While MTR enthusiasts were gawking at new stations and trains during the recent openings of the South Island Line and Kwun Tong Line extension, Alan Chang Ka-lun was checking out the station names. He was not impressed.

The amateur historian has taken to social media in the hope of spurring debate on the names, and whether they could better reflect Hong Kong’s history and geography.

“I’m not trying to determine the names of all the stations,” he told HKFP, although he has a few suggestions. “I’m trying to raise a discussion about how we perceive ourselves, our city, and the history of our city.”

Alan Chang
Alan Chang, pictured in Lei Tung Station on the South Island Line. Photo: Ben MacLeod.

Chang, creator of the Protecting Hong Kong names Facebook page, argues that many of the city’s lesser-known geographic names are being lost in the rush for development.

“These names represent the substance of the city,” he says. “Somehow we’re losing all that detail, and soon only a few names will be left on our map.”

Chang’s fascination with the subject began at a young age when his primary school teacher asked where he lived and she couldn’t pinpoint where it was. MTR station names have since drawn his attention because the transit system plays a significant role in our perception of urban geography.

Chang says there are multiple reasons for the loss of some traditional place names. Names of smaller places are often subsumed within larger districts and then forgotten. Hong Kong’s colonial history also played a role.

“Every geographical feature had a name. They were used amongst farmers, fishermen, indigenous people who lived in the area… but [the names] weren’t properly documented. It’s colonialism. They just came in and named whatever they wanted, ignoring whatever people had been calling things beforehand.”

south island line
The new South Island Line portion of Admiralty Station. Photo: MTR.

That’s not to say Chang believes colonial names should retroactively be wiped from the maps. “I like to advocate the indigenous Chinese names with the colonial English name. It presents a more complete course of history.”

Hong Kong’s hot property market also plays a role in the distortion of our maps. Last October, Chang told The Standard that the new Ho Man Tin Station is located more than a kilometre from the geographic centre of Ho Man Tin. He blames the discrepancy on the pursuit of prestige, comparing it to the modern Chinese practice of naming property developments after exotic foreign locales.

“There’s a Paris somewhere in China. They’re trying to sell up,” Chang says. “That’s what’s happening in Hong Kong as well – they try to make it sound more expensive any way they can. That’s the case in Ho Man Tin … it got expanded four, five times its original size to place more land under this ‘brand’ for luxurious flats, eating up other localities along the way.”

As for his alternative names for MTR’s newest stations, Chang suggests Lo Lung Hang (老龍坑) for Ho Man Tin Station after an historical name for the area; Valley (山谷), after Valley Road and the housing estate that once stood on the site, or Hung Hom North.

Alan Chang
Photo: Alan Chang.

For Lei Tung Station he proposes Mount Johnston (玉桂山). Lei Tung is named after a public housing complex above the station. “You can see that it’s right next to the peak of Mount Johnston. It’s accurate to say that the station is built inside the body of this hill.”

For South Horizons, the South Island Line’s terminal station named after a Hutchison Whampoa residential development, he suggests Ap Lei Chau (鴨脷洲), which means Duck’s Tongue Island.

“South Horizons is built on reclaimed land in this little bay, to the west of the island,” says Chang. “There’s this peninsula that stretches out, which is where Ap Lei Chau gets its name. It’s the tongue of the duck.”

The distinction between the permanence of geography and the temporary nature of man-made structures weighs heavily in Chang’s argument.

“Buildings could be pulled down. And Ocean Park, it could close,” he explains. “So we should really use use names that can last longer. Something more timeless.”

mtr south island line
The South Island Line. Photo: MTR.

For Chang, commenting on the opening of new MTR stations is simply an icebreaker to a larger discussion on Hong Kong’s history and identity. “They think it’s just a name, but it’s much more complicated than that. Geographical names form our sense of community, and hence sense of identity.”

The United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names agrees. It considers place names touchstones of cultural heritage: “Geographical names are addresses, the keys to identifying specific places, but also of irreplaceable cultural value of fundamental importance to local identity, and a person’s sense of belonging, and therefore must be protected and preserved.”

While Hong Kong has statutory bodies charged with protecting the city’s built heritage, it lacks a champion of this intangible cultural heritage, a fact that Chang laments: “Sadly there isn’t a government authority in place to regulate geographical names.”

Controversial MTR station names are not a new phenomenon, and several have been changed in the past. Sometimes these amendments were made to align the English name with the Chinese, as in the case of Central (formerly Chater, after Chater Road), or Waterloo and Argyle stations, which were respectively rechristened Yau Ma Tei and Mong Kok in May 1985.

Other stations were named at the behest of Hong Kong’s property conglomerates. In 1996, developers asked MTR to reconsider the name of the planned Tai Kok Tsui Station in light of the district’s gritty image, proposing “Cherry Station” after the nearby street. When windsurfer Lee Lai-shan won Hong Kong’s first Olympic gold medal at the 1996 Olympics, the station was named “Olympic”, a name that has since been applied by estate agents to the surrounding district.

mtr station names
A 1985 announcement that several MTR stations would be renamed as featured in the South China Morning Post.

The process by which the MTR Corporation names stations is opaque. Of the Ho Man Tin controversy, the private company replied that station names are derived from the area’s geography as well as local characteristics.

As the MTR prepares to unveil more stations in the coming years, Chang wants to see a more open process.

“For a name that affects our communities so much, I think the people of Hong Kong should have more say in the process,” he says. “I’ve conducted a web survey, and people have responded that they want more transparency, they want more participation, and they want to decide who makes these decisions. They just want to know about this whole process.

“We can be so detached from our environment when we live day in and day out, going between work and home. We haven’t actually taken a good look at our landscape, our city and its history. So I’m trying to re-establish that link.”

ben mcleod

Ben MacLeod

Ben MacLeod is an urban designer in Hong Kong.