My books all begin with photos, photos from my collection that show Hong Kong in the late 19th and early 20th century. I choose each photo for the stories it has to tell—some obvious, others that need a closer look to uncover.
The photo in the excerpt below is a good example. The obvious story is the dragon boat race, and you’ll certainly read about that. But I spot clues in the photo’s background that date it to the early 1920s, and place it in the sea off today’s North Point. That leads to stories about the area’s past as an out-of-town resort, and how it started the move from fishermen-only teams to the wide variety of dragon-boat racers we see today.
Other photos in the book continue the seagoing theme, showing the people who worked and played in and around Hong Kong’s famous harbor. Liner passengers, fishermen, dock-workers, Navy men, side parties, soldiers, sailors and swimmers all make an appearance, each with their own stories to tell.
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We’ve seen plenty of people who were on the water to work. How about people who were there for fun, like these dragon boat racers? Although, having just read several 1890s newspaper reports of races in Canton (Guangzhou), I have my doubts about just how much fun it was. Most years, several paddlers drowned, while others died in the annual brawls between the boats’ crews!
Hong Kong’s newspapers started covering our own local dragon boat races in the 1900s. As this drummer’s expression shows, Hong Kong crews also took the racing seriously. Not too seriously, though, as I haven’t read of any deaths from inter-boat battles.
The main local races were held on the south side of the island, at Aberdeen. In 1904, eight boats took part, representing ‘various clans or villages, the list being as follows:—Kowtsai, one boat; Shaukiwan, one boat; Lungshunwan, one boat; Aberdeen, three boats; Potaio, one boat; and Lukchow, one boat.’
We know that Aberdeen and Shau Kei Wan were busy fishing villages, so it’s no surprise to see them listed. The other names are also places near the sea: Lung Shun Wan is the Chinese name for High Island, Kowtsai is likely the nearby Kau Sai Chau, Po Toi O is a village at the end of the Clearwater Bay Peninsula, and Luk Chau is a village on Lamma.
Aberdeen likely expected to remain the centre of Hong Kong’s dragon boat races, so a newspaper announcement in 1919 must have come as a shock. Only two boats would race at Aberdeen that year, while the main races with seven boats would take place at a new venue: the sea off North Point. As I write this in 2019, I can look out from our flat’s window to see North Point across the harbour. Today it’s a jumble of high-rise buildings, but here’s how it looked 100 years ago.
In 1919, most people just passed through North Point on the way to Quarry Bay or Shau Kei Wan. They’d travel via the road or the tramline that ran behind that wall. The few who stopped were here to visit either the beach on the left, or the Ming Yuen Gardens on the right. The Gardens had some of the few buildings in 1919 North Point. The buildings are shown in the postcard above, coloured red and yellow.
The Ming Yuen Gardens began life as the Metropole Hotel, which opened in 1898. The hotel changed hands on a regular basis, as each new owner struggled to entice customers to visit from the city. They tried the usual dances and concerts, then a more adventurous owner hired a vaudeville company to entertain customers with songs, dances, a ventriloquist, comedy skits, and a boxer demonstrating ‘ball-punching’.
But in 1919, the site was sold yet again. The new owners changed its name to ‘Ming Yuen Gardens’, and came up with a cunning plan: sponsor prizes for dragon boat races that would be held in front of their premises. Hopefully, the races would attract large crowds who would spend freely at the Gardens.
Did it work? Part of the answer can be found in the main photo. The sign at top left shows the ‘EN’ from ‘MING YUEN’, followed by 名, the Chinese character for ‘MING’. So this photo captures the day of the races, with one of the dragon boats in front of the Gardens.
There’s clearly a good crowd along the shoreline—30,000 spectators, according to the 1920 newspapers—so the first part of the plan worked. We don’t know how much money the Gardens earned, but in any case, the races only happened on one day of the year. The fact that the Gardens continued to change owners in the following years suggests that even dragon boat races couldn’t make them profitable.
We’ll use the races to date the photo. Dragon boat races are held as part of the Tuen Ng Festival, which occurs on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. That date moves around on the western calendar, but falls sometime in late May or June. The local newspapers reported races were held here in 1919-20, 1922-24, and 1928-29. The vertical channels on the right of the photo show the hill was being excavated, probably so the rock could be used in a reclamation project. That suggests one of the middle years, as I know there was reclamation underway near here at that time. That gives a date of May or June, c. 1923.
To work out the photo’s location, we’ll combine what we’ve learned with some investigation at street level. Hong Kong’s street and building names often have echoes of the past. Walk around the area west of North Point MTR station and you’ll see a Metropole Building, surrounded by four buildings and one street with ‘Ming Yuen’ in their names. Find them on a map, and there’s the site of the old Ming Yuen Gardens.
In the following years, races were still held at Aberdeen—the photo below shows a 1950s race there. But the Ming Yuen Gardens had opened the door to change, and teams began to include ‘landlubbers’, foreigners, and then women. Today, dragon boat races are held at many locations, and include teams from a wide range of backgrounds.