The rise and fall of Hong Kong’s Hollywood road – Part 1 of 3: The Rise

FROM 1840 TO 1843,

A 5 minute history lesson

Hong Kong’s famous “antique street” Hollywood Road, was completed in 1844 and was the 2nd road to be built in Hong Kong, after Queens Road Central.  These were the very earliest days of the colony, and its role as gateway to the east was only just starting to become established.

Central waterfront (near where Des Voeux Road would be today). This image was taken in the 1860ies by a British man named John Thomson, (1837-1921) who worked in the colony at the time.
Central waterfront (near where Des Voeux Road would be today). This image was taken in the 1860’ies by a British man named John Thomson, (1837-1921) who worked in the colony at the time.  Original image can be found here.

At that time, Hollywood Road was quite close to the coastline (significantly more so than today, due to reclamation of the harbor) and its near proximity to the shoreline, meant the area was never short of  foreign merchants and sailors on their way back to Europe.

 1845 Map of Hong Kong
Partial clip of an 1845 Map of Hong Kong’s Hollywood road from the National Archives in London. This section is from the digitized version on the very cool website Gwulo: Old Hong Kong   Notice how close Hollywood road is to the coastline?

Many of these merchants and sailors would offer up for sale antiques and artifacts they had acquired during their travels in China. In fact, in 1860, after the looting of the old Summer Palace in Peking (Yuanming Yuan), rare objects began to increasingly show up in Hong Kong to be sold as “decorative arts” in exchange for cold, hard cash.

Robert Swinhoe, a British interpreter present at the time of the looting, makes mention of French soldiers with “a string of splendid pearls” which were later sold in Hong Kong.

The King’s Dragoon Guards, sailed for Hong Kong via Tianjin on 7th of November, 1860 after taking part in the looting & destruction the Summer Palace. Its crew would have surely brought looted items with them. Only 3 years later, a large vase taken from the Summer Palace was sold in Bridport, UK at the Bradpole Bazaar in order to fund church building improvements. The vase was presented by a Rev. William Beach, who had been the chaplain to the Bishop of Hong Kong (see the Dorset County Chronicle page 8, July 30th, 1863).

Items were brought back by Captain James Gunter who commanded  the ‘G’ Troop of the King’s Dragoon Guards.

At this point, Hong Kong was already becoming a transit point and a gateway. Thus Hollywood Road and Hong Kong began its early role as an antique market. This also marked one of the first of several key points in time, when antiquities began to pour out of China.

With such close proximity to China and its mixed east-west population, it’s not surprising that interest in Hong Kong, in Chinese culture was strong.  Local newspapers regularly reported on Chinese “antiquities related topics” such as the controversies surrounding Hungarian-British archaeologist Sir Aurel Stein and even exhibitions abroad of Chinese antiquities and relics, of which many had passed through Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Free Press in 1933 talks about an exhibition of Tang dynasty tomb relics.

Of course,  the city bore little resemblance to the gleaming jumble of skyscrapers and buses we think of as Hong Kong today. Quite a different Hollywood road!

Left Image: HT Wong. Right Image: Richard Wong
Left Image: HT Wong.   Right Image: Richard Wong

During this period of time, antique shops were neighbors with brothels, cinemas, night bazaars and newspapers. But onward into the early nineteen hundreds, the antiques trade continued to flourish in Hong Kong.

Another great phot found on gwulo. This one was likely taken on Hollywood road in the mid-1930 ′ies.
Another great photo found on gwulo. This one was likely taken on Hollywood road in the mid-1930 ′ies.

shops on hollywood road in the 1920ies
shops on hollywood road in the 1920ies

 Quick Trivia:  Supposedly Hollywood road, got its name from the plentiful Holly trees growing near the road. Nearby Cat Street, is said to have gotten its nickname from its dubious past: at one point stolen goods were often on offer for sale here and locals referred to such sellers as “Rats.” And those who purchased such goods? You guessed it! They were referred to as “Cats.”

 Next Up.

Part 2 of 3: Modern Times


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