Hong Kong Asia's World City

Maritime History

Maritime History

Living from and on the sea

Before Hong Kong became the world-famous free trade port it is today, it was throughout its history a maritime base for pirates, a resource for Chinese traders, a home for traditional fishing villages, and a colonial staging post. Below you’ll find an introduction to some of these remarkable maritime tales. You can also take a closer look at how the city’s Eastern District has played a vital role in the development of the city’s coastal defenses.

Hong Kong is one of the world’s leading cosmopolitan cities, yet from the moment you set foot on its shores, you can see how the modern-day status is inextricably linked to a rich maritime heritage. Standing on the piers of Victoria Harbour today, you’ll be dazzled by the brilliance of the high-rise commercial centers dominating the skyline. However if you cast your mind’s eye back over the last thousand-odd years (and use a little imagination), you’d see trading ships stockpiled with porcelain sheltering in the harbor; fleets of notorious Chinese pirates chasing their prey; tea clippers racing onwards to London with a haul of tea leaves; or British naval vessels building their defenses.

Long before the British hoisted a flag at Possession Point, Hong Kong had been home to a myriad of communities living on—and off—the water. One such location is Tai O, an ancient fishing village that was once a shining port of the Pearl River Delta. Salt production, along with fishing, were the main industries of the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD) community here, and so stilt houses grew up over the waters and mangroves of Tai O to house the local workforce. Tourism is the main industry today, and this has helped the population to thrive despite a changing economy: you can wander down the narrow lanes bordered on each side with rows of leaning stilt houses, catch the whiff of dried seafood lingering on the air, and stock up on the village’s renowned fish paste.

You can find another community that grew up around salt production and fishing further north, on the Yim Tin Tsai headland (“Yim Tin” meaning salt pan), on the shores of Tolo Harbour in the New Territories. Sam Mun Tsai New Village has not always stood in this location: the fishermen used to live on boats in Plover Cove but were relocated here in the 1960s to make way for the picturesque Plover Cove Reservoir. Now you’ll find a bijou compilation of charming streets, flanked on one side by multi-colored two-story village houses and on the other side by a beautiful bay, a few small huts, myriad sampans and fishing paraphernalia. It’s a perfect location for a Sunday afternoon stroll and a cup of chai.

For a livelier water community, make your way to Aberdeen Typhoon Shelter. Natural inlets around Hong Kong’s coastlines have always protected the maritime industry from the region’s dramatic typhoons. Aberdeen’s typhoon shelter is the city’s largest, so over the years it has attracted a large population of hard-working Chinese settlers looking to make a living. This stretch of water is still busy—riddled as it is with working harbor boats, fishermen’s sampans, luxury yachts and tour boats. Although the fishing industry is no longer what it once was, on the waterfront you can still see old shipyards and shops selling provisions beside the newer private marina clubs and high-rise condos. Visit during the birthday of Tin Hau or the Dragon Boat Festival and you’ll see entire communities out on the water for numerous boating rituals.

Hong Kong has such involved, complex ties to its waters, that the best place to cover a lot of history in a short space of time is the Hong Kong Maritime Museum. With more than 5,000 artefacts and some 15 galleries of exhibitions covering everything from sea bandits to the making of Victoria Harbour, no exploration of the city’s past is complete without a stop here. Feel free to browse at your leisure, or take one of the guided tours, participate in a workshop or listen to one of the educational talks to brush up on your knowledge.

Get Going

  • Tai O Stilt Houses
    Tai O Stilt Houses
    Be transported back to an ancient way of life in Tai O as you wander between stilted houses and watch a fishing village at work.
    Tai O, Lantau Island, Outlying Islands
    How to Get There:
    • MTR Tung Chung Station. Take bus 11 to Tai O bus terminus (the journey takes approximately 50 minutes.) Walk for around five minutes to the Rope-drawn Ferry Bridge and then take a stroll along the waterfront; or,
    • MTR Tung Chung Station Exit B. Take Ngong Ping Cable Car to Ngong Ping Village (approximately 25 minutes). Take bus 21 to Tai O terminus (approximately 20 minutes) and walk for around five minutes to the Rope-drawn Ferry Bridge and then take a stroll along the waterfront.
  • Sam Mun Tsai Village
    Sam Mun Tsai Village
    As one of the largest fishing villages in the Tai Po area, simple two-story structures grew up around a scenic bay.
    Sam Mun Tsai Road, Tai Po, New Territories
    How to Get There:
    MTR Tai Po Market Station, Exit A3. Follow the signs to Tai Po Market Station Public Bus Terminus on Nga Wan Road and take minibus 20K to Sam Mun Tsai. It’s about a 30-minute journey.
  • Aberdeen Typhoon Shelter
    Aberdeen Typhoon Shelter
    Shielded by peaks to the north, this inlet provided shelter to Hong Kong's once-thriving fishing industry.
    Aberdeen Promenade, Aberdeen Praya Road, Aberdeen, Hong Kong Island
    How to Get There:
    Take bus 70 from Exchange Square and alight at Aberdeen Promenade. It’s about a 35-minute journey.
  • Hong Kong Maritime Museum
    Hong Kong Maritime Museum
    In the heart of Victoria Harbour sits this ode to the city's maritime history, a museum comprising more than 5,000 artefacts.
    Central Pier 8, Central, Hong Kong Island
    +852 3713 2500
    How to Get There:
    MTR Hong Kong Station, Exit A2 or MTR Central Station Exit A. Walk to the pier along Man Yiu Street.

Maritime History 'Musts'

  • Under Bridge Spicy Crab
    Eat typhoon shelter crab
    Under Bridge Spicy Crab
    There is only one dish to order at Under Bridge Spicy Crab restaurant, and it's their eponymous crab dish: it's a sight to see when the bright red, large-clawed crustacean lands on your table, drenched in deep-fried garlic chips. Once you get through the crab's thick shell, the flesh is sweet and easy to shred. Want more? The mantis shrimps are delicious, dense and compact slivers of meat with explosions of garlic-infused flavor.
    Shop 1-2, G/F, Chinaweal Centre, 414-424 Jaffe Road, Wan Chai, Hong Kong Island
    +852 2834 6268
  • Cheung Po Tsai Cave
    Visit pirate caves on Cheung Chau
    Cheung Po Tsai Cave
    The outlying island of Cheung Chau is named after the notorious 19th-century pirate Cheung Po-tsai, who once commandeered a flotilla of dastardly junks around Hong Kong and the Chinese coast. He's said to have buried treasure in a cave on the island—Cheung Po Tsai Cave. Whether you believe this or not (many have tried to find it!), it's still worth a visit to explore the winding—and somewhat claustrophobic—passages into the darkness.
    Cheung Po Tsai Road, Cheung Chau, Outlying Islands
    How to Get There:
    Take a 35-to-60-minute ferry ride from Central Pier 5 to Cheung Chau. Turn right at Cheung Chau Ferry Pier, walk along the coast for 20 minutes to Sai Wan Tin Hau Temple, then walk uphill for about 10 minutes.
  • Star Ferry
    Take a spin on the water
    Star Ferry
    If you’ve only got time for one boat trip, it has to be the Star Ferry—Hong Kong's iconic green and white double-decker boats that have been transporting passengers for over a century. Not only is it still a vital commuter route between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island, but it's one of the best value-for-money sightseeing trips as it affords magnificent views of Victoria Harbour. The journey between Tsim Sha Tsui and either Central or Wan Chai takes just minutes.
    Star Ferry pier, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon
    +852 2367 7065
    How to Get There:
    • TST Star Ferry pier: MTR Tsim Sha Tsui Station, Exit L6. Walk to the Clock Tower along Salisbury Road; or,
    • Central Star Ferry pier: MTR Hong Kong Station, Exit A2 or MTR Central Station, Exit A. Walk to the pier along Man Yiu Street; or,
    • Wan Chai Star Ferry pier: MTR Wan Chai Station, Exit A1. Take the skybridge to the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, and descend to Convention Avenue at Harbour Road.

This guide has been produced by HK Magazine Media Group in 2014.

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