“Horse Urine”: Hong Kong place-name back stories

(Source: Susan Bloomberg-Kason's blog post "Along the Kolwoon-Canton Railway." She ran across the picture in a CUHK alumni magazine.)

Pun-worthy “Ma Liu Shui” did not have the gravitas that the Chinese University of Hong Kong required and the rail station name was changed in 1967. (Photo source: Susan Bloomberg-Kason, see notes)

There is a corner of the New Territories that Chinese speakers with a love for puns call “Ma Niu Shui” (馬尿水/马尿水) meaning horse urine.

Its proper is name is “Ma Liu Shui” (馬料水/马料水) meaning something like water for horses to drink. It is now more often simply called “University” (大學/大学) because that is what the rail station in the area has been called since 1967. The moment of change from colorful to boringly obvious is pictured above. Happily, the nearby small ferry pier retains the original place-name, Ma Liu Shui, and grade-school puns are still possible.

Is your interest piqued in other Hong Kong place-names and the potential for hidden meanings and secret histories?

Discouragingly, sometimes there is no great story. A place was simply named a typical English name by the British and a set of Chinese characters that mimics the English-sounding name was used for the Cantonese version. For example:

  • Hollywood Road” is “荷李活道” pronounced “Hoh Leih Wooht Douh” in Cantonese.
  • Jordan” is “佐敦” pronounced “Jo Dun” in Cantonese.

(Source: KC Cheung via Wikipedia “Hollywood Road” page.)

Sometimes it’s the other way around and the English name was chosen to sound like the original Chinese name:

  • “Laahn Gwai Fong” (蘭桂坊) is “Lan Kwai Fong” in English.
  • “Gau Luhng” (九龍/九龙) is “Kowloon” in English and means “nine dragons” after the eight hills behind Kowloon and a Song Dynasty emperor. (Corrected, with thanks to Jonathan Stanley. See his comment below with more information.)

Others places are simply direct translations of the meaning and sound nothing alike:

  • The Peak” is “Saan Deng” (山頂/山顶).
  • Central” is “Jung Waahn” (中環/中环).
  • The MTR station “Racecourse” is ”Mah Cheung“ (馬場/马场).

(Source: Wikipedia here)

Yawning yet? Now for some more hidden meanings!

The most interesting category for back stories includes places whose English name is completely different from the Cantonese name in both sound and meaning. A world of secret understanding just waiting to be puzzled out! For example:

  • Stanley” is “Chek Chueh” (赤柱), which literally means “red pillar” but figuratively means “bandit’s post.”
  • The grocery store chain “ParknShop” becomes “Baak Gaai” (百佳) in Cantonese with a literal English translation of something like “Excellent Hundreds.” 
  • Militant and stodgy “Admiralty” becomes “Gam Jung” (金鍾/金钟) which means “golden clock.”

    (Source: Wikipedia here)

Occasionally the English name has a more interesting story than its Cantonese partner, for example:

  • Repulse Bay” which in English is named after early colonial action to repulse pirates from the area, actually loses its luster in Cantonese as “Chin Shui Waan” (淺水灣/浅水湾) meaning simply “shallow water bay.”

The blogger “Lost in Mongkok” also has an interest in hidden place-name meanings and created this MTR map with literal (and sometimes unpoetic) translations of MTR station names (click here for the original readable version).

I’m sure there are many more examples. Please share your insights from Hong Kong or other places!

Notes: 

  • Historic Ma Liu Shui photograph: I bumped into this photograph on Susan Bloomberg-Kason‘s blog post “Along the Kolwoon-Canton Railway.” She ran across the picture in a Chinese University of Hong Kong alumni magazine.
  • Discussion of bawdy Hong Kong place names: Susan also posted her picture at Gwulo: Old Hong Kong. It spurred quite a discussion in the comments over other crude historic Hong Kong place names. Worth a look!
  • Place name back stories: I discovered the interesting tidbits about the names Ma Liu Shui, Stanley and Repulse Bay in various places on Wikipedia, which can be linked to by clicking through the names in this sentence.
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24 responses to ““Horse Urine”: Hong Kong place-name back stories

  1. Gripe. Kowloon does indeed mean “nine dragons”… however when the young child Emperor Bing of the (Southern) Song dynasty arrived with his court to what is now Hong Kong as they fled from the invading Mongols (Khublai Khan)… saw the eight peaks and declared the place should be called “eight dragons”. One of his courtiers reminded the young Emperor the monarch is also a dragon and so the place should in fact be called “nine dragons”.

    • Thanks very much for the correction Jonathan (I’ve changed the text above). And actually it’s an even more interesting story than I originally thought. Thanks again, Jen

      • No worries! 🙂 The 8 mountains in question are: Beacon Hill, Crow’s Nest, Kowloon Peak, Lion Rock, Tate’s Cairn, Temple Hill, Tung Shan, and Unicorn Ridge.

  2. I always found the name “Repulse Bay” so amusing. To me, it makes the bay sound as though it were repulsive. Obviously, this is not actually the case.

      • Since Repulse Bay has something like the second highest residential property values in all of Hong Kong, I’m sure their hoping the money and glamour will rub off on their building compound!

    • Another theory says that Repulse Bay got its name from the ship “HMS Repulse”, which was towards the latter part of its service, stationed in Hong Kong at what is now Repulse Bay. However, said ship was actually renamed to “HMS Victor Emmanuel” quite early on. Perhaps Victor-Emmanuel Bay doesn’t quite have the same ring to it? 😀

  3. Rad post! Etymology of anything intrigues me, so hitting close to a previous home is all the more interesting. Would be curious to know how Kai Tak and Chek Lap Kok got their names, since thinking of HK reminds me more of the color red and diminutive fish (the new airport) than anything being virtuous (the old one)!

    Still waiting for you to traipse around Chungking Mansions, though:) If I’m ever back in sharp sandy mouth, want a tour guide?…

    • Re Kai Tak: Two businessmen named Ho Kai and Au Tak formed in 1922 the Kai Tak Investment Company in order to reclaim land in Kowloon for development (hah! same story even nearly a century ago)… which failed, then the government reacquired the land to use as an airfield. The runway that juts out into Victoria Harbour was built by the Japanese during Japanese Occupied Hong Kong in WW2.

      • Reclamation and land deals: you’re right, sounds the same as today. I hadn’t realize the runway itself was built during the Japanese occupation. Interesting!

      • actually the sticking out part of the runway wasn’t built until the late 50’s. For a really in-depth look into HK street name history then “Signs of a Colonial Era” is really a great read by Andrew Yanne and Gillis Heller.

  4. We have some like this in Shanghai (though obviously not as many). Non-Chinese still use all the Chinese for road names etc., apart from a couple, such as ‘Century avenue’. Which is a problem because then some non-Chinese will not know how to tell the taxi driver it is ‘shi ji da jie’, and the taxi driver will not understand ‘century avenue’

    • Guess Zhuhai was similar with only “Lover’s Road” having a special English name that got used at all by anyone.

      Also, your taxi story reminds me of the nightmare that names can be in Macau: sometimes Cantonese and sometimes Portuguese, with me having a hard time remembering either. Figuring out which version a taxi driver would understand (after finding one of the scarce taxis) was always a nightmare.

  5. The Chinese name for Admiralty is better translated as “Golden Bell.” They used to regularly ring a bell there while it was a military base.

  6. Park’nShop = Pak Kai where Pak, though literally means a Hundred, but when joined by Kai (Good, auspicious), it actually means All/Everything.
    Pak Kai = All Good/Everything Well.

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