Described as “Asia’s most photographed body of water,” iconic Victoria Harbour has played a key role in the story of Hong Kong. As we wait to hear if the harbour’s legendary fireworks displays can return for the upcoming New Year’s Eve and Chinese New Year celebrations (it’s been way too long!), here’s a fact file on the famous landmark.
History of Victoria Harbour Hong Kong
With its deep, sheltered waters, Hong Kong’s natural harbour was an appealing and strategic location for ships on the South China Sea, and it was these characteristics that led the British to establish a colony here in 1841. Before that, the harbour was referenced in the 15th-century maps of Chinese explorer Zheng He, and in a marine chart of the East India Company in the early 1800s. In 1849, the Victoria Recreation Club opened on the harbour (where City Hall is today), with sailing, swimming and other leisure pursuits taking place on the water. The Club is still around today, though the clubhouse itself is now at Deep Water Bay.
Victoria Harbour takes its name from Queen Victoria, of course, though the famous body of water was first called Fragrant Harbour. That’s heung gong in Cantonese – or, to say it phonetically, Hong Kong.
But what exactly was fragrant about the harbour? There are various theories; perhaps the most likely relates to the abundance of a particular type of tree that was found here, the aquilaria sinensis. The tree has a sweet-smelling resin that was used to make furniture and religious items, including incense.
Did you know?
If you took a cruise from Hong Kong to Canada, and you sailed to the capital city of British Columbia, you would have embarked at Victoria Harbour and also disembarked at Victoria Harbour.
This has long been a very busy harbour. Here’s a quote from an encyclopedia dated to the mid-19th century: “The number of boats anchored or plying in the harbour and bays on 31st December 1852 was 1,799, on board of which were 7,154 men and 4,675 women and children.” More recently, the Star Ferry was moving as many as 70,000 people across the harbour per day at its peak (numbers are significantly lower now in the wake of the pandemic).
And then there’s all the port activity on Victoria Harbour: Today, Hong Kong ranks eighth or ninth among the world’s top 10 busiest ports (back in the early 2000s, it was number one). A couple of hundred million tonnes of cargo is shipped through HK each year, via nine container terminals.
While there’s no bridge across the harbour (for various reasons, one being the unavailability of enough suitable land on the Hong Kong Island side to fit all the infrastructure), there are plenty of ways to make the crossing. These are the main ones:
- Cross-Harbour Tunnel (opened 1972)
- Eastern Harbour Crossing (1989)
- Western Harbour Crossing (1997)
- Tung Chung line / Airport Express
- Tsuen Wan line
- East Rail line
- Tseung Kwan O line
- Central to Tsim Sha Tsui
- Wan Chai to Tsim Sha Tsui
Did you know?
On 22 October, 1,500 swimmers took part in the Cross Harbour Race from Wan Chai to TST. The race was first held back in 1906, but was brought to a halt in 1978 on account of pollution levels. Thanks to the harbour being cleaned up, the race reappeared on the annual calendar from 2011.
While the harbour is still home to several islands – from tiny Kowloon Rock that measures just 2m by 3m metres, to Tsing Yi (3km by 4km) – there are many more former islands that have disappeared as a result of land reclamation. An example is Stonecutter’s Island, which was used over time for quarrying, radio communications and storing explosives, even hosting a unit of hovercraft used to fight illegal immigration. In the 1990s, it was attached to Kowloon.
Other islands that have been absorbed by land reclamation include Rumsey Rock, Pillar Island and Kellett Island, home to the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club.
Speaking of land reclamation, here’s an interesting stat. If you measure a north-south line from the Avenue of Stars in Tsim Sha Tsui across to the Convention Centre (HKCEC) on HK Island, it’s around 900 metres. Before land reclamation started, however, the distance across that key part of the harbour was well over 2km – it was all water between Johnson Road in Wan Chai and Chatham Road in TST!
As for depth, the harbour has an average depth of approximately 12 metres, while the deepest section is Lei Yue Mun at 43 metres.
For several years in the 1970s, Victoria Harbour was home to a prominent shipwreck, with the Queen Elizabeth lying dramatically on its side at the southern end of Tsing Yi, after being sunk by a fire. The wreck was slowly dismantled over several years – and the Parker Pen Company manufactured 5,000 special-edition pens using the metal! The location has now been mostly covered by reclamation; you can take a look at the spot by entering the coordinates “22°19´43˝N 114°06´44˝E” into the search bar in Google Earth.
The aforementioned Queen Elizabeth once appeared in its shipwrecked state in a Hollywood film, with a cameo as MI6’s Hong Kong headquarters in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). It’s not the only time Victoria Harbour appeared in James Bond movies; it’s also in You Only Live Twice and Die Another Day. In the latter, Pierce Brosnan swims to freedom in the harbour and emerges next to the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club. (The scene was filmed on a sound stage in London – only Roger Moore of all the Bonds actually came to HK for a shoot.)
More recently, the harbour is featured in Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014), and the film had its premiere here
Did you know?
The iconic red-sailed junk that you see in so many images of Victoria Harbour is the Duk Ling, or Dukling, which claims to be the last authentic junk in Hong Kong. It was built in Macau over half a century ago and is still operational today, offering regular one hour cruises of the harbour.
This article first appeared in the Winter 2022/23 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue!