Twenty years ago, it was the heavens opening rather than the sun setting that marked the tail end of the British Empire. Under a deluge of biblical proportions, with a leavening of pomp and circumstance, Hong Kong returned to Chinese control, and Prince Charles sailed out of Victoria Harbour aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia.
Roll credits. The End.
Title credits. The Beginning. In January 1841, a Royal Naval ship docked in what was then known simply as Hong Kong Harbour. Queen Victoria’s loyal servants ran up the Union Jack and, a decade later, renamed the harbour after their monarch.
Hong Kong was not the barren rock of popular imagination at the time. The harbour had been marked prominently on Chinese charts for centuries past, and fishing communities thrived on the south side of the island, principally in Aberdeen, as it was later dubbed by British colonialists. But from 1841, Victoria Harbour became Hong Kong’s whole raison d’être.
If you had to pick the year of its absolute zenith, try 1971. That was the year before the completion of the first tunnel linking Hong Kong Island with the Kowloon peninsula. To get from one side to the other involved a boat ride. The Star Ferry was a vital transport link, rather than a tourist sideshow. The MTR was a distant dream, and the coxswains of walla-wallas – cacophonous water taxis – profited handsomely from their monopoly during the small hours. Vehicular ferries were prey to bad weather, and hardly speedy at the best of times. Nobody could ever doubt that Hong Kong was defined by its harbour.
More importantly, the city was entering one of its periodic economic booms. Politically, China was settling down and the United States had resumed diplomatic relations and lifted trade sanctions. From all over the world, cargo ships set sail for Hong Kong to be met by battalions of stevedores, bustling wharves and fleets of lighters.
Fast-forward a few decades, and Victoria Harbour is still busy. But – space-starved Hong Kong is a sucker for reclamation – it has shrunk. After years of planners encroaching upon public access to its 73-kilometre waterfront, there are signs that Hong Kong’s centrepiece is getting a new lease of life.
Nicholas Brooke, who heads up the Harbourfront Commission, says: ‘The harbour’s water is a lot cleaner nowadays – the annual cross-harbour swim is back on the calendar – and there are some brilliant schemes being put into action, such as the watersports facility next to the old Kai Tak runway, and the boardwalk that’s going to be hung beneath the expressway between Causeway Bay and North Point.
‘Victoria Harbour’s the jewel in Hong Kong’s crown, and we need to keep it that way.’
While projects like the new cruise terminal on the site of the old Kai Tak airport – which juts out into the water near Kowloon City – have yet to fully hit their stride, Victoria Harbour has an economic value far beyond that of the goods and vessels that continue to rely on it. Some 55 million visitors come to Hong Kong every year, taking at least as many photographs of its most prized asset. For its interplay of water, architecture, energy and light there is nowhere in the world to rival Victoria Harbour. Try putting a price on that.