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A view of Hong Kong harbour at sunset

Fragrant Port: The Place Names of Hong Kong

Maybe you’ve heard that Hong Kong means ‘fragrant port’ but do you know how Stanley or Lamma Island got their names? Chatteris’ own Susannah Dinning shares her insight into the origins of some names of places around Hong Kong.

Kowloon, Stanley, Lamma island – all names you say and hear every day in Hong Kong. Maybe you know the meanings of some: ‘Fragrant Port’ being the city’s name itself, and Kowloon translating to ‘Nine Dragons’. But what about the stories behind these names? Read on to find out the unpredictable, silly, and mythical histories behind those oh-so familiar place names! 

香港 – Hoeng gong – ‘Fragrant Port’ – Hong Kong

The origin of this city’s name has a variety of theories. The first one comes from a famous character from Chinese history, the female pirate 鄭一嫂 ‘Zheng Yi Sao’. However, this was not the name her parents gave her – she was born in the mainland province of Guangdong as 石香姑 Shi Xianggu. Her name is pronounced ‘Shek Hoenggu’ in Cantonese, and it is this pronunciation which leads to our first theory.

A view of Hong Kong’s Harbour | Image by Chatteris

 Zheng Yi Sao means ‘Zheng Yi’s wife’, and she was bestowed the title after marrying the pirate 鄭一 Zheng Yi. When he died, she took over his pirate confederation with the support of their adopted son (who she happened to later marry), and became one of the most successful pirates in history. But what is her connection to Hong Kong exactly? In fact, she and her formidable forces occupied Hong Kong island for years. Bases for her fleet spanned all over the South China Sea, with one such base being found in Hong Kong. As a result, some people believe that Hong Kong Island was named after her using her original name (Shek) Hoenggu: 香姑島 Hoenggu Dou, ‘Hoenggu island’. It was later shortened to 香島 Hoeng Dao, ‘Hoeng/Fragrant island’, and from there it quickly became  香港 Hong Kong, presumably as a result of its reputation as a trading port.

The second theory pertains to a river that used to flow through what is now Pok Fu Lam. The locals used this river for drinking water, as it was said to be particularly fresh and sweet. The Chinese word for for this kind of taste is 香 ‘xiang’, and as a consequence, this led to the name 香江 hoeng gong ‘Fragrant River’. Years later, a port was constructed at the mouth of the river, making it only natural that it would go on to be known as the ‘Fragrant Port’.

The third theory relates to the Sea Goddess 天后 Tin Hau – the name may not be familiar, but you can’t live in Hong Kong for long without at some point passing a temple for this deity. She is honoured throughout the Chinese diaspora, and in Hong Kong she is particularly popular. She even has a legend connecting her to the name of the island itself! The story goes that a red incense holder floated in from the sea into one of her temples, the local people believed it to be a sign sent directly from the goddess herself. So, the island became known as 紅香爐港 Hung Hoeng Lou Dou ‘Red Incense Burner Port’ in commemoration of the event. ‘Incense burner’ in Chinese is made up of the characters for ‘fragrant’ 香 and ‘oven’ 爐; and so the shortened version became ‘Fragrant Port’. A trace of this legend can also be found in the name of a mountain on Hong Kong Island called 紅香爐峰 ‘Red Incense Burner Summit’, near Braemar Hill.

However, the most likely origin comes from Hong Kong’s history of growing and selling a certain kind of tree, the aquilaria sinensis. Sha Tin and Lantau had an abundance of these valuable trees, which when chopped down or damaged produced a sweetly scented resin. These trees and the furniture made from them were sold in bulk to China, and other countries overseas – they even travelled as far as Arabia and Africa. In Chinese culture, the wood, called ‘agarwood’, was said to contain auspicious energy called 氣 qi. As a consequence, many religious items were made from it – Buddha statues, incense sticks, and more. From here, it is not hard to understand how the name ‘Fragrant Port’ was born.

九龍(半島) – Gau lung – (bun dou) -‘Nine dragon (peninsula)’ – Kowloon

Kowloon translates to ‘nine dragons’ | Image by Susannah Dinning

The main theory for Kowloon’s name origin relates to the mountains in the area: Kowloon Peak, Tung Shan, Tate’s Cairn, Temple Hill, Unicorn Ridge, Lion Rock, Beacon Hill and Crow’s Nest. These mountains all correspond to the dragons of Kowloon’s namesake. You may have noticed, however, that there are only 8 mountains listed here… so what is represented by the ninth dragon? Well, when the Song Dynasty Emperor Bing fled from the Mongols to Kowloon, he saw these mountains and decided on the name ‘8 dragons’. Soon after he made this suggestion, his entourage reminded him that his role as emperor made him a “dragon among men”, and so the emperor himself represents the ninth dragon.

There is another story which tries to explain Kowloon’s namesake, perhaps a less likely one, but this one has actual dragons in it! According to this legend, there were nine fisherman’s sons playing in the sea one night, and in the light of the full moon they transformed into dragons. These dragons lived in the hills and mountains of the surrounding area, and so it became known as Kowloon.

赤柱 – Cek cyu – ‘Red pillars’ – Stanley

Stanley’s Chinese name, pronounced something like ‘Check choo-eh’, refers to the village-town that came before Stanley. The ‘red pillars’ refer to the massive cotton trees that used to grow there, as when they flowered they became covered with bright red blossoms. There is also another theory reinforcing the notion that Hong Kong was rather popular with pirates. It goes that ‘chek chue’ originally came from different characters with a similar sound: 賊處 or ‘bandit’s place’, i.e. it was a place where pirates lived.

Of course its current name, Stanley, has nothing to do with any of this. Lord Stanley, who later became the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, happened to be the British colonial secretary when Hong Kong was ceded to Britain, and so this region’s legacy of cotton trees and pirate hideouts was replaced by one of British colonialism.

南丫島 – naam aa dou – ‘southern fork island’ – Lamma Island

Lamma Island is only a short ferry from Central | Image by Susannah Dinning

Lamma island’s name is another case of British meddling. Once known as 博寮洲 Bok Liu Zau  ‘island of many huts’, a man named Alexander Dalrymple unwittingly changed its name to ‘Lama’. While reading a Portuguese chart of the region, he assumed that the word next to the island, ‘lama’, was the name, when actually it was referring to the sediment under the sea and how well ship anchors took to it. In short, ‘Lama’ means mud… so Lamma island was accidentally called ‘mud island’. The addition of the extra ‘m’ probably came from a misspelling, and landed us with the name we know today. As it happens, ‘lama’ sounds like ‘naam aa’ in Cantonese, meaning southern fork, and Lamma island is both south of Hong Kong island and shaped vaguely in a fork, or ‘Y’ shape (like the 丫 in 南丫島 )… thus, the Cantonese version was adopted.

Check out our neighbourhood guide to Lamma Island here!

The remnants of Hong Kong’s past can be found everywhere: some are not so hidden, like the influence of colonialism; but for others you have to dig deeper. Place names can let on more than you might think, but if you really want to learn more about the fascinating history of Hong Kong, I would recommend a visit to the Hong Kong Museum of History! This museum and its fantastic exhibitions can be found in Tsim Sha Tsui, just in front of the Avenue of Stars.


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