From AS Watson to HSBC and Star Ferry, many of Hong Kong’s oldest businesses predated the Post
November 8, 2023
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AS Watson has very little record of its early years – no more than a photo of a plaque on a building – which excludes it from official history. It opened a dispensary in Hong Kong in 1841 – the start of the company’s local link – and rebranded itself three decades later after Alexander Skirving Watson, the pharmacist who ran the former Hong Kong Dispensary.
Now part of CK Hutchison, AS Watson is the world’s largest retail group, operating more than 16,100 stores in 28 markets, serving more than 5.5 billion customers a year. It runs the Watsons, PARKnSHOP, Fortress and Watsons Wine brands. “Hong Kong is also where we invest in a strong team of technology and data experts,” said its Malina Ngai, CEO of AS Watson (Asia and Europe).
It reported US$22 billion in revenue last year, and employed more than 130,000 people worldwide, including 12,900 in Hong Kong.
HSBC is the oldest and biggest of Hong Kong’s three currency issuers, where the city is represented as the first letter of the lender’s name. Founded by the Scottish banker Thomas Sutherland, HSBC’s original site was a building on the former Wardley Street (near the current Bank Street in Central), with its Shanghai branch (the second letter in HSBC’s name) opening a month later. The bank was incorporated as The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, a name that still appears on Hong Kong’s currency notes issued by the bank.
Hong Kong & Shanghai Hotels, 1866
Founded by the Scottish shipping magnate Douglas Lapraik, Hong Kong Hotel Company merged with Shanghai Hotel in 1922 to take its current name.
The Peninsula, which opened in 1928 after delays, is the flagship hotel owned by the Kadoorie family since the 1890s. Michael Kadoorie, the current non-executive chairman, is the fourth member of the family to head the group. The Grand Old Dame, as it is affectionately called, has been a byword for opulence in Hong Kong, and features an iconic fleet of bespoke Rolls-Royce limousines finished in their signature Peninsula Brewster Green. The hotel added a 60-foot yacht to its offerings in 2018, and operates a champagne breakfast ride in a helicopter from its roof.
Hong Kong and Whampoa Dock Company, 1866
Co-founded by Lapraik, the dockyard got its name from the transliterated name (Whampoa) of Huangpu Island near Guangzhou. It was bought by the entrepreneur Douglas Clague in the 1960s through Hutchison International, which was later sold to the tycoon Li Ka-shing to become Hutchison Whampoa. The dockyard’s site in Hung Hom was redeveloped into a housing estate in 1985 called Whampoa Garden. More than 30,000 people live in its 88 buildings, making it one of the city’s largest enclaves.
In 2015, Li created CK Hutchison as the holding company for his Cheung Kong Holdings and Hutchison Whampoa, in a restructuring of his corporate empire. Hutchison is the largest Hong Kong-based conglomerate, operating telecommunication networks and container ports, water and energy infrastructure besides its AS Watson retail portfolio.
The Wharf Holdings, 1886
The company originally known as the Hong Kong & Kowloon Wharf and Godown Company was founded in 1886 by the Armenian-British businessman Paul Chater. Now part of tycoon Peter Woo’s Wheelock and Company Limited, Wharf shortened its name in 1986. It now owns Modern Terminals Limited, the city’s second-largest container port operator, with several terminals in Kwai Tsing.
Wharf spun off its real estate holdings, including its retail flagships Harbour City and Times Square – where the Post is a tenant – to its Wharf REIC unit, but kept Mount Nicholson, a luxury property project at The Peak in Hong Kong that has often been described as Asia’s most exclusive address. The group manages more than a dozen hotels in Hong Kong, mainland China and the Philippines under the Marco Polo and Niccolo brands.
DFI Retail Group Holdings, 1886
Formerly known as Dairy Farm, DFI is a part of the Jardine Matheson Group. Established by the Scottish surgeon Patrick Manson, the company started as a farm in Pok Fu Lam. Its cowsheds were allocated to the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts in 2003, along with the Bethanie sanatorium building nearby. Its old warehouse on Lower Albert Road in Central, built in 1890, had been home to the Hong Kong Fringe Club for cultural and social activities since 1983.
Rebranded as DFI Retail Group in 2021, the company owns supermarkets under the Wellcome, Cold Storage and Market Place brands. It also owns most of Maxim’s Catering, Mannings and Guardian dispensary stores, the 7-Eleven convenience stores and the Ikea franchise in Asia.
Hongkong Electric (HEC), 1889
Half of Hong Kong’s electricity duopoly, HEC opened its first power station on an old graveyard site on Star Street in Wan Chai, lighting up 50 street lights along Queen’s Road Central and Upper Albert Road on December 1, 1890. The company later consolidated all of its electric generators into a power station on Lamma Island.
The company, the sole electricity supplier on Hong Kong Island, is now owned by CK Hutchison’s Power Assets Holdings unit, with minority stakes held by the Qatar Investment Authority, and the State Grid Corporation of China.
Hongkong Land, 1889
The largest landlord in Central, Hongkong Land is half-owned by Jardine. It was founded by the taipan and Wharf’s founder Chater, and the Scottish businessman James Keswick. The company lobbied the former colonial government to reclaim 65 acres of seafront land from the Victoria Harbour, calling it the “Central Reclamation” project, from which the city’s commercial district got its name.
The company invests across Asia, but counts its US$8 billion West Bund project in Shanghai, with 1.1 million square metres (11.8 million square feet) of development area or double its Central portfolio, as its largest investment and its “most notable milestone,” a representative said.
One of its more notable buildings in Hong Kong is the 52-storey Jardine House in Central. A 1971 grant to the developer stipulated that no building directly north of the project would ever obstruct its view of Victoria Harbour, a quid pro quo for pumping a record HK$258 million into the then colonial coffers for a 75-year land lease. As a result, the height of the General Post Office, built five years later north of Jardine House, had to be capped at 120 feet (37 metres). When Henderson Land Development paid its record HK$50.8 billion (US$6.5 billion) bid in 2021 to lease the Central waterfront for 50 years, a key feature of the project’s design was its 50-metre height limit on its western fringe, and nothing taller than 16 metres to the east.
Hong Kong Stock Exchange, 1891
The Association of Stockbrokers in Hong Kong was set up in 1891, even though the former colony’s securities market could be traced to 1866. Renamed the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in 1974, the city had several operating bourses for the next quarter of a century until they were all merged in 1999 to form Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing Limited (HKEX).
HKEX runs the world’s fourth-largest capital market. It bought the London Metal Exchange (LME) in 2012, and owns 7 per cent of a futures exchange under construction in Guangzhou. The HKEX trading hall, where thousands of floor traders, market makers and brokers used to throng, was converted into a public gallery for listing ceremonies after closing for good on October 27, 2017.
The July 1993 listing by Tsingtao Brewery heralded the age of the so-called H-shares on HKEX, paving the way for Chinese state-owned companies and private start-ups alike to raise funds, “a journey that has changed global capital markets”, an exchange spokesman said.
Today, about 80 per cent of Hong Kong’s capitalisation is made up of China-linked companies. The exchange added offices in New York and London this year, and is working with bourses in Beijing, Riyadh and Jakarta to “underpin Hong Kong’s unique and vital role as a major international financial centre,” a spokesman said.
Star Ferry, 1898
Founded in 1888 as the Kowloon Ferry Company, the service was renamed a decade later by the Parsee merchant Dorabjee Naorojee, its name inspired by the first line of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem Crossing the Bar.
The iconic service is now owned by Wharf REIC. It costs as little as HK$4 to ride on the iconic green-and-white vessels, but the service has had to compete with one of the world’s most efficient subway networks and two road tunnels that run under the harbour. “It was not the fare which determined the [choice of] transport, it was convenience,” a spokesperson said. The company, which carried 9.57 million passengers in 2021, reported a HK$37 million (US$4.74 million) loss that year and owed banks more than HK$72 million.
It took 10 minutes 33 seconds to cross Victoria Harbour by ferry during a 2017 test conducted by the Post, barely half a minute faster than the time it took for that year’s Cross-Harbour Race champion to swim from Wan Chai to Tsim Sha Tsui.
CLP Group, 1901
Founded at the turn of the 20th century as China Light & Power Company Syndicate, CLP Group is one of Hong Kong’s two electricity producers. Controlled by the Kadoorie family since 1930, it now operates power plants in Australia, India, Taiwan, Southeast Asia and mainland China, but calls Hong Kong its “home and most important market.”
CLP owns a quarter of the Daya Bay nuclear power plant in Shenzhen, and buys 80 per cent of its output to supply the Kowloon peninsula. Conceived by CLP’s former chairman Lawrence Kadoorie, the controversial proposal defied petitions by 1 million residents – about a fifth of Hong Kong’s population at the time – to stop its construction. Built by the French company Framatome, the plant was commissioned in 1994 and now meets about a quarter of the city’s electricity needs. CLP is now focused on climate change, and vows to be “part of the solution to decarbonise” its electricity supply, a spokesperson said.
With additional reporting by Ao Yulu and Peggy Sito