Yau Ma Tei is an area in Hong Kong that I feel I don’t know that well – there are some pockets that I have walked along many times, these include the Jade Market, the Temple Street Market, the Fruit Market, the Tin Hau Temple and the little red brick building – but I’ve never really explored it much.
The name Yau Ma Tei loosely means “oil-sesame field” or “oil and jute ground” – so this could mean that sesame was grown in this area, which was turned into oil.
However, there is no historical evidence of sesame planting and sesame-oil making in the area. So what is more likely is the second explanation: tung oil and jute are two common materials associated with Hong Kong’s fishing community. Tung oil was a traditional material used in the construction and repair of local fishing boats and jute was the traditional material for mooring ropes and fishing nets used by local fishermen. Yau Ma Tei used to be home to lots of fishermen – here is an old picture from 1880 from Wikimedia.
After several storms had attacked Hong Kong and killed thousands of fishermen, a large typhoon shelter was opened in 1915. Until the late 1970s, large numbers of boat-dwellers still lived permanently within the Yau Ma Tei breakwater. Here is a photo from the Hong Kong Public Library that I found on Urbanphoto – it shows how busy the shelter was:
But this changed over the years, as more land was reclaimed. The original typhoon shelter was fully reclaimed in the early 1990s as part of airport-related core projects, and no trace of it exists. A replacement typhoon shelter was constructed further out in the harbour to the West of the reclamation. While some sampans and fishing boats still regularly use this anchorage, most of the vessels that now frequent the typhoon basin at Yau Ma Tei are cargo tenders and lighters.
Nowadays the shelter is far away from its original location – here’s another picture that I found on Wikimedia that shows you how built up the area in Yau Ma Tei is, and the lack of water in its surroundings!
Yau Ma Tei came under British administration, along with the rest of Kowloon peninsula north as far as what is now Boundary Street, following the Treaty of Tientsin in 1860. It is one of the oldest districts in Hong Kong, and still nowadays, has some intriguing streets and corners that make you feel like you are not in the 21st Century!
Especially if you walk around the Temple Street area – with all its dubious-looking side streets that feature gaming parlours, massage saloons and brothels!
Now this should not come as a surprise: From the very earliest years of British settlement, Hong Kong has been home to legions of prostitutes of various nationalities who generally worked either in brothels or on the streets. For decades Yau Ma Tei’s typhoon shelter had dozens of floating brothels, euphemistically known as ‘flower boats’. The last remaining water-borne prostitutes relocated on land in Yau Ma Tei after the typhoon shelter was reclaimed and redeveloped in the early 1990s. Brothels along Portland Street, and other streets in the vicinity, operate quite openly, despite their illegality – and apparently they are called lady barber shops…
I’ve heard that Martin Booth’s books Hiroshima Joe and Gweilo provide vivid descriptions of Yau Ma Tei in the early 1950s, so I’m curious to read those! And I’m also planning to go on a walking tour, to find out more about this interesting district.