Thursday, July 28, 2005

Des Voeux Road: A Milestone of Growth

Des Voeux Road attracts little notice in Hong Kong today, although it is a broad wide street, branching off from Queen's Road at the Old Bank of China building and then curving lazily to the left as it passes Legco and Statue Square into the Chinese Western district. Yet the road is in fact a key market of the growth Hong Kong has experienced, both financially and physically, since it sprang into existence 125 years ago.

As I mentioned in a recent blog, Hong Kong was always a city constrained by space, and thanks to the lobbying efforts of Legco member Paul Chater, the first major harbour reclamation was undertaken by Governor William Des Voeux. While Chater's proposal might seem a no-brainer today, the owners of frontage property rebelled against the idea, not wanting to lose their harbourfront location without substantial compensation. In the end, Chater convinced them to agree to the plan by giving them first rights to purchase plots on the new land being created in front of their existing property. So it was that the frontage waterline, then known as the Hong Kong Praya, was brought into existence, in 1881.

Chater was an excellent businessman thanks to his negotiation skills. On the new land he secured for himself at a knock-down price a plot of land that he was to use to build an electricity generation plant - a plant that would be owned by a company he was creating called the Hong Kong Electric Company. The plant would supply the needed electricity for the rapidly expanding district of Central. It was to be a coal-fueled plant, supplied of course by coal he would bring over from the coal mine he owned in Vietnam.

It was the Governor, though, who had to actually execute the planned reclamation, and this waterfront street, when it was brought inland by further reclamations in the 1920s, was renamed "Des Voeux Road" in his honor. A major legacy of Des Voeux Road as Hong Kong's waterfront street still remains though - the tram. The Hong Kong Tramways tram car, still a steal at HK$2 a ride, meanders along what was once the waterfront when it first went into operation at the beginning of the 20th century.

Governor Des Voeux was a cosmopolitan fellow: he was born into a British family in Baden-Baden Germany (the Teutonic Monte Carlo spa town), then studied law at Oxford and University of Toronto. When he came to Hong Kong as Governor, he was already an experienced administrator, having served in British Guiana, St. Lucia, Fiji, Trinidad and in Newfoundland. The Colonial Office thought that Hong Kong needed a 'safe' pair of hands after the 'dangerously' progressive government of John-Pope Hennessy, who had the startlingly radical idea of pushing for equal rights for the Chinese and ceasing more odious rules like forcing Chinese to carry around passes and lanterns at night. Des Voeux did indeed approve the roll-back of some of these reforms. He also inaugurated the 'Peak Tram', which in 1888 marked the social stratification of colonial society and institutionalized geographically as well as socially, its exclusion of Chinese from it.

So Des Voeux had his work cut out for him to make a positive impression on the local Chinese community. He therefore organized a 'meet-and-greet' in Central after his arrival in the Colony. Many Chinese enthusiastically turned up, so many that Des Voeux by the late morning began to feel a bit peckish. He retired to Government House for lunch, but when he came back to town he was horrified to see that all the prominent Chinese of Hong Kong were still waiting for him, but with their smiles gone.

He lived down this episode and ultimately established amicable relations with the Chinese community. His legacy to the city, the land reclamation policy, is one of the most physically tangible, and it is right that he be remembered with a street that pushed forward the boundaries of Hong Kong.

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