WHEN the British established Hong Kong as a colony in 1841, one of their first steps was to survey zones for use by the military, a move which eventually was to change the face of the island.
A large area was selected on the headland at Stanley, and its conversion to military use entailed the removal of the old village there. This land remains in use by the armed forces today.
Other barracks were constructed much later on the hills above Shau Kei Wan, overlooking the Lei Yue Mun strait, and various sites were selected for gun batteries on other parts of Hong Kong Island. Battery Path, leading up from Queen's Road Central to the Cathedral grounds, led up to the long-dismantled Murray Battery.
But the biggest chunk of Hong Kong Island designated for military use was Victoria Cantonment, immediately abutting the central business district, and that was eventually to force businessmen to look to the harbour for the land they needed to expand.
The largest area of naturally flat ground in Central at that time, at the bottom of Garden Road, was reserved as a parade ground. Known as Murray Parade Cround, the site retained this function until the 1960s, when it was released by the military, and the Hilton Hotel, since demolished, was built on the site.
The entire area extending, broadly speaking, between Garden Road and the start of Queen's Road East, extending down to the waterfront, where there was a Naval Dockyard, and up as far as Kennedy Road, was all reserved for military use. Over time, small areas were returned to the Government, such as the British Military Hospital site and buildings on Borrett Road and the Murray Parade Ground, but the bulk remained as part of Victoria Cantonment until the late 1970s. Hong Kong Park now takes up much of this area.
Most of the early buildings at Victoria Barracks were demolished, though a few were spared. The Officers' Mess was dismantled, and is to be rebuilt at some future time at Stanley.
The old Headquarter House, residence of many of Hong Kong's Commanders British Forces, was retained and restored. When this attractive old building was built in 1846, its colonnaded verandas looked out over the harbour, which was almost directly below it. Renamed Flagstaff House, it now contains the popular Museum of Tea Ware.
The inevitable consequence of this land use by the military was the inability of the Central business district to expand towards the east, as the land was already occupied. Various attempts were made to get the military to move, without success.
The western side of Hong Kong Island had been settled in the earliest colonial days, and land there was already fully utilised. Thus the only solution to this chronic shortage of space in the European business district was to move in the only direction possible northwards into Victoria Harbour.
Stand at the bronze lions in front of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Building on Des Voeux Road Central today, and try to imagine what the scene was like 130 years ago.
In 1869 Hong Kong's new and magnificent City Hall stood on this site. It had a theatre, a museum, and a public library (for the use of the European public only, the cause of bitter controversy). City Hall at that time directly faced the sea, which was just across the road. The building was partly demolished in 1933, to make way for the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. By this time, the seawall was already two city blocks away to the north.
By the 1880s, Hong Kong had developed into a thriving entrepot, and had prospered from its free-booting early days into a bustling Victorian city. The prominent Armenian businessman, Sir Catchick Paul Chater, a rare visionary where Hong Kong was concerned, recognised the urgent need for expansion of the central area. With James Johnstone Keswick he formed a company to undertake reclamation work, which later became Hongkong Land, still the area's principal landlord. Chater Road, on this early Central reclamation, is named after him. Catchick Street in Kennedy Town, on another of his reclamation projects, also commemorated him.
When the project was completed in 1904 the newly created land considerably enlarged the central business district. The new waterfront road was named for the Duke of Connaught, Queen Victoria's younger son. A statue of him, long removed, was erected at the harbour end of Pedder Street, near the magnificent old General Post Office, now sadly lost to "progress". Although officially named Connaught Road, the waterfront thoroughfare was known by all as the Praya, another legacy of the local Portuguese influence. "Praya" in Portuguese means beach or waterfront, and these Portuguese terms remained in everyday use in Hong Kong until the late 1960s.
The Praya reclamation scheme originally intended to extend beyond the Naval Dockyard area; however, the military would not agree to it. A separate reclamation scheme for Wan Chai, excluding the military area - the Praya East scheme - eventually brought the shoreline out from Johnston Road. This remained the Wan Chai waterfront until the 1970s.
This reclamation scheme included, as did the one in Central, a large open space for public recreation purposes. So, filling in the harbour to provide flat land for public recreation, the cause of heated debate now, is no new phenomenon. Southorn playground in Wan Chai was the early proto-type.
It was named after the colonial secretary of the time, Sir Claude Southern. His wife, Bella Woolf Southern, wrote a fascinating account of her life married to a career colonial civil servant, atmospherically entitled Under The Mosquito Curtain. Literary endeavour seemed to have run in that family. Bella's brother Leonard was married to novelist Virginia Woolf.
Reclamation has a long history in Hong Kong, and from this example we can see that in the early days it was relatively small-scale, piecemeal and necessary. It was also initiated by men, like Chater and Keswick, who combined civic interest with the potential for profit.
They took a long-range view of Hong Kong's prospects - sometimes strikingly absent today - and were prompted by a clear vision of what the place could become.
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