How Places in Hong Kong Got Their Name and What They Mean
April 01, 2022
Hong Kong’s clashing of colonial British culture and Chinese ancestry has made for an interesting collection of neighbourhoods in the city and their names, steeped in history and cultural significance.
Most towns, neighbourhoods, and areas in Hong Kong are simply English spellings of the phonetic Cantonese words, rather than translations of the meanings. Whilst easier for the non-Cantonese speaker, the essence and history of places in Hong Kong are often lost in translation.
Not to worry, read below to find out the true meaning of places in Hong Kong and how they found their names!
Sheung Wan - 上環 (soeng6 waan4)
Sheung Wan was the earliest British settlement when the city was ceded to the colonial forces. The site of the original occupation of Hong Kong in 1842 was at Possession Street, in the heart of Sheung Wan.
The name of the area can be interpreted as upper district – located on a higher ground as compared to Central and Wan Chai, or gateway district – a reference to the site where the British first entered and occupied the city.
Kowloon - 九龍 (gau2 lung4)
The name of Hong Kong’s central shopping district and most populous urban area, the name “Kowloon” alludes to eight mountains to the south of New Territories and the last empower emperor of the 18th century Song Dynasty: Kowloon Peak, Tung Shan, Tate’s Cairn, Temple Hill, Unicorn Ridge, Lion Rock, Beacon Hill, Crow’s Nest, and Emperor Bing of Song.
Discovery Bay - 愉景灣 (jyu4 ging2 waan1)
Lantau Island’s popular expatriate residential location is only four decades old, but boasts a healthy, tight-knit community of 21,000 people. One main theory surrounds the origin of the community’s name.
The first version suggests that a lost-in-translation moment with the British mission to survey Lantau in 1840 when missionaries misunderstood what the then-Tai Pak Bay villagers were saying to the British group, “digging for clams,” equating to “discovery” in Cantonese.
Stanley - 赤柱 (cek3 cyu3)
The city’s favourite local tourist town and its Cantonese name – Chek Chue – is shrouded in mystery, with two possible origins of its name.
The pirate legend has it that the notorious scallywagger, Cheung Po Tasi, was active in Stanley, hence, why the Cantonese name for Stanley – literally meaning Bandit’s Post – came to be.
The English name for Stanley was named after Lord Stanley, the British Colonial Secretary at the time of the cession of Hong Kong in 1843.
Kennedy Town - 堅尼地城 (gin1 nei4 dei6 seng4)
The western end of Hong Kong’s hip and funky Sai Wan neighbourhood, Kennedy Town, is one of the city’s oldest modern areas. Named after the 7th Governor of Hong Kong, Arthur Edward Kennedy, who ruled from 1872 to 1877, Kennedy Town was built on reclaimed land along the Kennedy Praya in 1886 when the governor sought to expand Hong Kong Island to the west.
Cheung Chau - 長洲 coeng4 zau1
The city’s tourist island to the southwest of Hong Kong Island, nicknamed “dumbbell island” due to it’s bizarre shape. However, the official Cantonese name reads “long island,” due to its formation of two granite masses joined by a rocky tombolo, where the village had formed. Despite its name, it’s not that long, only measuring 3.40 kilometres across.
Wan Chai - 灣仔 (waan1 zai2)
The centre for shopping, drinking, and late-night partying, Wan Chai was the first home for many Chinese villagers living along the Hong Kong Island coastline during the beginning of British Hong Kong.
Wan Chai literally means "a cove" in written Cantonese, from the shape of its coastal line. However, the neighbourhood is no longer a cove due to city development in recent decades and continual land reclamation.
Mong Kok - 旺角 (wong6 gok6)
Guinness World Records has called Mong Kok the busiest district in the world, with a population density of 130,000 per square kilometre.
Until 1930, the area called Mong Kok Tsui (芒角嘴), with the current English name a transliteration of its older Chinese name (mong6 gok6), was originally named for its plentiful supply of ferns when it was a coastal region. Its current name means “prosperous/crowded corner”.
Shek O - 石澳 (sek6 ou3)
The name of Shek O literally translates to “rocky bay,” with the entire area a sharp peninsula on Hong Kong Island’s southern coast.
The historic village that lays in the centre of Shek O has a history of over 200 years with its rich fishing industry. Isolated from the centre of Hong Kong Island but connected via transportation links, Shek O has been the home of the Shek O Country Club sine 1925, catering to Hong Kong’s elite.
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