Part of a series on Hong Kong’s historic place names.
Hong Kong was under British rule for over 150 years but it wasn’t a one-way street when it came to developing – and naming – one of the world’s top trading destinations.
Most English-language street names are transliterations of the Cantonese, while some commemorate governors or other colonial empire-builders. But more than 11 per cent of the non-Cantonese names originate from languages and cultures outside the UK.
One of the best-known appears to be D’Aguilar Street in Central. But where did these other street names with anglicised words come from?
Explore the interactive map below to see the linguistic roots of Hong Kong’s ‘English’ street names:
As an entrepôt in the early colonial days, Hong Kong attracted opportunists from all walks of life. Between 1844 and 1897 its foreign population increased more than 18-fold and these merchants, officials, and missionaries played an important role in shaping the city. With 25 per cent of all the English-based street names in Hong Kong named after individuals, the legacy of many of them endures.
Portuguese: Pioneers of HK’s Suburbs
The story of the Portuguese in Hong Kong goes back to the early Portuguese exploratory expeditions in India, the Malay Peninsula, Japan and Macau. Many Portuguese in Hong Kong were descendants of the early seafarers in Macau. By 1897, more than half of the Portuguese population in Hong Kong had been born in the city.
The multilingual Portuguese community played a crucial role as buffers between the British and Chinese during the early colonial period. The Portuguese were seen as different from other Europeans and were discriminated against by the British.
‘…different classes be provided for and that the hospital be reserved for British, American and European patients, with some very limited discretion for the directors, but excluding Chinese, Portuguese and Japanese.’
As the city developed, high rents on Hong Kong Island drove many Portuguese to Kowloon. By the 1920s, Tsim Sha Tsui was mostly a Portuguese area and many of Kowloon’s earliest developers were Portuguese.
Francisco Paulo de Vasconcelos Soares developed the Kowloon suburb of Homantin in the mid-1920s. He named the streets after his family (Soares Avenue 梭椏道), his wife (Emma Avenue 艷馬道) and his daughter (Julia Avenue 棗梨雅道), as well as in honour of World War I (Peace Avenue, Victory Avenue, and Liberty Avenue).
Hiding in this cluster is a tiny path called San Francisco Path (舊金山徑, “Old Golden Mountain Path” in Chinese, the moniker of the California city). At first glance, the street may seem oddly named after an American city – did Soares see himself as a saint and name the street after his namesake, ‘Francisco’? While that cannot be entirely ruled out, it is more likely to be a tribute to the oldest garden in Macau (S. Francisco Garden/加思欄花園/Jardim de S. Francisco) that his father helped design.
Other Portuguese-named streets include Braga Circuit (布力架街) and Rozario Street (老沙路街). If you fancy a better view, you could even hike up to Boa Vista (野豬徑), which means “Good view” in Portuguese (the Chinese name means Boar Path) in Tai Tam.
Indians: Keeping things in check
In the 1750s, the British East India Company began training and deploying mercenary soldiers from the Indian subcontinent for overseas military engagements. They fought in the First Opium War which led to the cession of Hong Kong. By the time the British occupied Hong Kong in 1841 there were already around 2,700 soldiers from the Indian subcontinent based there.
About one-third of the garrison in Hong Kong during the first decade of colonial rule were from India. Many of them transferred to the police after retirement; before World War II, 60 per cent of the police force was made up of Sikhs from Punjab. Even though most ended their service in Hong Kong after India gained independence from Britain in 1947, traces of the community’s military involvement can be seen in some street names.
“Lascar” in Upper and Lower Lascar Row (摩羅上/下街) was used by the British to refer to seafarers from the Indian subcontinent and is derived from “lashkar,” the Persian word for military camp. The area was home to dozens of Indian traders and in-between-jobs sailors from the 1840s to 1920s. Many of them brought products from all over the world to sell and the area became a marketplace for second-hand goods.
Jat’s Incline (扎山道) in Wong Tai Sin was built by the 119th Infantry (later renamed the 2nd Battalion of the 9th Jat Regiment) in 1907 and repaired in 1932 by the 3rd Battalion of the 9th Jat Regiment.
In addition to helping keep things in check, South Asians were among the first to “check Hong Kong out.” After the British took control of the New Territories in 1898, a team of Indian surveyors led by the Anglo-Indian George Passman Tate, for whom Tate’s Cairn (大老山) is named, conducted a large-scale survey of the area.
It is no coincidence that some of the largest river systems in the New Territories were named after major rivers in India and Pakistan – River Indus, River Jhelum, River Chenab, River Sutlej, River Beas, and River Ganges. Although these rivers were renamed after the Handover, it is still fascinating to think that four of five Punjab rivers were in Hong Kong at one point.
Jews: Philanthropists, a governor, and a camel
The first Jewish settlers in Hong Kong were descendants of Jews who fled the Inquisition to Baghdad. During the 19th century, they travelled to India to set up trading operations, and later in Canton, Macau and Hong Kong.
While Jews never constituted a large community in Hong Kong, many influential members have left their mark in the city, including Sassoon Road (沙宣道) and Kadoorie Avenue (嘉道理道) named after the two powerful Jewish families. In addition to founding the China Light and Power Company (CLP Group) and The Peninsula Hotels, the Kadoories engaged in many philanthropic endeavours including housing Jewish refugees in transit after World War II.
Kadoorie’s philosophy of “helping people help themselves” was evident in the often neglected colonial-era New Territories. The family set up Kadoorie Farm and Botanical Garden, initially an experimental farm to demonstrate crop production and livestock farming to local farmers. In Yim Tin Tsai, Sai Kung, they donated cement and pipes to villages to improve access to fresh water.
Matthew Nathan, the 13th and only Jewish governor of Hong Kong, catalysed the development of Kowloon, a then-marshy area, by constructing what would eventually become Nathan Road (彌敦道). Even so, he was not part of the Hong Kong Club as most Jews, with a few exceptions, were not permitted there then. The eccentric Emanuel Belilios, who funded the first government school for girls in Hong Kong, famously kept a camel on the Peak which sadly fell off a cliff.
Parsis: Small but mighty
Parsis are descendants of Zoroastrian followers who fled to India from Persia (present-day Iran) to escape Muslim persecution 1,300 years ago. Some eventually settled in Hong Kong in the 19th century through trade.
Despite being a small community, they contributed to the establishment of many century-old institutions, including HSBC, where two of the founding members were Parsis, the Star Ferry, founded by Dorabjee Naorojee Mithaiwala, and Hong Kong Ruttonjee Sanatorium, funded by Jehangir Hormujee Ruttonjee.
Hormusjee Naorojee Mody, after whom Mody Road (麼地道) was named, was a businessman and land developer. He alone contributed HK$285,000 to the establishment of the University of Hong Kong. As the first major benefactor to pledge HK$150,000 to construct the Main Building, he set a precedent for others to follow. He also contributed to the founding of the Hong Kong Jockey Club and Kowloon Cricket Club.
In addition to Freddie Mercury, Robert Kotewall, a businessman and civil servant born to a Chinese mother and a Parsi father, is another Parsi showbiz connection. He wrote “Uncle Kim,” (鑒叔) the first English Cantonese opera, in 1921, and successfully petitioned the Governor in 1933 to allow casts made up of both genders in Cantonese operas. Despite his fall from grace due to his collaboration during the Japanese occupation, his legacy continues. He left behind Kotewall Road (旭龢道) and a great-grandson who continued his love of the arts by starring in Hollywood productions such as The Social Network and The Handmaid’s Tale.
While Hong Kong has many streets named after places in the United Kingdom (Dorset Crescent 多實街), China (Peking Road 北京道), and foreign islands (Java Road 渣華道) linked by trade, there are a few streets named after places where the connection is less obvious.
Minden Avenue (棉登徑), Minden Row (緬甸臺), and Blenheim Avenue (白蘭軒道) near Signal Hill in Tsim Sha Tsui are named after the two Royal Navy ships HMS Minden and HMS Blenheim, which in turn took their names from German battlefield towns. The German connection is lost in Minden Row particularly as its Chinese name was mis-transliterated to the Chinese name of Myanmar「緬甸」(min5 din1).
Further up in Yau Ma Tei, Waterloo Road (窩打老道) and Pilkem Street (庇利金街) bear the names of two Belgian towns where the Battle of Waterloo and the Battle of Pilckem Ridge took place. During World War I in 1917, Pilckem Ridge in Ypres, Belgium, was heavily contested during the Battle of Passchendaele. Over 30,000 British troops lost their lives in this battle.
Aside from remembering the fallen, foreign places are also used because they are seen to lend cachet to property developments. Despite the Handover, luxury properties in Hong Kong have been given vaguely western names to sound more upscale. In the New Territories, you can find clusters of streets named after California cities, the Swiss Alps, and French wines.
However, having a fancy foreign name doesn’t necessarily imply knowledge of the language. “Viale,” for example, is used as a suffix, as opposed to a prefix as it should be in Italian street names.
Hong Kong English
Words from other cultures have been adapted into our day-to-day vocabulary over the years, and some can be seen in our street names.
From Macau with Love
The term “Praya” was borrowed from Macau. Derived from the Portuguese word for beach, it refers to a seafront promenade dotted with houses. The crescent-shaped Praya Grande beach in Macau was the Portuguese colony’s most famous viewpoint and appeared in many artworks. The term was transplanted when the British set up their own Praya in Hong Kong.
The Praya was once part of Hong Kong Island’s original seafront. After the Praya Reclamation Scheme in the late 19th century, the Praya became Des Voeux Road (德輔道), Johnston Road (莊士敦道) and Hennessy Road (軒尼詩道). It is still possible to see remnants of the original Praya in Kennedy Town (Praya, Kennedy Town 堅彌地城海旁), but with reclamation it has become landlocked.
Even though the Praya is long gone, there are a few streets that still retain “Praya” in the name.
Interestingly, not all seafront promenades in Hong Kong are referred to as Praya. Other terms such as “promenade” and ‘Hoi Pong” are also employed and there seems to have been no logic in the process. Lei Yue Mun Praya, in particular, begins its linguistic journey on Lei Yue Mun Praya Road (鯉魚門海傍道) and ends on Lei Yue Mun Hoi Pong Road East (鯉魚門海傍道東).
From Valley Stream to Drainage
The word "Nullah" was documented in English as far back as the mid-17th century in the writings of British merchants and officers in India. It refers to "a stream in a narrow valley, a drain for floodwater" and has roots from Bengali নালা (nala), Hindi नाला (nālā), and Sanskrit नाडी (nāḍī). The term was later brought to Hong Kong to describe open-air, concrete-lined channels for diverting floodwater.
Although some nullahs still exist, many have been covered up through the years. Stone Nullah Lane (石水渠街) in Wan Chai and Nullah Road (水渠道) in Mong Kok are remnants of their watery past.
Despite being a largely homogeneous society, with Chinese comprising over 91 per cent of the population, Hong Kong has long been home to an eclectic mix of people and cultures fuelled by trade. The linguistic diversity in street names reflects the diverse communities that helped build the city.
In case you're still wondering about Mr D'Aguilar, despite the name being derived from Old French, he was English after all - a native of Liverpool.
Clarification 29/12/2022: An earlier version of this article stated that Jews were not welcomed at the Hong Kong Club. However, there were some exceptions, as a later version of the piece clarified.
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