Chapter 2: Impact of the Bubonic Plague on the Urban Development of Hong Kong 1895–1940
Actions to combat the bubonic plague
The bubonic plague, which exerted terrible impact on Hong Kong for 30 years, was literally a nightmare for the inhabitants of the territory. The annual threat was keenly felt by the people until 1923 when the epidemic ceased to attack. In 1895 there were 1 204 cases of infection, 1 078 of which reported deaths. The mortality rate in that year was 89%, a little lower than that of 1894, the previous year, when there were 2 550 deaths and the mortality rate was 93.4%. The number of plague cases went down to 21 in 1897 but rose to 1 315 in 1898, and 1 240 of the infected victims were Chinese. Fatal cases in 1898 amounted to 1 111, and the mortality rate was 89.6%.
From then on, plague cases averaged over 1 000 per year until the year of 1904. From 1904 to 1911, the number of infected cases decreased sharply, and fatal cases in 1910 went down to 23. However, the number of fatal cases rose again to 1 768 in 1912 and reached 2 020 in 1914. In 1922, just a year before the plague's total disappearance, the number of fatal cases was still as high as 1 071.
At the onset of the Bubonic Plague, the government only resorted to inhabitation measures that involved burning of plague-struck homes and furniture as deterrent to spread of the epidemic.
At the Central District in 1901, dead bodies of the epidemic victims were carried away from the scene.
As the Bubonic Plague spread in Tai Ping Shan, quite a number of residences migrated to Mainland China as the epidemic became serious.
In this desperate situation, drastic actions had to be taken by the Government to combat the epidemic. One of these actions was the dismantling of the Tai Ping Shan District, where sanitary conditions were particularly poor. This area of altogether 6.25 acres was resumed by the Government on 26 September 1894. As a first step, much of the woodwork was removed, and some of the buildings were demolished.
On 20 September 1895, construction of a stormwater drain running from Caine Lane to Hollywood Road was commenced. Later that year, construction of the lower portion of Pound Lane and Tai Ping Shan Street was also started, involving the erection of heavy retaining walls along the frontage of these streets. Construction was completed towards the end of the year, and a new area was thus laid out, bounded by Market Street, Po Yan Street, (Upper) Station Street and Pound Lane.
After the demolition of Tai Ping Shan District in 1895, the site was later rebuilt as Blake Garden.
A harbour view, circa 1900s. Though interrupted by the visitations of the plague, the Hong Kong economy was on the road to steady development.
Other sweeping actions to maintain and improve the sanitary conditions of Hong Kong were also started, noticeably in the construction of sewerage and drainage systems. This was the result of repeated complaints voiced by the commercial sector against the Government.
On 7 June 1901, Mr. Chatterton Wilcox, then Secretary of the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, sent a letter to the Colonial Secretary to state his views on the situation. He observed that although the bubonic plague seemed to have become an annual visitation at the time, the authorities were practically as helpless as they had been in 1894. The number of infected cases was almost the same as the number of deaths, and the exodus of the Chinese was accelerating on a formidable scale.
Wilcox referred to a speech given by the Medical Officer of Health, Dr. William Francis Clark, which mentioned a number of recommendations made by Osbert Chadwick in 1882. He argued that all these recommendations suggested necessary action, but up to 1901 few actions had been carried out, and most of the recommendations were simply ignored. He therefore urged the Government to take vigorous steps to secure the continued development of the colony and to adequately protect merchants' commercial interests which were gravely affected by the annual outburst of the epidemic.
Having settled with the Government authorities some minor disagreement over the choice of words in their formal exchanges, the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce eventually affirmed their recommendation to expedite improvements to the sanitary conditions in Hong Kong, and assured the Government of the loyal support and co-operation of the Chamber.
As a result of these exchanges, Osbert Chadwick was invited to come to Hong Kong for a third time in 1902, to give advice, once again, on the territory's sanitary conditions. In his report, he proposed to construct the drainage and sewerage system into two separate systems. With regard to the street sewerage system, he submitted seven proposals:
1) Complete sewage outfalls across the New Reclamation (Praya);
2) Enhance the clearance of rubbish being dumped into the sewers;
3) Replace existing gully trap gratings with improved traps and gratings
4) Test the effectiveness of vigorous flushing at low tides with well or sea water on a section of sewers near outfall. If the effect was good, the same system could be extended to other sections;
5) Close ventilation openings in the sewer manholes;
6) If ventilation openings proved to be necessary, provide house sewers with either ventilating pipes or separate elevated vent-pipes to prevent smelling gas from entering the house;
7) Cut down trees wherever their roots obstructed the sewers, or replace cast iron pipes for stone-ware pipes with lead and yarn joints to allow movement of sewage.
Peel Street at Central, circa 1990s. During the period, sewers were situated right in front of the dwellings.
There are two types of drainage systems, the Combined System and the Separate System. In the Combined System, which was adopted worldwide in the 19th century, the stormwater and foul sewage use the same drainage network. The Separate System, on the other hand, is constructed to separate the sewerage system from the stormwater system.
Regarding the stormwater drainage system, Chadwick proposed the following:
1) Cover drains or nullahs as far as possible;
2) Keep inverts of outfalls at mean sea level or higher if possible;
3) In flat areas near the sea, wherever covered drains were necessary, align drains by the shortest possible route to special outlets to the sea but do not connect them to main drains or nullahs that were tide-locked;
4) In new districts, plan alignment and levels of streets to minimise the length and size of the underground drains;
5) As keeping sewage out of the drains was the main function of sewers, it was more important to exclude sewage from the drains than to keep out rainwater from the sewers. With the gradients in Hong Kong it was almost always possible to provide stormwater overflows should any sewer become filled with rain-water;
6) Produce a complete record plan for the drains in Hong Kong, so that a definite scheme could be worked out.
Street sewers at Central District, circa 1920s.
Waterfront in Central District in early 1920s. Outfall of sewers are visible along the seawall.
The impact of the bubonic plague prompted the Government to take immediate action to redistribute Hong Kong's population away from the old Tai Ping Shan District and even away from the City of Victoria. This was not to say that redistribution of population was not a problem for consideration before the outbreak of the plague, for over-population had always been a problem in the City of Victoria. In 1881, the inhabitants of the City of Victoria alone accounted for 71.5% (70.8% in 1891, 61.6% in 1901, and 47.7% in 1911) of Hong Kong's total population, posing a very serious threat to sanitation. Subsequent to the outbreak of the plague in 1894, redistribution of population away from the City of Victoria had become a pressing problem of grave concerns.
Overcrowded housing condition in Sheung Wan, circa 1910s.
Expansion of Hong Kong Island
When working out the overall plan for population redistribution, the Government decided to find more land for the growth of the city both on Hong Kong Island and Kowloon peninsula. Thus began the expansion of Hong Kong Island to its east-end and west-end and a phase of city planning and expansion in Kowloon. According to the recommendation of Chadwick, the drainage infrastructures should be designed with a very clear goal to keep sewage out of the drains, which meant that the sewerage system should be separated from the drainage system.
The expansion of Hong Kong Island was to be realised through the implementation of the East and West Praya Reclamation Scheme. In 1875, actions were taken to initiate reclamation in Western District, but little progress was made owing to shortage of funds and disputes with the existing lot holders and the military over land rights along the Praya. In 1887, Paul Chater of the Hong Kong and Kowloon Wharf and Godown Company sought to re-energise the Scheme. In that year, consensus was finally reached between the Government and the business sector to enable the full-scale launching of this ambitious reclamation project.
Waterfront in Central District in 1890s. The reclamation scheme at the waterfront has just been commenced. Markers indicate the proposed shoreline (Connaught Road Central to-date).
Waterfront at Sheung Wan (the land at the area reclaimed from the waterfront reclamation scheme) was immediately filled up with buildings.
The reclamation works extended westward to the gas works of Hong Kong and China Gas Co. Ltd. at West Point and eastward to Murray Pier, covering a distance of 3 400 yards (10 200 feet) with a width of 250 feet, yielding an area of about 59 acres. Clearly, the reclaimed land would relieve the pressure created by the rising influx of immigrants in the late 19th Century. According to the then Surveyor General, Mr. J. M. Price, large areas of flat land were required on Hong Kong Island to house an annual population increase of 8 000 in 1887, which represented a jump from a net increase of 1 500 people in 1873.
Of the 59 acres of land created by the West Praya Reclamation Scheme, an area of 26.2 acres was made available for commercial and residential developments. An estimated 1 320 tenements could be built to house 39 000 people. The reclaimed area would be sufficient to meet the additional housing requirements for the next five years, given the forecast of the annual net increase of 8 000 people in 1887 made by the Surveyor General. The Praya West Reclamation Scheme, commenced in 1889, was completed in 1903.
In 1897, when the Western District-Central Reclamation was in full swing, the Government commenced planning for the Praya East Reclamation. It began from the junction of Hennessy Road and Johnston Road to Percival Street. The project had the same aim of easing population density in the City of Victoria and of providing better sanitary conditions for the inhabitants of Hong Kong.
Prior to the Praya East Reclamation Project, some small-scaled site formation works were completed before 1900. The newly formed sites were provided with stormwater drains and sewers. This site, where Russell Street is today, was earmarked for industrial uses.
The Praya East waterfront prior to reclamation, circa 1910s.
Unfortunately, during its early stage the Praya East Reclamation project encountered the same obstacles faced by its Western District counterpart. Little or no progress was seen in its formative years dating from 1901. The project was held up for 20 years owing to reservations held by the Royal Navy against the relocation of the Naval Hospital.
Through the perseverance of Paul Chater, reclamation was finally commenced on 1 November 1921. Originally, the project was planned to be completed within six years. Owing to various problems it was not finished until 1931. An area of approximately 90 acres of new land was created. The scheme built a total of 13 645 feet of roads with a width of 75 feet and another 2 080 feet with a width of 100 feet.
The existing drainage system was to some extent affected by the reclamation. The original drainage system on Nos. 68–80 and 99–116 of Praya East had to be raised by two feet to align with the new drainage system. In addition, 18 993 feet of sewers and 14 360 feet of stormwater drains had to be reconstructed. To connect the road drainage to the seafront, it was necessary to construct a 36-foot wide nullah at Bowrington Canal stretching over a distance of 650 feet. New sewers installed at the reclamation area totalled 22 239 feet in length, with another 16 276 feet of stormwater drains.
The completion of the Praya East Reclamation project produced a total area of about 3 739 600 square feet (approximately 90 acres) of new land. This enabled the erection of 608 Chinese houses along the Praya with modern hygiene facilities, fulfilling at the time the call for better sanitation and more decent housing conditions for the community.
Old Wanchai District: Wanchai Road, circa 1900s.
Bowrington Canal, 1900s.
Due to a tide of objection to the Praya East Reclamation Project, the plan failed to start. At that time, Johnston Road was still an undeveloped waterfront.
The Praya East Reclamation Project included the extension of existing drainage channel to the new reclamation area.
New Wanchai District: The newly erected flats along Hennessy Road after the completion of Praya East Reclamation Project, circa 1935.
New flats in Causeway Bay were provided with well-laid stormwater drains
Wong Nai Chung Village prior to demolition, 1900s.
The activities relating to the drainage infrastructures constructed in Hong Kong Island during the period of 1895–1940:
Construction works began at Tytam Tuk, including the reconstruction of street gullies and the training of nullahs for improving the sanitary conditions of some residential districts.
About $40 000 was spent on nullah training in the Colonyand $20 000 on the reconstruction of street gullies to improve the city drainage system.
Reconstruction of gullies and extension of nullah training continued. $10 000 was spent on the former and over $16 000 on the latter. A large tank for flushing a portion of the sewerage of the city was constructed in Blake Garden.
Reconstruction of gullies and extension on nullah training continued. $10 000 was spent on the former and over $23 500 on the latter.
A large tank for flushing a portion of the sewerage of the city was constructed at the junction of Water Street and Queen's Road West.
The raising of a considerable section of sunken sewers in Connaught Road was carried out.
Work was completed on the reconstruction of gullies and the training of the large nullah, west of the University site, from Hill Road to the Pokfulam Conduit. Replacement of defective earthenware pipes by iron pipes was in progress.
The training of some nullahs between Bowen Road and Magazine Gap to the east of the Military Hospital was completed. Similar work over a considerable length of nullahs was in progress south of Magazine Gap in the valley below the Military Sanatorium. A considerable length of the nullah at No. 12 Bridge, Shau Kei Wan, was also trained and the stream flowing past Pokfulam Village was channeled or otherwise improved.
Underground tanks were constructed at the junction of Arbuthnot Road and Wyndham Street and in Stone Nullah Lane for the purpose of flushing sewers with flat gradient, and connections with the sewerage were made.
The laying of a sewer in Craigmin Road to intercept wastewater from houses on the southern slopes of Mount Gough was undertaken. Extensive drainage works were also carried out in Shau Kei Wan West.
Since the laying of sewer in 1911, the sanitation condition in houses on the southern slopes of Mount Gough was improved.
A nullah in Hill Road was wrecked by a typhoon in 1926
The training of a section of the Wong Nei Chong Nullah in the vicinity of Wong Nei Chong Village was in progress.
Provision was made for the discharging of stormwater from the site of the University of Hong Kong by the laying of drains in Bonham Road and Hill Road.
The sewer in Craigmin Road to intercept wastewater from houses on the southern slopes of Mount Gough was completed.
Iron pipes replaced earthware pipes for sewers in Matheson Street, Leighton Hill Road and Wong Nei Chong Valley.
Streams in the Wong Nei Chong, Wan Chai, Bowen Road, Magazine Gap, and Mount Austin districts were trained.
10 000 feet of streams were trained in the vicinity of Shau Kei Wan and Pokfulam, in the City of Victoria and Hill Districts and in Kowloon.
Large-scale extensions of sewers for new building lots were carried out in Hong Kong and Kowloon.
The training of the extensive system of nullahs in So Kun Po Valley was completed.
The project of Ap Lei Chau Reclamation was completed.
The existing outfall from below Wan Chai Gap was extended to the sea near Aberdeen.
On Hong Kong Island, a 9.6 feet horseshoe concrete culvert from Wan Chai Road to the Praya was finished and a 7.6 feet concrete culvert from Leighton Hill Road to the Praya was under construction, which was finished in 1925.
On Hong Kong Island, satisfactory progress was made on the reconstruction of Wong Nei Chong Nullah. Sections 1 and 2 from Blue Pool Road to the Race Stand were completed.
Good progress was made on the rehabilitation of drainage in the areas between the Praya and Queen's Road East in the Praya East Reclamation Scheme.
On Hong Kong Island, the construction of Section 3 (from Bowrington Canal to the Chinese Race Stand) of the Wong Nei Chong Nullah was about half-finished at the end of the year.
New sewers and stormwater drains were laid to a length of 2 500 feet. Stream courses were trained to a length of 2 450 feet.
Wong Nei Chong was under development, circa 1930s. The nullah was located on Village Road, shown in the center of the photo.
Construction of Section 3 of the Wong Nei Chong Nullah was completed at the end of November. Construction of Section No. 4 (in front of the Jockey Club Stand) commenced in March and was half-finished at the end of the year.
On Hong Kong Island, new sewers and stormwater drains were constructed to a length of 6 186 feet. Stream courses were trained to a length of 263 feet. Improvement to the main sewer at Aberdeen Valley began.
The project of the Praya East Reclamation was completed.
On Hong Kong Island, underground drains and sewers were constructed to a length of 11 997 feet and nullahs were constructed up to a length of 334 feet.
On Hong Kong Island, new sewers and stormwater drains were constructed to a length of 5 522 feet and open channels of varying sections to a length of 851 feet were laid. 1 114 feet of parapet wall on nullahs were constructed.
The Tai Hang Nullah bridge was reconditioned, strengthened and extended.
The new Wanchai district built under the Praya East Reclamation Project; Wo Cheong Pawn Shop on the right is the only building remaining today.
Urbanisation of the Kowloon Peninsula
Urban development by the Government was also extended to the Kowloon Peninsula. After it was ceded to and occupied by the British in 1861, the area, in particular Tsim Sha Tsui, had in fact been developed into a military region with foreign dwellings. The most notable move, however, was the decision in 1909 by the Government to reclaim the land around Yau Ma Tei and Mong Kok Tsui (renamed Mong Kok in the 1930s) for the construction of the Yau Ma Tei Typhoon Shelter. The reclaimed land was later developed into a town with modern roads and buildings.
The three districts of Tsim Sha Tsui, Yau Ma Tei and Mong Kok, situated at the tip of the Peninsula, were gradually developed into three prosperous regions, each with its own unique history of development. Their growth was largely the consequence of the Government's land policy.
In developing the Kowloon Peninsula, the Government attempted to reduce its financial commitments by including reclamation projects into its land sales. All the specific reclamation stipulations were laid down by the authorities before the land was auctioned. This was of course intended for effective supervision during construction.
Since the 1880s, the Government had received a large number of land extension applications from the Marine lot owners who offered to undertake the reclamation at their own expense and to pay additional land premiums and Crown rent. The Government, in line with its existing policy, approved most of these applications, thereby reducing its financial commitments in the development of the Kowloon Peninsula. This illustrated the influential role of private developers in urbanising the Kowloon Peninsula.
The southern tip of Kowloon Peninsula, circa 1870s. Except for few villages in Tsim Sha Tsui, there was no other large-scaled development.
At the early stage of Kowloon development, the government focused on developing Yau Ma Tei and Tsim Sha Tsui areas. After completing the reclamation works of northward expansion on Nathan Road and Shanghai streets, large-scaled communities were established. Photo above shows the wreckage along the waterfront at Shanghai street in Yau Ma Tei after typhoon rampage. Kwun Chung Hill lies at the front.
Streams that ran along Kowloon Tong village, circa 1900s. Population at Kowloon Peninsula was sparse.
The activities relating to drainage infrastructures conducted in Kowloon (New Territories included) during the period of 1895–1940:
Streets were laid out at Tai Kok Tsui in Kowloon as part of city planning and expansion.
Laying out of streets at Mong Kok Tsui, north of Yau Ma Tei, was begun as part of city planning and expansion.
The Tai Kok Tsui reclamation project was finished. The system of 100-foot roads in Kowloon was extended. Construction of the section of Robinson Road (later renamed Nathan Road) from north to south between the sea and the Yau Ma Tei Theatre was completed.
Construction of the entire Nathan Road was completed. The original name of the road was Robinson, but the name was later changed to commemorate Governor Nathan's contribution in designing this road which ran northwards from the southern tip of the Peninsula to Boundary Street.
Work on the reconstruction of gullies and extension of nullah training in Waterloo Road, Kowloon, was completed.
The Proclamation of Hung Hom Reclamation Ordinance by the Government was enacted.
Carnarvon Road, circa 1900s; Apart from serving as military camps and warehouses, Tsim Sha Tsui was then inhabited by the Portuguese.
Water carts running across Granville Road, circa 1910s.
In Kowloon, an extension of the nul12lah in Waterloo Road to the north of No. 4 Railway Bridge was carried out.
Extensive drainage works were carried out in Sham Shui Po.
In Kowloon, a further extension of the nullah in Waterloo Road to the north of No. 4 Railway Bridge was nearing completion. A new stormwater drain was laid in Mody Road to intercept the stormwater formerly flowing across Kowloon Inland Lot 575.
An extension of the nullah at the railway yard, Hung Hom, was carried out with a view to obviating the flooding of the yard during heavy rainstorms and subsequent deposit of massive detritus.
Various extensions of sewers for new building lots were carried out and further drainage works were conducted at Sham Shui Po in connection with the reclamation works going on there.
Large-scale extensions of sewers for new building lots were carried out in Kowloon.
Construction of Castle Peak Road and the road from Tai Po to Fan Ling was completed.
The Sham Shui Po Improvement Scheme continued to make progress during which time demolition of entire old villages was carried out and new houses and other buildings were erected on good wide roads.
Village houses in Sham Shui Po before demolition, circa 1910s.
Open sewer at Wuhu Street, Hung Hom, circa 1910s.
New buildings at Ki Lung Street in Sham Shui Po in 1918
Construction of the road from Tsuen Wan to Castle Peak was completed.
Construction of a nullah at Mong Kok Tsui between Tai Po Road and the old Kowloon boundary line near Kowloon Tong was in progress. Training and diversion of the large stream course to the east of Lai Chi Kok began.
Extension of the Mong Kok Tsui Nullah eastward through the railway bridge and the excavation for foundations were well underway. The training and diversion of the stream course to the east of Lai Chi Kok was completed.
The Waterloo Road Nullah was completed in November.
Training and diversion of the main stream course at Ma Tau Chung began in October. The work was conducted together with the Chatham Road Extension and Kowloon Bay West Reclamation.
In Kowloon, the extension of the Mong Kok Tsui Nullah to the Old Kowloon Boundary was completed. Construction of the Ma Tau Chung Nullah made slow progress.
The Nam Cheong Street Nullah from the waterfront to Tai Po Road was completed. The extension of the Mong Kok Tsui Nullah from the old Kowloon Boundary to the Kowloon range of hills was in satisfactory progress.
Development in Kowloon districts turned eastward
The Ma Tau Chung Nullah again made slow progress.
The Ma Tau Chung Nullah was completed. Stormwater drains from 15 inches to 66 inches in diameter were constructed in the Ma Tau Chung District, to a length of 5 600 feet.
The main sewer from Fuk Tsun Heung to Kowloon Tong, east of the Railway, was completed with widths ranging from 6 inches to 33 inches and a length of 8 500 feet. Other sewers and stormwater drains were constructed to an extent of 7 000 feet.
The drainage of the Kowloon Tong Development Area proceeded with construction of sewers and stormwater drains to the extents of 6 500 feet and 3 000 feet respectively. Other sewers and stormwater drains were laid to an extent of 2 900 feet.
The extension of the Mong Kok Tsui Nullah from the Old Kowloon boundary to the Kowloon range of hills was in slow progress.
A section of the large stormwater culvert in Tong Mi Road was completed. A large nullah in the New Cemeteries Area, Ho Man Tin, commenced construction. New sewers and stormwater drains were constructed to a length of 9 030 feet.
New sewers and stormwater drains were constructed to a length of 3 930 feet in the Kowloon Tong Estate. The length of drains constructed was 13 346 feet. Nullah training was carried out on the hillsides north of N.K.I.L. Nos. 420 and 362, Cheung Sha Wan.
In Kowloon, the training of the large nullah in the New Cemeteries Area at Ho Man Tin was completed. New sewers and stormwater drains were constructed to a length of 6 400 feet.
New sewers and stormwater drains were constructed on the Kowloon Tong Development Area to a length of 6 900 feet.
The construction of the nullah on the east side of the Kowloon Tong Development Area was completed.
In the New Territories, sewers were constructed to a length of 200 feet, and about 300 feet of stream course training was completed.
In Kowloon, new sewers and stormwater drains were constructed to a length of 12 682 feet.
In New Kowloon, new sewers and stormwater drains were constructed to a length of 15 471 feet.
In the New Territories, improvements on the Yuen Long nullahs were completed.
Construction of sewers up to a length of 14 641 feet, including 113 feet of open nullahs and 1 278 feet of partially-open nullahs, was completed in Kowloon and the New Territories.
In Kowloon, New Kowloon and the New Territories, new sewers and stormwater drains were constructed up to a length 12 923 feet.
The construction of the Pat Heung Nullah at Shek Kong, New Territories, commenced in 1936, was completed at the end of this year.
Nam Cheong Street nullah (in the right), circa 1950s.
The outbreak of Bubonic Plague in 1894 exerted a devastating impact on Hong Kong. It was only until 1923 that the plague ceased to attack the territory. To contain the Bubonic Plague, the Government vigorously dismantled Tai Ping Shan District, the sanitation black spot. It also took up reclamation projects to create new lands so that population could be re-distributed. The newly erected Tenement Houses in the newly reclaimed districts were provided with modernized sanitation facilities so that more habitable living conditions were rendered to the public.
Sir Chadwick was re-invited to come to Hong Kong to give advice on the territory's sanitary conditions. The Government adopted his recommendations on “separate drainage and sewerage systems”, followed by the building of separate sewerage and stormwater drainage systems across Hong Kong and Kowloon districts. Sanitary conditions in Hong Kong were improved ever since. The pathway towards an independent planning and running for sewerage and stormwater drainage systems was set in place, which had also laid the cornerstone for the later development of drainage services in Hong Kong.