A PRIVATE WALKING TOUR THROUGH THE MARITIME HISTORY OF HONG KONG

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What shall we tell you? Tales, marvellous tales.
Of ships and stars and isles where good men rest.
— J.E. Flecker, The Golden Road to Samarkand
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Private Walking Tours Highlighting the Maritime History of hong Kong and Victoria Harbor

Hong Kong today is known as an international metropolis where visitors flock to shop, eat and engage in global high finance.

But the history of the territory is really a maritime tale, defined by the city’s harbor, its enormous port, and its surrounding waters. Following the arrival of the British and as a fortuitous matter of natural geography, it became well known as one of the great natural ports of the world, along side New York, Sydney, San Francisco, Rio De Janeiro, Tokyo and others. From it's inception as a British colony it was positioned as a leading trade entrepot serving as a gateway to Mainland China.

More recently, certain recent archeological discoveries potentially indicate the role of the region as a way point of greater significance than previously thought, on the ancient Maritime Silk Road often cited as a historical precursor to China's 21st Century One Belt, One Road initiative.

The view from Lei Yue Mun Channel.

"The Hong Kong region — which is positioned at 22° 8’ to 22° 35’ north, and 113° 49’ to 114° 31’ east, with a land area of about 1,100 square kilometers—is built on narrow coastal strips bordering hilly terrains that decline steeply into the sea. In between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon Peninsula is the territory’s best-known landmark — Victoria Harbour, a deep and sheltered harbour providing safe anchorage to a multitude of seaborne traffic. Hong Kong’s strategic location and its Victoria Harbour gave the port an edge in developing into a world-class maritime hub."[Quoted Source: The Hong Kong Marine Department]

  Victoria Harbour circa 1970.

Victoria Harbour circa 1970.

Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter, an eclectic collection of seacraft located adjacent to an area formerly known as East Point.

Once teeming with all manner of Eastern and Western style ocean going vessels, Victoria Harbor straddled the daily routines of millions of Hong Kongers many of whom lived on the water and others who commuted to and fro between Hong Kong and Kowloon by ferry. Today, few locals regularly commute by ferry and the harbour sometimes seems strangely devoid of activity.

A solitary Star Ferry cruises mid-harbour in the morning fog of Spring.

Iconic Victoria Harbor

The following is a somewhat magniloquent description of the once vibrant center of iconic Victoria Harbor authored by the writer Henry Norman in 1895:

"I doubt there can be a more remarkable view in the world than that of the city of Victoria and the ten square miles of Hong Kong Harbour from "the Peak." At night it is as if you had mounted above the stars and were looking down upon them, for the riding-lights of of the ships seem suspended in an infinite gulf of darkness, while every now and then the white beam of an electronic search-light flashes like the track of a meteor across a midnight sky.  By day, the city is spread out nearly 2,000 feet directly below you, and only the ships decks and their foreshortened masts are visible, while the whole  surface of the harbour is traversed continually in all  directions by fast steam-launches, making a network of tracks like lacework upon it, as water spiders skim over a pool in summertime. For Hong Kong Harbour as  I have said, is the focus of of the traffic of the East, though what this means one cannot realise  until one has looked down many times into its secure blue depths and noted all that is there--the great mail liners, the P.&O., the Messageries Maritimes, the North German Lloyd, the Austrian Lloyd, the Occidental and Oriental, the Pacific Mail and the Canadian Pacific; the smaller mail packets,  to Tong King, to Formosa, to Borneo, to Manila, and to Siam; the ocean "Tramps" ready to get up steam at a moment's notice and carry anything anywhere; the white-winged sailing-vessels resting after their long flights; the innumerable high-sterned junks plying to every port on the Chinese coast; and all the mailed host of men-of-war flying every flag under heaven, from the white ensign of the flagship and the black eagle of it's Russian rival, to the yellow crown of the tiny Portuguese gunboat or the dragon pennant of China. One day, the Governor told me, no fewer than two hundred and forty guns were  fired in salutes in the harbour." [Source: The Peoples and Politics of The Far East, Henry Norman (1895)]  (One day,  I will write a book and hopefully, I will manage to compose an erudite passage like this! Bear in mind that when this was written, there was no lit modern skyline as there is today, so the  navigational lights of the vessels in the harbor dominated the evening view.)

The Pagoda fronting the old "To Kwa" island, which following industrial land reclamation ceased to be an island.

What to expect

This private Hong Kong walking tour covers the story of magnificent Victoria Harbor and its nearby waters by diving deep into history to find out how the port evolved in the modern age.

The objective will be to create a private walking tour experience recalling the bygone era captured in the lengthy excerpt quoted above. Together we will circumnavigate the center of the harbor on foot, by ferry and via public transportation. You will learn about and experience Hong Kong through a marine/nautical lens. On the way we will cross and recross the harbor at different points of departure. You will see much more than the  views typically seen from the Star Ferry.

A Chinese Junk With HMS Tamar Permanently Moored in the Distance. Remind me to tell you about the ghost of Tamar.

Along the way you will see and hear, inter alia, of:

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-The basic geography of the harbor before Hong Kong Island was ceded to the British in 1842,

-The importance of the location of the harbor in relation to the coastal China trade and its vital role as an entrepot,

-How the harbor physically developed through time commencing from 1842 (of the old Admiralty District, wharf facilities, the docks and go-downs of the famous old hongs (merchant trading houses), shipyards, industrial frontage, public piers, typhoon shelters, the old Kai Tak Airport, the container port, the vehicular tunnels and the absence of any bridges and the terminals of the venerable Star Ferry),

-The fascinating culture of the Tanka ("egg") people who sailed the vast flotilla of junk boats (we will discuss those too) plying the local waters of Hong Kong and Macau and their largely forgotten role in the local economy (and why they were called "egg" people,

-The ubiquity of South China piracy and smuggling in and around the harbor,

-The religious idols who are to this day still locally revered and thought to protect the seagoing peoples of the region,

-The chaos and changes brought by the Battle of Hong Kong (WWII),

-Old Wanchai, visiting naval fleets and the "World of Suzy Wong",

-The rapid evolution of the surrounding coast line during the post war recovery years leading to accelerated urbanization, coastal gentrification and massive land reclamation.

-The modernization of the shipping industry in the era of containerization; and

-The anticipated role of the harbor in the integration of the Greater Pearl River Delta region and China's "One Belt, One Road" initiative.

Coincidentally, the Hong Kong Transportation Department recently announced plans to inaugurate new ferry services linking several notable venues along the course of this private walking tour in September 2019.

  Surveying the center of the harbor from Hung Hom (ferry services directly to Central are planned to be restarted in 2019). Nearby, the shipyard where the Star Ferries were once built and repaired.

Surveying the center of the harbor from Hung Hom (ferry services directly to Central are planned to be restarted in 2019). Nearby, the shipyard where the Star Ferries were once built and repaired.

Naturally, as is the case on all of myprivate Hong Kong tours, there will be plenty of scenic photographic opportunities, not to mention opportunities for street snacking and/or an authentic local meal. We will also visit the Hong King Museum of Coastal Defense. A visit to the Hong Kong Maritime Museum is highly recommended following this tour.

And, if you would like to wrap up the day savoring a sunset sail on an authentic Chinese junk, this can also be arranged!

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I am very excited about this new harbour themed private Hong Kong tour offering which can be tailored to meet your available time (half day, full day etc). I grew up sailing and my Dad played an important role in the containerization of the local shipping industry, which was a game changer. So this is an area that has always been of interest to me.

I have read extensively on the fascinating Eastern maritime trade commencing with the Age of Discovery (the spice trade) and the South East Asian coastal trade which eventually found its way to this region.  I live one block from the harbor and regularly take clients for scenic and highly appreciated crossings on the North Point Ferry. I also spend plenty of time reminiscing what the harbor looked like when I first set eyes on it in the early 1970s.

I know many locales which, with a dash of imagination, still evoke the gestalt of that bygone era. Leave it to me to weave all of the fragments together into a cohesive narrative for an unusual and memorable day! 

Once again, all Streets of Hong Kong private walking tours can be tailored to meet your special requests.

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All these vessels cross and recross ceaselessly in Hong Kong Harbour, living shuttles in the loom of time, bearing the golden strand of human sympathy and co-operation between world and world, or like the Zeitgeist in Faust, “weaving the garment divinity wears.”
— Henry Norman
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Captain Belcher's map from the first detailed survey of the waters surrounding Hong  Kong Island.