Hong Kong’s historic Fenwick Pier, once the first port of call for tens of thousands of visiting US navy and other sailors, will soon be no more. The six decade-old pier will be demolished by early 2022 as another piece of the city’s colonial past vanishes.
Completed in 1954 and moved to its current location in 1970, Fenwick Pier welcomed over 50,000 US Navy sailors a year during its heyday. The adjoining Fleet Arcade, a three-storey mall known for housing the only McDonald’s in the city serving beer and pizza, opened in 1994.
The Kong Wan Fire Station, on nearby Harbour Road, will take over the site, which has not been on the waterfront since 2011 because of extensive land reclamation in Victoria Harbour. US navy visits to Hong Kong have been suspended since 2019 as tensions between Beijing and Washington rise.
On a December afternoon, locals both young and old – some visiting for the first time – took photos at the Wan Chai dock, browsing shops with heavily discounted souvenirs and saying their final goodbyes.
Signs outside and inside Fleet Arcade remind visitors that the site is members-only. Visitors must fill in a form at the entrance to register as a member of the Servicemen’s Guides Association, a club that was formed in 1953 to run the pier.
Fleet Arcade has around half a dozen shops, including a barber and a home accessories store on the ground floor.
The shop’s wares spilled out of the front door, where racks of discounted traditional Chinese clothing in red and gold stopped passers-by in their tracks. Changshans – formal jackets for men – were going for as little as HK$30.
A quadrant-shaped information desk – displaying an incongruous LeaveHomeSafe QR code – commands the atrium on the ground floor. A woman surnamed Chan told HKFP she decided to visit Fenwick Pier after reading online that it would be demolished soon.
“I’ve been here once before. I came here with friends when I was in secondary school 15, 16 years ago because we wanted to go to a chocolate cafe,” Chan said, referring to Vero Lounge, a dessert shop on the first floor that closed in 2012.
An Italian restaurant, Giá Trattoria Italiana, now occupies the first floor and also has a grocery store downstairs.
“This mall looks like it’s been frozen in time,” the 30-year-old added.
The Servicemen’s Guides Association fought in vain to save the pier. In September, members of the association proposed an arrangement in a Wan Chai District Council meeting whereby they could share the Fenwick Pier site with the fire station. The station could occupy the ground floor, the association suggested, and the shops and restaurants could remain on the second and third.
But the proposal was rejected, and tenants were told they would need to move out by early next year.
Patrick Tam, the director of a souvenir shop next to the information desk, has come to work at Fleet Arcade every day since his shop moved in 27 years ago. “Most of our customers were sailors from the US. We also had sailors coming from other countries, like Australia and Thailand,” he said.
Tam’s company started off importing rugs from mainland China, but gradually expanded into souvenirs such as jade accessories, paintings and shot glasses. McDonald’s Happy Meal toys, still in their plastic packaging, were among the knick-knacks in the closing sale.
“The US Navy sailors would stop over two, three, four times a year,” Tam added. “Sometimes they brought t-shirts or other souvenirs from America. I would treat them to lunch and bring them to try dim sum.”
The plastic booth seats in the atrium were salvaged from the McDonald’s restaurant, according to the Fenwick Pier’s Facebook page. The fast food outlet closed in 2004.
On the afternoon of HKFP’s visit, the only shop open on the second floor was Fu Shing & Sons, a tailoring company owned by garment industry veteran Tony Wong.
“I’ve been running this shop since 1994, when the arcade opened,” Wong said.
Wong, 72, inherited the family business from his father. In an interview with HKFP, he recalled the days when he and his small team would turn around dozens of suits every few days for US navy sailors, who would only be in Hong Kong for a brief stopover.
“We had people lining up out the door,” Wong said, adding that he had so many clients that he often worked till 2 a.m. to finish their orders.
In the shop’s dressing room, Wong proudly displays newspaper clippings from international media outlets, including a 1999 article in the International New York Times, featuring him and his business. “I’m blessed,” Wong said. “I love what I do.”
Over the years, Wong also began selling food and beverages – like bagels, cheese and whiskies – to cater to the foreigners who came to him for suits.
The glory days of Fenwick Pier may be long gone, but Wong still has a steady stream of customers – thanks, in part, to Instagram. “A young guy,” in the septuagenarian’s words, suggested that Wong create an account on the social media platform, and he’s seen more – and younger – clients since.
Kelly Luk had never heard of Fenwick Pier until she learnt that it was going to be torn down. The 19-year-old student, who works part time as an assistant to a fashion stylist, marveled at the shop’s wide selection of fabrics.
“The price is very reasonable,” she said as Wong took her measurements for a blazer.
Before leaving, Luk asked Wong if she could take two of his order forms as souvenirs. “Just something to remember this place by,” she said.
Support press freedom & help us surpass 1,000 monthly Patrons: 100% independent, governed by an ethics code & not-for-profit, Hong Kong Free Press is #PressingOn with impartial, award-winning, frontline coverage.