By Elaine Dunn | April 2022
You’ve heard often that in real estate, it’s “location, location, location.” Well, the sword cuts both ways. Old and older buildings built on prime property are often prime targets for demolition.
Hong Kong’s Fenwick Pier (分域碼頭) recently suffered such a fate.
The pier was once where tens of thousands of sailors from U.S. first set foot on HK soil and passed through its halls for their R&R. After the 1997 Handover, it also opened its facilities to military ships from 13 other countries.
The facility was built along Victoria Harbor in Wanchai, moving to 1 Lung King St. (龍景街), Admiralty, in 1970. Considered the “lighthouse” of hospitality, it offered foreign sailors a font of information about Hong Kong, money changers and opportunities for buying foreign magazines and souvenirs at reasonable prices. This historic landmark closed this past Feb. 11, after 69 years of service.
Fenwick Pier had always been an interesting place. Since 1957, it was owned and operated by the Servicemen’s Guides Association (SGA), a nonprofit founded in 1953 on behalf of the British government to provide service to visiting sailors. Its records show that from 1981 to 1997, between 37 and 99 naval ships docked there annually, each carrying hundreds of sailors. In 2011, the facility welcomed 28 ships with “over 36,500 naval visitors who spent over US$36,500,000” in Hong Kong.
AND, for years, it also had one of a handful of McDonald’s around the world and the only one in HK that served beer and pizza!
The Fleet Arcade’s McDonald’s is the only one in HK, and one of a handful around the world, that sold beer and pizza.
When McDonald’s left, its vinyl booths were put to good use in the atrium of the facility
Before the days of internet, smartphones and video chat, there were banks and banks of telephones for people to call home. “Then with the advent of WiFi and video chatting – just seeing them here, laughing, chatting with their families, and relaxing, are some of my fondest memories,” said an ex-Fenwick employee.
An honorary adviser to the Hong Kong Museum of History said Fenwick Pier had moved several times in its lifetime.
From the 1880s to 1927, the very first pier was located at the junction of Ship Street and Johnston Road. It was a private pier for the shipyard, Geo. Fenwick & Co., owned by George Fenwick.
According to the Public Works Report, Public Pier “A,” the “official” Fenwick Pier, was built in 1929 at the end of the mile-long Fenwick Street. It was T-shaped and projected a little over 41 ft. from the sea wall.
In the early 1960s, the pier sustained severe damage by typhoons Wanda (1962) and Ruby (1964) to the degree it had to be rebuilt. The rebuilt pier opened in June 1965. By 1967, the government had started extensive land reclamation projects in the Wanchai waterfront, which was slated for the new expressway. The SGA had to relocate and the new building was opened for service in 1970 on Lung King St. An extension to the pier was completed in 1974 and provided an enlarged area for the servicemen to relax.
In 1994, The Fleet Arcade, a four-storey mall opened at the pier. Admission to the facility is by membership only. However, everyone can apply, and there’s no fee involved. Hong Kongers also enjoyed the mini mall and its eateries. In its most vibrant times, there was even a Lane Crawford, one of Hong Kong’s high-end luxury department stores.
Times change and land-use evolve. The facility became landlocked as of 2016, sailors had been disembarking at another pier west of Fenwick. Decrease in naval visitors, coupled with the pandemic, business declined. The pier, no more as vital as in its heyday, had its days numbered.
Tony Wong in his tailor shop, calling customers to come and pick up their orders before the store closes
Tony Wong, one of the shipowners, a third-generation tailor whose tailor shop had been there since 1994, remembers it fondly. He took over the shop from his father. He said in the “good old days,” long queue of sailors lined up to get measured for their suits, “but they also want their beer, too! But we weren’t allowed to sell them liquor.” Since the ‘90s, people had been dressing down, so less business. When the place closes, he will move into a new location and, since he’s established younger clients, he hopes he will be able to serve them better at the new location.
The owner of an Italian restaurant told the South China Morning Post that since 2015, the future had been uncertain. Rent was on an annual basis, then on 6-month basis. But he said “every year is a gift,” and every day is appreciated. He, too, has moved to another Wanchai location, but continued to operate at Fenwick until the day the facility closes.
A retired U.S. Navy officer remembered the mini shopping mall where sailors could get suits and jewelry at good prices well. In 1997, he worked at the pier in the Ship Support Office, which helped get supplies, from food to fuel, onto ships. He reminisced about a lunch in 1997. “My boss, a US Navy lieutenant commander, invited me to lunch at an Indian restaurant, and the owner introduced himself as Bob. Over the next two hours Bob ordered plates of food and explained their origin, the spices and elements that gave them their flavour, and how each was cooked,” he said in an email.
“At one point he brought us back to the kitchen to see the tandoori ovens and show us how naan bread was made. I asked him about his family origin, and he told a great story that was not uncommon in Hong Kong – a family that came with nothing and built something special. To this day it’s one of the most memorable meals of my life. Our host that day was Bob Harilela, and I had no idea at the time that he was a member of one of Hong Kong’s most prominent business families.*”
Alas, the historic point of arrival for generations of sailors visiting Hong Kong is no more. An era has ended. The new plan for the harbourfront site is for public landing steps, a fire station and a park. Not quite the same.
Nothing will stand in the way of progress. Not even the historic Fenwick Pier!
Many young service men and women had walked down these stairs in anticipation of a good time in Hong Kong
* The Harilelas are multimillionaires and hotel kings of Hong Kong. The Harilela Group encompasses hotels, restaurants, travel agencies, real estate and stores. Although they have lived in Hong Kong for more than 90 years, their roots go back to Hyderabad, Sindh, which is now in Pakistan.
Geo. Fenwick & Co. shipyard with pier on left, c.1880s
Fenwick Pier’s Servicemen’s Guide, c.1962
A landlocked Fenwick Pier with enlarged Fleet Arcade