Online Exhibition of Seeing in the dark: Hong Kong Harbour and Lighthouses.

Photographic reproduction of Victoria Harbour, 1840s by On Loan from the Vine Family CollectionHong Kong Maritime Museum


This online exhibition comprises three sections:

1) Revisiting Early Development of Hong Kong Harbour in 19th Century

2) Hong Kong Lighthouses built in the pre-World War II era

3) New Face of Hong Kong Harbour: as an international Entrepôt. This online exhibition project is part of the Seeing in the dark: Hong Kong Harbour and Lighthouses exhibition event held in Hong Kong Maritime Museum (HKMM) in May 2021 funded by Maritime and Aviation Training Fund (MATF) and co-organised by HKMM, and City University of Hong Kong.

Victoria Harbour, Oil on canvas, early 1870s by Gift of Mr. Anthony J. HardyHong Kong Maritime Museum

"Blue sky and white clouds connect mountains in green and brown.

Boats all over the sea, floating from left to right, from right to left, even more from here to the other side, and from over there to here, how many white traces have been added to the blue and green sea?

It is like bathers playing ball, enchanting the viewers." ──Prose by Hong Kong writer Fong Lai-Lin

The ‘Matilde’ moored in Hong Kong Harbour, Oil on canvas, c. 1855 by Gift of Mr. Anthony J. HardyHong Kong Maritime Museum

1) Revisiting
Early Development of Hong Kong Harbour in 19th Century

Views of Victoria Harbour, HMS ‘Galatea’ and City Hall from Murray Battery, Watercolour on paper (1876) by Nicholas Chevalier (1828-1902) and On loan from Mr. & Mrs. Peter ThompsonHong Kong Maritime Museum

Establishment as an Entrepôt

The history of Hong Kong is a maritime tale, defined by the city’s harbour, ports and waters. Natural resources, climate, location and external transport links were preconditions for a city’s development, and Hong Kong possessed not only a geographical advantage, but also a naturally deep and sheltered harbour providing safe anchorage for frequent seaborne traffic.

Views of Hong Kong Harbour from ‘HMS Iris’ in 1846: facing the Hong Kong Island by Lieut. L.G. HeathHong Kong Maritime Museum

As early as the Song dynasty, Hong Kong already performed the role of coastal artery with the technological advances of Chinese shipbuilding and the development of sea transport. In the Ming dynasty, an official ban on foreign trade made Penny’s Bay, Lantau Island, a clandestine transit centre for smuggling ceramics overseas. In the mid-sixteenth century, foreigners were actively seeking to establish a permanent settlement in China and scrambling to retain trade interests there, consequently leading to a series of Sino-foreign hostilities. 

Views of Hong Kong Harbour from ‘HMS Iris’ in 1846: facing Kowloon Peninsula by Lieut. L.G. HeathHong Kong Maritime Museum

In 1841, the British annexed Hong Kong Island after the First Opium War. In 1861, Britain invaded the Kowloon Peninsula during the Anglo-French Expedition and controlled the entire Victoria Harbour, which was broad and deep enough to accommodate many large vessels. The harbour gradually developed into an entrepôt, starting a new page in the history of Hong Kong.

British and French fleets in Victoria Harbour, Oil on canvas (1860) by Gift of Mr. Anthony J. HardyHong Kong Maritime Museum

Chinese coolies coaling the steamer at Hong Kong, Newspaper print of The Illustrated London News dated 18 January 1873 by W.W. RidleyHong Kong Maritime Museum

Shipping and Entrepôt Trade

The shipping industry in Hong Kong developed from the 1850s. There was significant growth in the number of incoming ships and trade, with main imports including opium, raw cotton, fur, rice, wine, woollen goods, matches, coal and kerosene oil. The main exports were bamboo goods, ceramics, pearls, furniture, ivory, lacquer, silk and tea. The coolie trade of the time also stimulated the growth of the local shipping industry as many Southern Chinese labourers travelled from Hong Kong port to foreign countries in search of jobs.

Discharging opium from the ‘Pekin’, Newspaper print of The Illustrated London News dated 11 July 1857 by Charles Wirgman (1832-1891) and Gift of Dr. Stephen DaviesHong Kong Maritime Museum

The P&O company ships legally carried opium to Hong Kong whence it was smuggled into China until the nefarious trade was made legal following the Second Opium War.

Views of trading houses in Hong Kong, Oil on glass, Mid-19th centuryHong Kong Maritime Museum

Since the early nineteenth century, leading foreign firms, such as Jardine Matheson & Co., Dent & Co., Butterfield and Swire, Russell & Co. and Augustine Heard & Co., had established offices in Hong Kong. They were mainly engaged in import and export, but also involved in a variety of businesses, such as sugar refining, shipbuilding, dockyards, and spinning and rope work.

The Praya or Des Voeux Road, Central, looking east towards the office of Augustine Heard & Co. and St John’s Cathedral (1869/1871) by Gift of Wellcome LibraryHong Kong Maritime Museum

On the other hand, the Chinese merchants in Hong Kong developed a trade providing overseas Chinese with Chinese products as well as importing foreign goods into China through Hong Kong, thus Nam Pak hongs such as Yuen Fat Hong and Kin Tye Lung were established.

Photographic reproduction of the Central Waterfront (1890) by Gift of Mr. Anthony J. HardyHong Kong Maritime Museum

There were three company names on a building next to the Legislative: Thoresen & Co. Ltd., The East Asiatic Co. Ltd. and Mollers’ Hong Kong Limited.

The ‘Donnai’ at Aberdeen Dry Dock, Hong Kong, c. 1873Hong Kong Maritime Museum

Early Dockyards and Port Facilities

With the growth of shipping and trade, Hong Kong established its role as an entrepôt and facilitated the development of the shipbuilding and maintenance industry. Lamont Dock and Hope Dock, for example, were early dockyards built in Hong Kong mainly operated by foreigners.

Hope and Lamont Dry Docks, c. 1880 by Gift of Mr. Anthony J. HardyHong Kong Maritime Museum

The Hope and Lamont Docks in Aberdeen were the only dry docks in Hong Kong in the 1860s. They were later purchased by the Hong Kong and Whampoa Dock Co. Ltd. The picture shows two clippers in the dry dock.

Taikoo Dockyard with S.S. ‘Union’ (1910)Hong Kong Maritime Museum

A wreck, probably at Taikoo or Whampoa Dock, with a group of workers on the deck, c. 1900Hong Kong Maritime Museum

In the 1860s, the Hong Kong and Whampoa Dock Co. Ltd. (HWD) and Union Dock Company (UDC) were established. Later, the HWD became a giant in the local dockyard industry, merging with the UDC and acquiring small dockyards like Sands Slip and the Cosmopolitan Dock, until the rise of Taikoo Dock in the early twentieth century. 

‘HMS Powerful’ at the Hong Kong and Whampoa Dock, 1890sHong Kong Maritime Museum

Taikoo Dockyard, c. 1938-39 by Gift of Ms. Catalina ChorHong Kong Maritime Museum

The Central waterfront, Blake Pier with Hong Kong Bank behind it, after 1901Hong Kong Maritime Museum

With the rapid and successful development of the shipping industry, port facilities became increasingly important, and from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the port facility works undertaken by the government were largely confined to the construction and maintenance of public piers, such as Blake Pier, Queen’s Pier, the Star Ferry Pier and the Vehicular Ferry Pier, seawalls and the praya. Private companies, such as Dent & Co. and Jardine Matheson & Co., also built piers.

Chinamen unloading whiskey on the dock, Hong Kong (1930)Hong Kong Maritime Museum

Brand shown in the photo: Black & White Scotch Whiskey; company name shown in the photo: James Buchanan & Co Ltd.

Waglan Island Lighthouse and Saluting Battery, Post Card Front Side by Photo courtesy of LHRC and Roy Ian DelbyckHong Kong Maritime Museum

2) Hong Kong Lighthouses built in the pre-World War II era

Waglan Island at the southwest of Hong Kong by Photo courtesy of Antiquities and Monuments Office, HKSARHong Kong Maritime Museum

"Let the waves surge,

the human ship is still moving forward.

There is fog in front. Ah, beware of the reef!

Night is coming, in the darkness, do you see the lighthouse?" ──Prose by Hong Kong writer Shu Hong-Sing

Sea Map List of Lighthouses (1895) by Photo courtesy of Harvard-Yenching Library, Harvard University LibraryHong Kong Maritime Museum

Lighthouses played a crucial role in shipping
and maritime trade in the early days of Hong Kong. They were the beacon of
maritime navigation and helped to maintain the safety of seaborne traffic. The
main function of lighthouses was to instruct ships how to enter and leave a port
to avoid accidents on reefs, so they were mostly built on promontories facing
the sea, or on reefs and reef rafts, to warn approaching ships.

Hong Kong was on the coast and foreign ships frequently
sailed there, so that lighthouses were built in dangerous areas and thus of
paramount importance. In 1857, the Office of the Committee of the Privy Council
for Trade asked the government to erect a lighthouse on the Pratas Shoal in the
South China Sea to guide mariners, but the proposal was shelved due to
financial constraints.

Name of the major lighthouses (1895) by Photo courtesy of Harvard-Yenching Library, Harvard University LibraryHong Kong Maritime Museum

After the excavation of the Suez Canal in 1869, Chinese and foreign trade activities increased, so the plan for a lighthouse was put back on the agenda and government funding granted for its construction. In 1873, after lengthy deliberations, the government proposed lighthouses at Cape D’Aguilar (Hok Tsui), Green Island and Cape Collinson. After these earliest lighthouses had been built in Hong Kong, more were set up along the ports to assist countless ships entering Hong Kong for decades.

Official First Day Cover of ‘Lighthouses of Hong Kong’ issued by Hongkong Post on 29 Dec 2010Hong Kong Maritime Museum

D’Aguilar Lighthouse

Situated on the southeast shore of Hong Kong Island, Cape D’Aguilar Lighthouse, named after Major-General Sir George Charles D’Aguilar (1784-1855), was put into service in 1875. The illuminating apparatus was a fixed Dioptric of the first order emitting a white light. With a focal plane of 200 feet above sea level, its light was visible in clear weather from a distance of 23 nautical miles. It would illuminate the Nine Pin Group of Islands, Waglan Island, Lamma Island, Sung Kong Island and the waters near Lin Ding Island. With the commencement of operations of the Waglan Island Lighthouse in 1893, Cape D’Aguilar Lighthouse became superfluous and was thus discontinued in 1896. It was not until 1975 that the lantern of Cape D’Aguilar Lighthouse was re-lit, unmanned and automated. Cape D’Aguilar Lighthouse, the oldest extant lighthouse in Hong Kong, was declared a monument in 2006.

Presentation pack of the ‘Lighthouses of Hong Kong’ issued by Hongkong Post on 29 December 2010Hong Kong Maritime Museum

Island Lighthouses

After Cape D’Aguilar Lighthouse, Green Island Lighthouse was also put into service in the same year. Situated on the northwest coast of Hong Kong Island, the Green Island Lighthouse comprises new and old lighthouses. The illuminating apparatus at the outset was a fixed Dioptric of the fourth order, emitting both red and green light. The focal plane of the light stood 95 feet above sea level and was visible at a distance of 14 miles in clear weather. In 1905, the government moved the lantern of Cape D’Aguilar Lighthouse to Green Island. To accommodate the Cape D’Aguilar light apparatus, a higher and larger tower, the new lighthouse, was established and it was fully automated in the 1970s. Green Island Lighthouses together with the former European staff quarters and keeper’s house were declared a monument in 2008.

Panorama of Kowloon and Hong Kong, c. 1860 by Felice BeatoHong Kong Maritime Museum

This was the earliest photographic panorama of Hong Kong Island taken from Kowloon. Originally six separate photographs from a vantage point near present-day King’s Park, they are now reproduced in two parts as a pair. The view is to the south, and in the distance the length of Hong Kong Island is shown from Lyemun Passage to the east to Green Island to the west.

Waglan Island Lighthouse Engineering Drawing; Plan of station by DMH and Photo courtesy of Felicity Somers Eve and Historical Photographs of China, University of BristolHong Kong Maritime Museum

Waglan Island Lighthouse

In the late 19th century, a proposal for the construction of lighthouses on Gap Rock Island and Waglan Island was raised by the Hong Kong Government. Situated in the southwest of Waglan Island near Po Toi, Waglan Island Lighthouse was put into service in 1893. The lighthouse was equipped with an advanced signal light, burning mineral oil with a rotating apparatus floating on mercury to illuminate. It was one of the only two modern pieces of equipment introduced and installed in Asian waters at that time. 

Waglan Island Lighthouse Engineering Drawing by DMH and Photo courtesy of Felicity Somers Eve and Historical Photographs of China, University of BristolHong Kong Maritime Museum

Exterior of Waglan Lighthouse by Photo courtesy of Antiquities and Monuments Office, HKSARHong Kong Maritime Museum

Waglan Island Lighthouse was initially run by the Chinese Maritime Customs, but eventually transferred to the Hong Kong Government in 1901 following the signing of the New Territories’ lease in 1898. Waglan Island Lighthouse was extensively damaged during the Second World War and repaired after 1945. It was automated in 1989 and declared a monument in 2000.

Interior of the lighthouse by Photo courtesy of Antiquities and Monuments Office, HKSARHong Kong Maritime Museum

AGA Fresnel Lens in replica Waglan Lighthouse lantern by On loan from the Hong Kong Museum of History, LCSD and Courtesy of the Marine Department, HKSARHong Kong Maritime Museum

Hong Kong Harbour and Central from the Peak, early 1950sHong Kong Maritime Museum

3) New Face of Hong Kong Harbour: as an international Entrepôt 

Hong Kong harbour in sunset, Watercolour on paper, c. 1960s by Kam Cheong-ling (1911-1991) and Gift of Mrs. Susan Chen HardyHong Kong Maritime Museum

"On the ferry, the ferry sails, she looks back to the soon newly-built Ocean Terminal and the new pier.

Five years ago, she sent Deming away from the old pier of Kowloon Wharf and Godown Company Ltd." ──Prose by Hong Kong writer Shu Hong-Sing

Resruption of Whampoa Dock during the Second World War by Gift of Mr. David JohnstonHong Kong Maritime Museum

Wartime and Post-War Reconstruction

In July 1937, with the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War, all port infrastructural works came to a complete halt and the Victoria Harbour could no longer serve as an entrepôt. On 28 December 1941, the Japanese forces officially occupied Hong Kong and the shipping industry was greatly affected as the main navigation channels came under Japanese control. Many of the piers ceased operation or had to modify their facilities for defence. When Japan surrendered in 1945, Hong Kong regained vitality and reconstruction work followed.

Japanese troops sending a peace envoy to the British Government (1941)Hong Kong Maritime Museum

This photograph may have been taken by a journalist from the Herald at the beginning of the Second World War in Hong Kong. It is of Japanese troops sending a peace envoy to the British Government before launching the attack on 18 December 1941.

‘Foochow II’ in H.K.Hong Kong Maritime Museum

The ship in this photo is ‘Foochow II’ in H.K. The Second World War was a devastating blow to the shipping company. More than 30 of the fleet’s vessels were lost, and by 1946 most of its traditional China coast and river services were closed to foreign shipping.

Rebuilding of Whampoa Dock after the Second World War by Gift of Mr. David JohnstonHong Kong Maritime Museum

Post-war rehabilitation and reconstruction of port facilities such as piers, godowns and docks topped the list of many urgent items necessary in order to resume the normal operations of transportation by sea. The Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter extension programme was the first large-scale project undertaken after the war, and more plans for additional typhoon shelters throughout the territory were made later to allow fishing boats and vessels to moor inside the shelters during typhoons. In the 1950s, the reconstruction projects of the piers along the Central areas included the Star Ferry Pier, Queen’s Pier, the Hong Kong-Macau Ferry Terminal, etc.

The Hong Kong and Kowloon Wharf and Godown Company Ltd. (1969) by Gift of Mr. James E. EverettHong Kong Maritime Museum

Industrialisation and Modernisation

After the war, Hong Kong focused on the development of the seaport economy. The growth of local industries and commerce as well as the huge demand for imports and exports stimulated the further development of the shipping industry. As more and more large ocean-going vessels came to Hong Kong, both the Taikoo Dockyard and the Hong Kong and Whampoa Dock Co. Ltd. upgraded their facilities and employed a large number of workers in the prosperous shipbuilding and ship-repairing industries. Many godown companies, such as the Hongkong and Kowloon Wharf and Godown Co. Ltd. and North Point Wharves Ltd., were established beside the berths with modern facilities to facilitate cargo handling. From the 1940s to 1960s, Chinese shipowners C. Y. Tung, Y. K. Pao, T. Y. Chao, C. S. Koo and Frank Tsao, founded their shipowning companies and fleets, making a profound impact on the shipping industry. Owing to the huge demand for shipping services and import and export trading, Hong Kong’s industrialisation expanded rapidly throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

The Hong Kong and Kowloon Wharf and Godown Company Ltd. piers, 1950sHong Kong Maritime Museum

With increasing numbers of international ships visiting Hong Kong, port facilities were developed and more navigational safety aids such as lighthouses and signal stations built. Old-style lighthouses were converted into modern apparatus and signal systems to keep pace with the times, and coastal reclamation, piers, fairway dredging and typhoon shelters were all signs of urban modernisation and further facilitated the port’s development.

Connaught Road Central, 1950sHong Kong Maritime Museum

A black and white photograph of Connaught Road Central in the 1950s. From left to right, the old Supreme Court Building, Bank of China Building, Queen's Pier, the headquarters of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, Queen’s Building and St. George’s Building. Apart from the former Supreme Court, they have all been demolished and rebuilt. Connaught Road Central has been the Central Business District of Hong Kong since 1900.

Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter and the Island Eastern Corridor (1985)Hong Kong Maritime Museum

Taken in 1985, this photograph shows the Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter and the Island Eastern Corridor. The typhoon shelter was home to the boat people, who had their own traditional way of living, but the shelter was also occupied by luxury yachts, traditional sampans and walla-wallas. The Island Eastern Corridor was the result of reclamation in 1980s, intended to relieve congestion in the Eastern District of Hong Kong Island.

A walla-walla crossing the Hong Kong Victoria Harbour (1920)Hong Kong Maritime Museum

Vehicles across the Harbour

The increasing demand for local seaborne transportation and traffic encouraged the industrialisation of the shipbuilding industry and the construction of different types of ships. Most motorboats came from Hong Kong’s dockyards. Walla-wallas, for example, were mainly used to carry people across Victoria Harbour and to take seamen from ocean-going vessels to the downtown piers. They played a significant role in cross-harbour transformation in the 1950s and 1960s.

Display model of Walla Walla in 1970s (2010)Hong Kong Maritime Museum

‘Sinkiang II’ unloading goods onto a tug boat in a harbour (1954)Hong Kong Maritime Museum

Tugs had been in service in the city since the late nineteenth century. They were initially used to carry both passengers and goods, and then only goods and to tow ocean-going vessels. From the 1960s, tugs were used extensively to help meet the needs of Hong Kong’s flourishing export trade.

Display model of HUD tug boat, ‘Taikoo’, 21st century by Gift of Mr. Phileas FongHong Kong Maritime Museum

The old Hong Kong Star Ferry Pier, facing the Edwardian buildings that lined the Connaught Road praya, 1950sHong Kong Maritime Museum

In the 1950s, the ferry network grew at a terrific speed to cope with urban development and improve transport between Hong Kong Island, the Kowloon Peninsula and the outlying islands. The Hongkong and Yaumati Ferry Company Limited and the Star Ferry Company put more ferries into service, establishing the ferries’ important role in crossing Hong Kong’s waters.

Display model of a Star Ferry (2007) by Rich Creation International Ltd., Hong KongHong Kong Maritime Museum

Macau Ferry Terminal in Sheung Wan (1966)Hong Kong Maritime Museum

A photograph of the Macau Ferry Terminal in Sheung Wan in 1966. Direct and regular routes between the Outer Harbour Ferry Terminal (Macau) and the Macau Ferry Terminal (Hong Kong) were established in the mid-twentieth century. Large passenger steamships such as the Teck Sing, the Tai Loi and the Fatshan operated in the ‘50s and ‘60s. This reclamation area also housed Hong Kong's Seamen Recruitment Office set up to facilitate Ship Owners finding the qualified seamen while making sure Hong Kong's seamen were not exploited on board.

‘SS San Juan’ alongside the Ocean Terminal, Kowloon, handling containers of cargo of Hong Kong origin (1969)Hong Kong Maritime Museum

The Container Terminals and International Port

The container industry in Hong Kong started in the early 1960s, but at that time standardised containers were only handled at three facilities, the Kowloon Wharves of Hongkong and Kowloon Wharf and Godown Co. Ltd., the North Point Wharves, and the Kowloon Docks. In the initial period of containerisation, many container ships were converted bulk carriers. Due to the global trend towards containerisation, a plan to build additional container terminals was developed to meet the increasing demand from container ships and to enhance Hong Kong’s competitiveness in the maritime trade.

Bulk carrier ‘Snow White’ sailing into Hong Kong (1965)Hong Kong Maritime Museum

Kwai Tsing Container Terminal (1988)Hong Kong Maritime Museum

The container terminal was built on a seabed site along the shoreline of Kwai Chung by private tender in phases. In 1976, five berths of Kwai Chung Container Terminals went into full operation. The Kwai Chung Container Terminals were further expanded through reclamation in the 1980s and 1990s to meet port development needs. With the booming international sea trade and rising figures in Hong Kong’s container handling capacity, Hong Kong became one of the world’s busiest container ports

Display model of Kwai Tsing Container Terminals (2005)Hong Kong Maritime Museum

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Credits: Story

Hong Kong Maritime Museum

Funded by:

Produced by:
Nina Wan (Former Assistant Curator of HKMM)

K. L. Tam (Consultant of HKMM)

Chinese copyeditor:
Yau Hok Wa

English copyeditor:
Margaret Clare Wadsworth

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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