A Journey Through Hong Kong’s Maritime Past

Central Portion of the Town of Victoria, Lithography, 14 March 1857
Victoria Harbour, Attributed to Youqua, c1870
Model of Moring Star (1898-1903)
Model of a walla-walla
Model of a sampan
Model of a big tail junk
Across Victoria Harbour exhibtion graphic
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Hong Kong Maritime Museum

The extensive history and expansive panorama of Hong Kong’s iconic harbour are on show at the Maritime Museum. The exhibition, Across Victoria Harbour, focuses on the development of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon through the lens of the people and crafts that facilitated transport between coasts. Through historical photographs, lithographs and models of sea crafts, the story and importance of the harbour are given depth and breadth.

Pearl River Delta

With its deep, wide and sheltered harbour, Hong Kong’s location was not just a geographical feature but a strategic advantage. This was evident on nautical charts dating back to 1778. Positioned at the mouth and entryway to the heart of China through the Pearl River Delta, Hong Kong became a crucial port for bustling maritime trade. The harbour was not just a body of water but a gateway to prosperity and influence.

First Opium War

The eighteenth century saw a surge in the lucrative opium trade, making Hong Kong’s strategic location increasingly essential. This led to conflict. The Chinese government, determined to curb the influx of opium, sought to counterbalance the profitable trade the British had monopolised with goods from their Indian colonies. However, the British desired unrestricted trade access to China, while the Chinese aimed to halt opium imports and limit trade in other goods. This clashing of interests escalated into the First Opium War (1839) and the Second Opium War (1856).

Unfortunately, in war, there are winners and losers.

Second Opium War

Following the First Opium War, Britain won, and Hong Kong Island was ceded to the British in 1842. China was again defeated in the Second Opium War and forced to cede Kowloon in 1860.

Following these pivotal changes, Hong Kong and Kowloon became a British colony, and maritime commerce boomed.

The changing scenery in these pictorials illustrates that Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour was the centre of bustling maritime and commercial activities from its earliest days to the present

Victoria Harbour

As shown in the lithograph The Central Portion of the Town of Victoria, dated 14 March 1857 and printed in The Illustrated London News, Hong Kong Island was a barren rock. This description was used frequently during those early days to describe the topography of this island with very little.

The Barren Rock

In an 1870 oil painting of Victoria Harbour, the barren rock and its peaks remain dominant. But by this time, development had progressed; more commercial buildings lined the shores, and homes populated the mid-levels of the island.

As Hong Kong prospered, cross-harbour transport was in high demand. Many types of vessels, such as ferries and motorboats, were essential for offering a wide array of options for carrying passengers and transporting goods.

Star Ferry

Perhaps the most iconic of these is the Star Ferry, which was vital in transportation before the Cross-Harbour tunnels and MTR were built. In this exhibition and the Museum’s permanent displays, the Star Ferry’s role is told from models such as the second-generation Morning Star circa 1898-1903.

Walla-Wallas, Sampans and Junks

Other crafts that provided transport include walla-wallas, sampans and junks. Although relegated to history, the museum’s models of these vessels display their unique qualities. 

The walla-walla was named for the distinct sound of the boat’s engine. It is a small wooden motorboat with no deck and played a crucial role in ferrying workers and goods to and from vessels that could not dock at piers because of their size, such as cargo ships, ocean liners and visiting foreign warships.

The photo-worthy sampans, distinctly Chinese wooden boats with huge sails, navigated open seas and served as the primary vehicles and homes for the Tanka people who fished and transported goods and passengers. These crafts, fabulous for tourist photos, are now few and rarely seen in the harbour.

Cross-Harbour Tunnel

Once the Cross-harbour tunnel opened in 1972, the less commercially viable options disappeared, signalling an end to an era. However, this change considerably eased the journey requirements and improved comfort and convenience for passengers.

For maritime enthusiasts and those interested in the city’s history, the exhibition provides the narrative of how the harbour facilitated the evolution and its crucial role in the city’s growth. This show, as well as the permanent exhibitions at the Maritime Museum, provide a wonderful introduction to the history of Hong Kong.

Text & photos by Cammy Yiu