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  • Writer's pictureRosie Wright

The Repulse Bay Series (Part 2): The Expansion of Hong Kong's South Side in the Golden Age of Travel



Reporting on the Repulse Bay Hotel's opening night on the 2nd of January, 1920, the Hong Kong Telegraph wrote that "practically every motor car in the Colony must have been requisitioned, for there was a constant stream of cars arriving at the Hotel from soon after 2.30 p.m." The hotel was an immediate success and was quickly considered a valued commodity for tourists and residents alike to enjoy the relaxing and exotic ambiance of the bay, which many considered an essential escape from the dense city limits. Other than a few country houses vaguely scattered across the prodigious setting lining the coast, little inhabited the picturesque backdrop of Repulse Bay. Prior to the hotel's establishment, no road connected the coastline to the city; the owners of these country houses traveled first by boat and then by horseback or rickshaw. It was not until the hotel's initial construction that a road connecting the island's south side to the heart of the city was considered possible.



The post-World War era ushered in a fresh and exciting period of global travel, especially to destinations in Asia. This new world brought forth opportunities to travel to places people had previously only dreamt about. Cars became a norm for many rather than a novelty. At the same time, airlines were being replaced by ocean liners - although at a much slower pace. By the mid-1930s, the China Clipper, introduced by Pan American Airways and launched from San Franciso, offered passengers the opportunity of a fleeting trip across the Pacific to Hong Kong in only 65 hours.


 

This famous picture reveals a rare sight into quite an early entrepreneurial venture waged by a gentleman called Charles de Ricou. A pilot during the Great War, De Ricou established the Macau Aerial Company (MAT) intending to bring back to life the many deactivated aircraft and well-trained pilots tossed aside following the Armistice of 1918. With his forward-thinking vision, De Ricou proposed linking Macau with Hong Kong by transporting passengers, mail, and cargo via seaplanes. With its clean and fresh waters, Repulse Bay would become the company headquarters on the first few flights available until the Government swiftly ended the enterprise.

 

The terrain between the city of Victoria (now referred to as Central) and the southside was vast and could only be reached with some difficulty. The few who owned luxury bungalows on the south side traveled firstly by boat and then often by horse or sedan chair up the mountain. At the time of opening, the journey between Victoria and Repulse Bay covered roughly 13 miles, and "the cost of gasoline plus the wear and tear of tires" made establishing a motor coach service problematic and an unprofitable business for the hotel company. Motorcars were reasonably new to Hong Kong, although their capacity began picking up speed around the time of the hotel's establishment. However, these new forms of transport were not introduced to the Colony without issue. In fact, Hong Kong's population was particularly disgruntled by the introduction of cars that would inevitably take away business from their culturally famous sedan chairs and rickshaws.


The first motor cars arrived in Hong Kong between 1903-05. By 1910, their numbers increased to around 10-15, causing a cautious and suspicious population to worry about the dangers moving vehicles might create on Hong Kong's narrow and overpopulated streets. In 1912, a group of prominent citizens sent a petition listing several demands, branding the newly introduced Motor Car in the Colony as a "nuisance and a menace." Many believed that these cars not only brought chaos to the narrow streets typically crowded with pedestrians and sedan chairs but were also a great danger to the population, as evidenced by the growing number of accidents. With the cars now numbering around 10-20, prominent individuals in Hong Kong's elite sent an appeal entitled the "Monster Petition" to the Governor pleading to either "legislate for or...order the total prohibition of motor car traffic in this Colony." Legislations were undoubtedly introduced to reduce the freedoms initially allowed by the motorcar, but with all the convenience that came with the "loud and menacing vehicle," nothing was stopping their ban from the Colony. By 1919, most of those with country houses on the island's south side had abandoned the sedan chair for what they considered a far more convenient form of transport.



Preliminary construction of the hotel commenced as early as 1915 when an East Wing was established on the mountainous terrain looming over the bay. Rooms were found in the following years as the end of the First World War approached. However, by 1923, no direct road from Victoria to Repulse existed to allow for an affordable coach service. In 1919, a new route from Wong Nai Chung Gap road to Repulse Bay and an extension from Repulse Bay to Stanley became essential to forming accessible routes for Hong Kong residents to explore the city's picturesque South Side. However, the hotel and beach remained relatively isolated as no roads connected Central to the area. The construction of Stubbs Road in 1924 became the golden light at the end of an arduous struggle for the hotel's architects, who expected this connection to commence much earlier. In a letter sent to the Government, the management of the Hongkong and Shanghai Hotel company expressed their anger at the delay, "the hotel has already spent very large sums of money in developing the district…the road which was promised would be commenced in 1920 and pushed through, with the utmost expedition, has not been made."


As a result, Hong Kong residents were highly indebted to the Repulse Bay Hotel and its role in fighting for an extremely accessible road network connecting Victoria to the island's south side. Although initial access to the hotel was somewhat hindered, it did not prevent its occupancy from remaining at total capacity in the first years of its establishment. In 1924, the hotel partnered with the Tramway Company, which operated the Peak Tram, to establish a "cheap and quick service to Repulse Bay, but also a service to the Peak Hotel - thus rendering transportation facilities to houses on the new Peak Motor Road." The service continued to grow, and from the 1930s onwards, a regular bus service was offered at affordable prices, further opening the beach and area to all echelons of HK society.


 

"Driven by Traffic Sergeant Mason and carrying seven passengers. The new cars are Miller-built models on Studebaker chassis, and the design and fittings make them the last word in comfortable traveling. Each passenger has a bucket seat, the cushions and backs being built on Barber double deck springs, amply padded and upholstered in brown leather, together with the wide pile and spacious windows making them ideal for local conditions."

Hong Kong Daily Press, 1926-10-14

 

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