Yau Ma Tei – origin of place name from rope making?

Lawrence Tsui suggests that the place name Yau Ma Tei originated through the industry there of making marine ropes – literally, ‘Place for the Oily Flex [Flax?] Ropes’.

Hugh Farmer adds: Gwulo had a forum about the origin of the name Yau Ma Tei  in 2006 to which several people contributed quoting a variety of sources. I have included the latter under references at the end of this article.

http://gwulo.com/mtrhistory  mtr? it is the right post, just scroll down a bit

I have extracted relevant parts of this discussion concerning the origin of the name Yau Ma Tei but also included some general background information about the area which is of interest.

“There is also the suggestion by K Barnett that some of the current names actually represent the sounds used by the aboriginal tribes that lived in this area in the 14th century and earlier. One example that he quotes is ‘Yau Ma Tei’… The sounds ‘Yau’ and ‘Ma’ are similar to names of a local hill-tribe, and the local boat-people respectively that lived in the region before the Cantonese-speakers arrived. As ‘Tei’ means ‘place’, he suggests that this marked a place where the two tribes would come together for trade… ” (Barnett)

moddsey commented:

As for Yau Ma Tei, I am not too sure about the Yau and Ma families. My recollection is that its name comes from oil (YAU) and hemp (MA).  Hayes ‘Yau Ma Ti is not mentioned by name in the Commisioners’ Report of 1862, and its earlier origin is therefore in question. However, at the latest estimate, its principal temple, dedicated to Tin Hau, the Queen of Heaven, was located there soon as the Kowloon Peninsula changed hands: two stone lions standing outside the present building are dated 1864. Some years later the Registrar General included a brief mention of Yau Ma Ti in his Census Returns for 1876 in which he wrote: “Yau Ma Ti in Kowloon has become a new Town within the last few months, and it will continue to increase if facilities are afforded to the boat builders and to the junk people who repair thither to careen and repair their vessels, for on these the trade of the place chiefly depends”. In 1882 Osbert Chadwick wrote of the formation of the “irregular group of houses” and the “lack of proper streets” in growing villages like Yau Ma Ti. He went on to describe the environs of the town as follows: “To the north of Yau Ma Ti the shore is lined with establishments for boat people or other trades connected with shipping…. Just to the south of Yau Ma Ti is a sort of mud-dock which dries at half ebb or little bit later. This is occupied by many boats some of which are too old and leaky to go out, and lie here permanently, being used as dwellings. This causes a serious nuisance”. Continuing on…. Under Note 38 of reference to Yau Ma Ti: The name means Oil and Hemp Ground.’
The RAS also published a few years ago a hard cover book titled In the Heart of the Metropolis: Yaumatei and Its People. You may wish to check it out to see if they have more information about the origin of the district.

Mr B continues: I paid a visit to Central library to check the book Moddsey mentions above, and see if there was any other sign of the Yau Ma Tei name. If it only came into use after the 1860’s, it should definitely be translated literally. If it could be considered a phonetic translation of two old tribes names, the name should have been in use for several hundred years.

First I looked for references to ‘yau ma ti’ in the old newspapers that are available for  search online. The earliest reference I could find was in the October 20, 1869 issue of the China daily: “ROBBERY AT YAU-MA TI. Lee Ashui, Lee Asee and Tsun Afook were next placed in dock charged with the robbery (with menaces) from the house of Jeremiah Foley, constable at Yau-mah-ti on the 29th of August last.”

Next stop was the book ‘Mapping Hong Kong – A historical atlas’ by Hal Empson, which has a range of English- and Chinese-language maps. That takes us a little earlier, with an 1866 ‘Map of Sun on district’ by Italian missionary Simeone Volonteri showing ‘jau ma ti’ (sic). None of the earlier Chinese-language maps show it, but then they tend to cover much larger areas and only refer to islands and large towns.

Finally to the “In the Heart of the Metropolis – Yau Ma Tei” book, which has an article ‘Nineteenth Century Yaumatei’ by the same author as the ‘Old British Kowloon’ article mentioned by Moddsey. Here are a few paragraphs that are relevant to the question:

“In Kwangtung Province the typical small settlement was the lineage based agricultural village. Other types of settlement also existed. One such was the coastal settlement which developed around an anchorage. In the Hong Kong area such settlements are possibly older than the agricultural. Archeological evidence rlating to the Bronze Age points more to occupation by sea-coast people rather than landsmen at that date. It is natural to expect settlements related to a water economy in this river, delta and coastal area, studded with islands, beaches and anchorages. Except for the fertile plain near Deep Bay and along the Sham Chun River whree the Five Great Clans of the New Territories settled, the opportunity to develop easily and profitably a large scale agricultural economy was limited in the immediate hong Kong area.” “[In 1864] Yaumatei possessed a good, safe anchorage for sampans in a shallow, but substantial, creek, of some six acres in area. This long-reclaimed creek ran inland for some three hundred yards in two branches. One went as far as the junction of today’s Jordan Road and Parkes Stereet, the other to the eastern side of today’s Nathan Road, in the vicinity of Saigon Street. The innermost parts of both branches were further protected by breakwaters. Today’s pak Hoi Street runs close to where the northern shore of the creek used to be and doubtless takes its name from this fact. This creek is very like many other favoured anchorages in the New Territories: it was protected by a military post from about 1800. The anchorage was thus in use well before 1860, with its temple nearby, but the growth of this anchorage into something which could be called a genuine market town began only in 1864.

Later in the article, the section discusses Yau Ma Tei’s economy :“Yaumatei means “Oil Sesame ground”. An area to the north of the town was called “Ma Tei” (“Sesame ground”). At some date, the oil-sesame plant was presumably grown and harvested here. The name of yaumatei suggests that the town looked to the land for its basic economy, but in fact the town was originally predominantly seaward-looking.”

Where does that leave us? Well, the name certainly pre-dates the British arrival in Kowloon, but does it also pre-date the Cantonese speakers? The author above uses the direct translation “Oil Sesame Ground”, implying it is a Cantonese name. But their description of the early settlement and its focus as an anchorage rather than a town also fits quite nicely with the idea of a place where seafolk and land-based people would meet.

Short of time travel, I guess there is no way to be sure of the answer, but it’s an interesting twist to think that some older languages may still exist in the local place names.

HF: Fascinating  research – which  seems to partially support Lawrence Tsui’s suggestion that the name Yau Ma Tei comes  from hemp/oil  though no direct mention of flax or rope-making.


  1. Barnett KMA Do Words From Extinct Pre-Chinese Languages Survive in Hong Kong Place Names? (1958), Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. 14, 1974
  2. Hayes JW, Old British Kowloon, Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society Vol. 6, 1966
  3. In the Heart of the Metropolis: Yaumatei and Its People,  jointly published by the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society with Joint Publishing (HK) Co. Ltd. 1999

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One comment

  • WONG Tai Choi, Richard

    According to the inscriptions from Yau Ma Tei Tin Hau Temple, the temple was built in 1870 and the stone lions were donated at that time. It was repaired in 1875 after typhoon and moved to the present site in 1890. The surnames of the donors were Wong, Ho, Ng, Kwok, Fok, etc without “Yau” and “Ma”. We might reject the suggestion that the name of Yau Ma Ti is from two clans.
    The name蔴地 (Ma Ti) appears in 1870 inscription, 油麻地一灣 (Yau Ma Ti Bay) appears in 1874 inscription, 油麻地Yau Ma Ti appears in 1890 inscription and 1915 inscription.
    According to the old photos and maps, the original landscape of Yau Ma Ti is the mouth of a stream called Kwun Chung between two koks (small hills at the coast), the paddle field was where the DGS located. Kwun Chung may be the original name of the river valley. Yau Ma Tei Typhoon Shelter was completed in 1916. It is the second one followed the Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter. The first Yau Ma Police Station was built in 1893 followed by the first reclamation in Yau Ma Tei in c1876, c1899 and c1900, reflecting that Yau Ma Tei began urbanization to support the development of Tsim Sha Tsui. A wooden pier was constructed in 1879. The hills were bare in 1874 photo. The Kwong Wah Hospital was the first hospital on the Kowloon peninsula, established in 1911.
    I don’t find the name “油麻地” from map in Chinese or English constructed before 1900. “Yau Ma Ti” appears in “PLAN OF KOWLOON” 1887 map and “MAP OF KOWLOON-YAU MA TI-AND HUNG HOM” IN 1892 “Ma Ti” appeared in “SURVEY OF MA-TI VILLAGE 1893 NORTH PORTION” , “SURVEY OF MA-TI VILLAGE 1893 SOUTH PORTION”. A record describes some shops in Yau Ma Tei selling the necessaries for fishermen there. A photo taken in 1860 showing the British camps in Yau Ma Ti where was barren and no villages or houses can be found.
    From Wikipedia: “Yau (油) literally means “oil”, Ma (麻 or 蔴) can either refer to “sesame” or “jute”, and Tei (地) means “field” or “open ground”. Hence, Yau Ma Tei can be interpreted to mean either “oil-sesame field” or “oil and jute ground”. This dual-interpretation is perhaps the reason why there are two explanations for the origin of the place name.” Someone explained the name jute ground with reason that the fishermen sunbathed the ropes (which is make of jute) there. The fishermen also applied oil to seal the ship for water proof. Oil-sesame field means people planted sesame there. However, sesame is called 芝麻 but not油麻by Cantonese. Sesame is not a common crop in Hong Kong.
    Yau Ma Ti is not the main fishing harbours such as Aberdeen, Causeway Bay, Shau Kei Wan, Cheung Chau, Sha Tau Kok, Sai kwung, Tai Po, and Tai O in Hong Kong. The name Ma Ti蔴地or Yau Ma Ti油麻地is not common for these fishing harbours.
    In my induction from the information from the inscriptions, old photos, maps, local culture, biology and geology, “Yau Ma Tei” can be explained by “a place with various plants collectively and generally called 蔴 (Ma) or油麻 (Yau Ma) by Chinese villagers”. The native sometime called the plant “ Ma” or sometime called it “Yau Ma”. These plants may include Cannabis sativa 大麻/油麻, 葛麻 Pueraria lobata, 苧麻Boehmeria nivea, 黃麻 Corchorus capsularis, 蕉麻 Musa textiles. Cannabis sativa 大麻/油麻is the main material for rope while hemp 大麻籽油can be extracted from the seeds as Chinese medicine.

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