?  She'd have been 18 years old at the time, so old enough to be paying attention. Though she was telling the story appx. 50 years later, so some of the details may not be 100% accurate.

one does need to note a major flaw in the family story. Mr Nagel did NOT come from Walla Walla, Washington.

True, it would be a lot easier if he'd been born in Walla Walla! I went looking for a later connection:

  • 1900 Census: He's still in North Dakota, living with his parents Emma and Albert and his siblings.
  • 1910 Census: He's living with the family, but they've moved to North Milton, Umatilla, on the Oregon / Washington border. Google maps says it is 10.3 miles away from Walla Walla.
  • 1923 Immigration: He arrived at San Francisco from Hong Kong, giving his US address as a PO Box in Oregon.
  • 1946 Immigration: He arrived at Baltimore from Durban in South Africa, giving his US address as Walla Walla College, College Place, Washington. (Wikipedia: "College Place is a city in Walla Walla County, Washington, United States. It neighbors the larger city of Walla Walla...")

So the link between Nagel and Walla Walla city came later in his life, but before he first arrived in Hong Kong.

Other odds and ends:

  • Some more from that Wikipedia entry: "College Place is the home of Walla Walla University (formerly Walla Walla College, thus the city's name), a Seventh-day Adventist operated liberal arts university."
  • The Findagrave page for Lee's brother Sherman notes that Sherman was "Not enumerated as in Macao, Macau (SDA Missionary)", linking the Nagel family to the Seventh Day Adventist community in College Place, and to southern China.
  • The 1946 immigration record noted Lee was last in the US in 1925, and that he was married with two children who were both born in Singapore. A second 1946 Immigration record notes the family's last permanent residence was Durban, so they'd lived in at least two other countries after Hong Kong.

Regards, David

Good sleuthing David. (The first remove is Lee Nagel reminiscing some years after the event, the second remove is Betty listening and remembering, what we lack is a primary source that shows that the term 'walla walla' was or was not current in HK before it ever got near Walla Walla 1.)

I agree there is a clear connection between Lee Nagel and Walla Walla, WA, especially via his brother. My sense is that, as with so many, many things historical, a single, simple answer is not what happened.

It would not in the least surprise me to discover that the two possible roots ('walla walla' as a slang term for gobbledigook, bargaining or chatter; 'wallah' as in sampan-walla, bumboat walla) and maybe others beside (has anyone tried to stumble around early 20th century Cantonese waterfront argot?) had perhaps generated a slang Cantonese term for a motorboat and that, with Mr Nagel's connections to the Washington town, produced the 'ahah' moment that led Mr Nagel to christening as he did the boat of which he was a very short-lived owner. Given his somewhat chequered career in HK, perhaps later on the temptation to paint the lily and claim exclusive provenance of what, by the time Betty heard it, was unquestionably a generic proved too great...or a typical over-egging of the self enabled some useful editing of the past.

He wouldn't be the first Hongkonger to 'boost' him/herself by a usefully, if perhaps unconsciously 'edited' story. The Russians don't have the proverb "he lies like an eye-witness" for no good reason.

I'd add, by the by, that there's a really intriguing technical puzzle about what did or did not cause the 'walla walla' noise, since the design of the exhaust system would have been critical. As far as I'm aware, most early small working craft diesels had 'dry' exhausts, which make a 'pop pop pop' going 'thump thump thump' sound depending on size and revolutions of engine. The 'walla walla' noise would seem to require either a wet exhaust (not common until c.1962) or, unusually, a dry exhaust that exited either on one of the sides or through the transom close enough to the waterline  for harbour slop to submerge it now and then. Something like that. The point of that excursus being that if Lee Nagel was the exclusive progenitor of the name, evidence in his favour might be that no harbour motor boat in the 1920s made any sort of 'walla walla' noise!


Stephen D  

In the book, "Fortune's Bazaar" by Vaudine England, mention is made of Abdoolally Ebrahim, a trader and businessman.

"His company dealt in spices, silk art, imported cotton goods, and raw cotton from India; it diversified into shipping, real estate and manufacturing. It ran the first ferries across the harbour before the Star Ferry was established, small boats still called 'walla walla', a name originating in India, as walla means 'person from'......"

The relevant page from the book can be read here


Good one Moddsey. In fact if you have a look at HK Parsi business names in the newspapers, a very large number of surnames have '-walla' as a component. In a two minute search in the 1906 SCMP I came across Mowdawalla, Taraporewalla, Daruwalla, Colabawalla, Palla Walla, Batliwalla - most of them cricketers!

Vaudine's etymology is a bit loose. The root is the  Hindi 'वाला', and its meaning depends on whether it is suffix or noun. As a suffix, as in Mr Colabawalla, it can mean "a person from Colaba". However, as a noun it means 'person in charge', which is the way it is used in boxwalla, punkahwalla, rickshawwalla, etc. Thus Mr Colabawalla might also, I suppose, mean 'Mr Colaba-who-is-in-charge'. Though as Vaudine implies, the first seems more likely in most of the examples above.