Hong Kong – The First Construction Boom

Tymon Mellor: Since the early days of the British colony, residential and commercial development have driven much of the economy. The initial land sales provided sites for merchants to build godowns to store their wares, generating revenue for the new administration and providing confidence in the stability in the colony. Construction of elegant buildings and urban infrastructure created the first construction boom requiring the mobilisation of the local craftsmen supported by the engineering experience of the British military.

Born out of War

The colony of Hong Kong was born out of commercial frustration resulting in the Opium Wars, or as the Economist put it in 1851, “Just then our traders were harassed almost to death at Canton. They were insulted by mobs and injured by the (Chinese) Government. Their business was almost strangled by exactions, or terrified to death by hostile acts and still more hostile threat. They were delighted with the prospect of a British settlement on the spot, where their vessels could ride in safety, and their persons and property be as secure as in England”[1].

During the second battle of Chuenpi on the 7th January 1841, the British destroyed 11 Chinese Junks and captured the forts controlling the Pearl River. With limited options, the Convention of Chuenpi was drafted and concluded on the 20 January 1841 establishing diplomatic rights, release of kidnapped British citizens, reopening of trading in Canton, a payment of six million silver dollars and the cession of Hong Kong Island in exchange for the captured island of Zhoushan.

Six days later on Monday 25th January, 1841 at fifteen minutes past eight, Commander Belcher, along with his officers landed on Hong Kong Island at what would be called Possession Point, drank to Her Majesty’s health with three cheers. Commodore Bremer would arrive the following day to formally raise the British flag on the new acquisition.

Before the British

On hearing the news of the Chuenpi agreement in January 1841, granting Hong Kong to the British, the Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston was not happy, as he considered the territory to be ‘a barren island with hardly a house on it’[2]. This was a little unfair. It may not have been as sophisticated as Manila or as cosmopolitan as Macau, but it did have a thriving local community of farmers, fisherman, quarry men and pirates!

The island was administered from Nam Tau on Deep Bay just outside the present Sino-British boundary. Assistant magistrates were located at several places in the district with the officer responsible for the Hong Kong villages located at Kwun Fu Shih. This sub-magistracy had previously been located near Sham Chun, but, shortly after the cession of Hong Kong the sub-magistracy was moved to Kowloon City after a wall was built around the city in 1847.

There were no public buildings on the island, except a ‘small tumble-down Chinese house at Chek-choo (now Stanley) and another at Shek-pie-wan (now Aberdeen) where petty mandarins stopped occasionally’[3].

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1841 Census

The island had a number of villages and hamlets, the largest being Chek-choo or Stanley as it was renamed by the British, with around 200 residents. The second Hong Kong Gazette of May 1841 included an estimate of the island population, reporting 7,450[4]. However, many commentators identified the population of 2,000 at Stanley was probably a typo and should have read 200, reducing the total population to 5,650. This would then be compatible to the residence report in 1845 indicating that Stanley with a large detachment of European troops had a population of 800[5].

The Valley of Hong Kong 1843 by T B Collinson (Probably Wong Chuk Hang area)

Much of the population lived either on boats or in simple stone cottages with wooden roofs devoting their time to farming, trading and quarrying. Around a third of the population lived on boats, fishing and providing rudimentary transport services. The only commodity for export was granite, excavated from quarries along the coastline and transported by boat into the mainland.

The City of Victoria

Along the north shore of Hong Kong Island was just a track running along the foreshore used by fishermen and farmers, before the ground rose into the foothills of Victoria Peak. Following the acquisition of the territory in February 1841, parties of British and foreign merchants and missionaries came to visit Hong Kong from Macau to identify sites for warehouses and residences[6]. By March the military had erected mat-sheds and temporary huts on what would become Victoria.

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Hong Kong Island by Lt John Ouchterlony (1842)

By August 1841 a detachment of the Madras sappers and miners had constructed a fort on Kellett’s Island, and two batteries for heavy pieces were erected at either end of northern coast. Lieutenant Ouchterlony of the Madras sappers, remained as Garrison Engineer and part time painter at Hong Kong until in September 1843 when he had been relieved by Major Aldrich of the Royal Engineers[7].

Hong Kong was initially regarded as a British port suitable for “careen [cleaning] and refit their ships and keep stores for that purpose” (Article 3 Nanking Treaty) but it was soon clear that there was great interest in developing the site and establishing a secure eastern trading station. In June 1841 Captain Elliot issued a proclamation declaring Hong Kong a free port, “Hongkong being on the shores of the Chinese Empire, neither will there be any charges on imports and exports payable to the British Government”[8]. Along with the protection of the army and adoption of British law there was great demand to establish a foothold on the new land.

Within a few months, an extensive trade had developed moving goods sold in Hong Kong to the mainland, “Small vessels were passing hourly between Canton and Hongkong carrying the goods which were sold by sample at the former place”[9]. Many merchants were purchasing land from the existing inhabitants to erect stores, offices and workshops. The rights to sell the land was dubious as the inhabitants were probably just tenant farmers, to the absentee owners of the Tang family[10].

Queens Road West, The Illustrated London News (1857)

Recognising the demand and confident that the British Government would recognise Hong Kong as a colony, in June 1841 Captain Elliot commenced the sale of sea front and suburban land lots. The sale was for the rental of the land lots on the basis that it would be developed within six-months. With an initial 33 lots sold, Hong Kong had its first construction boom.

By September 1841, as reported in the Journal of Occurrences, ‘Hongkong seems to be gradually rising into notice. The number of Chinese now on the island is said to be no less than 15,000, three times what it was twelve months ago. A granite jail has been completed, and a court-house is being erected. Sickness has greatly diminished; and a carriage and pair with coachman, & coach, have just arrived from Manila to show off on the new road’[11].

Masons preparing stone at East Point (1856)

The signing of the Treaty of Nanking in August 1842 marked the end of the First Opium war and the cession of Hong Kong Island to the British. In advance of the formal treaty in April 1843 the British Privy Council formally adopted Hong Kong as a Crown Colony guaranteeing protection by the imperial forces[12].

Earlier in January, 1843 the Board of Ordnance selected Major Edward Aldrich RE to be the first Commander Royal Engineers with direction to construct permanent facilities for the military and installation of public services.

With no available supply chain, builders had to make do with what was available or import the necessary materials. Local kilns on the southside of the island produced lime from crushed seashells along with sundried and fired clay bricks. Mixed with river sand, the lime produced a mortar suitable for bedding bricks and stone as well as a simple wall render. Where strength was required, concrete made with cement and local aggregates had to be adopted, but there was no local source and for the original Pok Fu Lam dam, constructed in 1861, the cement had to be imported from Britain. It would not be until 1886 that Green Island Cement opened its first factory in Macau and 1898 when a factory was opened in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong Island by R Spencer (1844)

The one resource in ample supply locally was rock granite, with 1,655 masons recorded in the 1841 census reflecting nearly 30% of the island’s resident population. Quarrying occurred all over the island but most notably at Quarry Bay, but it was also dominant at Stone Cutter’s Island and on the Kowloon peninsula. The material was used locally in the construction of forts, buildings and marine structures but much was exported to southern China and wider markets including the USA, Australia and India[13]. The quarry-men were notable for their attitude; “stone-masons are distinguished by their incivility to foreigners and general truculence”[14].

The rock was quarried using simple tools of maul (hammer), chisel and wedge. A series of holes were hammered out at equal intervals along the rock, into which iron wedges were subsequently driven to split the rock. Even with the advent of explosives after around 1860, mechanical breaking of the rock remained a popular approach.

There was no indigenous local forest, so timber for construction had to be imported. Basic construction timber was sourced from Canton while quality timber for beams, doors and window frames was imported from Manila and Singapore[15]. Glass and plumbing also had to be imported, but there were many local cabinet makers who could manufacture household furniture from Mahogany or Camphor wood.

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Typical House Section from Chadwick Report (1882)

By 1847 over 1,000 properties had been constructed, but the poor quality and limited experience of the local building trade quickly gained a bad reputation, “Chinese builders were the greatest scamps if not well looked after”[16]. This was only reinforced when a building collapsed during construction. During the construction of an early three-storey building, the architect died, and the builder continued without supervision. While the roof was being installed, the main wing of the building collapsed killing and injuring several workers. On inspection, the brick walls, specified as 0.6-0.9m thick using a brick and mortar bedding were found to be just bricks placed on top of each with only a lime render for decoration. The building was demolished and rebuilt under the supervision of an English overseer. Unfortunately, the builder used sand from the sea and the latent salt had a negative effect on all surface painting[17].

The Chinese houses constructed from blacken-burnt bricks on granite foundations with the walls covered with a lime mortar or chunam. Typically, two stories high, the buildings had wooden fronts and venetian windows. For a more prestigious look, stone columns were introduced using locally quarried and dressed granite.

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The Esing Bakery on Queen’s Road Famous for a Mass Poisoning The Illustrated London News Mar 1857

The roofs of the buildings were constructed from locally fired tiles, each measuring 250mm by 200mm and curved, rather than the British approach of overlapping the tiles, these were set side-by-side then covered with a layer of lime mortar allowing a second layer to be placed, offset by half a tile. This approach provided a weather proof arrangement suitable for high winds and rain but at a significant weight.

On some residential buildings, the walls were formed with “neichune” a sort of dry pack mortar made from sand, chunam and soil; compacted between two timber shutters to form a crude concrete wall. For those with a limited housing budget, the properties were constructed from palm or leaf tied to a bamboo frame shed, as typically used by workmen to provide protection from the sun during building construction.

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Interior of a Matt Shed, The Illustrated London News Aug 1857

Much of the construction work was undertaken by ‘coolies’, a word suggesting bonded labour but was a generic term used in south Asia for a common labourer[18]. The expanding construction work on the island attracted unskilled labour from all over southern China resulting in the population growing to 15,000 by September 1841[19]. Living in matt sheds, they were on hand to undertake any necessary unskilled task such as levelling ground, with hundreds employed to flatten the tops of hills and to prepare for the foundations of buildings. With nothing but a little hoe and two baskets hanging from a bamboo pole over their shoulders, they cleared the sites, one spade at a time.

The westerners appreciated their hard work, but were equally condescending; “And when seated on the ground at dinner in a circle round a centre basin, each with his little bowl of rice, which he shovelled into his mouth with his chopsticks, and occasionally dipping into the centre basin for a bit of flesh or fish, and chattering all the while, you would have said they were the happiest race in the world, and it was purely an animal happiness”[20].

Following the initial marine lot land sales, sea walls were constructed for the godowns with a road along the front forming the Praya. On the inland side of the stores was Queens Road and houses erected on the hillside to form the growing town. Buildings spung up in West Point, Happy Valley, Spring Gardens, along Queens Road, below Wyndham Street and Sai Ying Pun.

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Development of Victoria (1843)

One of the first public buildings erected was a gaol on the site of the former Victoria Prison, constructed out of granite and completed in September 1841, and this was followed by a courthouse on the junction of Wellington Street with Wyndham Street completed in October 1844.

Hong Kong was not a healthy place. The poorly drained ground, poor sanitation conditions and still summer air resulted in high rates of malaria infections along with plague. In 1843 the annual death rate amongst the European troops in Hong Kong was 22% and higher amongst the Indian troops due to fever and dysentery[21]. To improve the conditions for the troops, a major barracks was erected in Stanley where the environment was better.

The location of Victoria was not the first choice for the British, as an initial proposal was to develop the new city on Lantau, an island with more flat land, good anchorage and plentiful supplies of water. However, there was concern that the much larger island would be harder to defend, requiring a larger military presence to protect against thieves, pirates and an enemy[22].

With the arrival of Major Aldrich RE in June 1843, he immediately undertook a review of the situation. The Government had sold off plots of land, without any due planning or, it would seem, consultation with the military. The British garrison mainly comprising of troops from India, including military engineers from the Madras Engineers, had established mat shed barracks and a fort at Kellett’s Island along with two batteries for heavy guns[23].

Aldrich’s first job was to secure the necessary land for a permanent barracks and military facilities. In some cases, this required the acquisition of land that had only just been sold. With limited resources, Aldrich also undertook the design of many of the buildings himself, including Government House and what was called Ordinance Building. Work commenced on the latter in mid-1845 with the building to be used as officers’ quarters, and this would be later named Murray House, after Sir George Murray, the British Master-General of the Ordnance at the time.

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Murray House London Illustrated News Dec 1856

Lieutenant Thomas Collinson RE arrived in Hong Kong in October 1843 to prepare the first topographical map of Hong Kong Island. As a keen artist, he sketched parts of the island as well as of building construction, the latter being so unique that Major Aldrich published an article illustrated by Collinson about the methods adopted[24].

The first activity was to clear the site and prepare a base suitable as a foundation. This was undertaken with teams of coolies using hand tools. Where rock was encountered, this was levelled using explosives and manual labour. The process of opening up the ground, be it for terracing, roads or foundations resulted in an increase in malaria incidents, known as Hong Kong fever, the areas were potent until the ground had dried out[25]. The spread of the fever was particularly bad in areas such as West Point barracks and Sai Yin Pun, requiring the rapid construction of hospitals and cemeteries.

The foundations of the buildings used local granite fixed with mortar, the exposed stones being hand finished on site. To protect the workers from the sun and rain, a bamboo structure was erected and covered with mat sheets. These bamboo structures were secured using rattan lashings and provided access for the masons to construct the building.

Stone Masons Dressing Columns for the RE Offices Quarters (1846)

For the transport of the heavy masonry, manual labour was used. Using a lifting frame fabricated from bamboo and wood, a team of 36 men would carry the granite pieces weighing up to 2 tonnes 800m from the delivery boat to the building site. When moving, all the bearers had to maintain step and while moving and shifting the weight from one shoulder to the next.

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Coolie Lifting Frame (1846)

The British tried to introduce new technology to move the stones in the form of horse and cart, but when first adopted one of the workers fell off and was crushed to death under the wheels. This was a sufficiently bad omen not to adopt foreign ideas.

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Coolies Carrying Granite Column (1846)

Once the heavy pieces had arrived at the site, they had to be lifted into place. A rudimentary windlass was employed, using a 300mm timber axle secured to a light frame at each end. Rattan lashings were then used to act as levers to turn the axle and raise the load. Again, the adoption of a modern crab capstan was rejected by the workers, preferring to use the combined strength of 28 men to lift the roofing timbers and 462 granite columns.

Lifting Stone Column for the RE Officers Quarters (1846)

Where space allowed, inclined ramps were constructed, allowing the materials to be carried closer to the place of installation consisting of a bamboo frame supporting light China fir boards. The whole structure was secured together with rattan lashings.

Construction Officers Quarters (1846)

With much of the poorer development using timber and matting, the buildings were susceptible to damage and fire. On December 28th, 1851 during a strong gale, a fire broke out near Sheung Wan market north of Queens Road, and 472 Chinese houses along with the P&O godown were destroyed and 30 people were killed[26].

The back-to-back arrangement of the properties, with an average of 16 people per household, limited water and no sewage provision resulted in cramp and overcrowded living conditions. This would ultimately lead to the plague of 1894. With 50% of the cases in the Tai Ping Shan area, 10 acres containing 385 houses was cleared and 7,000 residents made homeless. Over the next four years the area was rebuilt with improved drainage, ventilation and a new park, Blake Garden.



  1. Trade of Hong Kong, The Economist, 8 March 1851
  2. Hong Kong Island Before 1841, James Hayes, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch, Vol 24 1984
  3. A.R. Johnston “Note on the Island of Hong Kong” in London Geographical Journal, XIV, reprinted in the Hong Kong Almanack and Directory, 1846
  4. The Chinese Repository From January to December, 1841, Vol X, 1841
  5. A.R. Johnston “Note on the Island of Hong Kong” in London Geographical Journal, XIV, reprinted in the Hong Kong Almanack and Directory, 1846
  6. Europe In China, The History of Hongkong From the Beginning to the year 1882, E J Eitel, 1895
  7. The Military History Of The Madras Engineers And Pioneers, From 1743 Up To The Present Time, Major H M Vibart, 1883
  8. Europe In China, The History of Hongkong From the Beginning to the year 1882, E J Eitel, 1895
  9. Europe In China, The History of Hongkong From the Beginning to the year 1882, E J Eitel, 1895
  10. Hong Kong Island Before 1841, James Hayes
  11. The Chinese Repository From January to December, 1841, Vol X, 1841
  12. Far Eastern Outpost, Lt Colonel R S Hawkins, The royal Engineers Journal, March 1968
  13. Report on the History of Quarrying in Hong Kong 1840-1940, SW Poon and KY Ma
  14. The Treaty Ports of China and Japan, 1867
  15. Hong Kong Almanack, 1848
  16. Hong Kong Almanack, 1848
  17. Hong Kong Almanack, 1848
  18. Seven Years’ Service On the Borders of the Pacific Ocean 1843–1850, unpublished notes by T B Collinson, https://tiaki.natlib.govt.nz/#details=ecatalogue.9216
  19. Chinese Repository, Volume X From Jan to Dec 1841
  20. Seven Years’ Service On the Borders of the Pacific Ocean 1843–1850, unpublished notes by T B Collinson, https://tiaki.natlib.govt.nz/#details=ecatalogue.9216
  21. Far Eastern Outpost, RS Hawkins RE, The Royal Engineers Journal, Mar 1968
  22. Narrative of the Voyages and Services of the Nemesis, Vol II, 1844
  23. The Military History of the Madras Engineers and Pioneers, from 1743 up to the Present Time, Vol 2, Major HM Vibart 1883
  24. Description of the Mat Covering Sheds used in Hong Kong in the Erection of the Ordinance Building, and of the mode adopted by the Chinese in transporting and raising heavy Weights for these buildings, Major Aldrich RE, Papers on the subjects connected with the Duties of the Corps of Royal Engineers, Vol X, 1849
  25. Europe In China, The History of Hongkong From the Beginning to the year 1882, E J Eitel, 1895
  26. Europe In China, The History of Hongkong From the Beginning to the year 1882, E J Eitel, 1895

This article was first posted on 22nd January 2024.


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