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Stories behind Hong Kong street names: Aberdeen Street honours father of colonial rule

Signs of the colonial era can be seen everywhere in Hong Kong, from historic buildings and statues to military remnants. But nowhere else are they as obvious as in the street names in Central and Western district. Given that the district was among the first to be developed during the early decades of British rule, many streets were named after British officials of the era.

For instance, Peel Street is named after a British prime minister, Robert Peel, and Wellington Street after the Duke of Wellington, who was also briefly prime minister. The Earl of Aberdeen lent his name to Aberdeen Street.

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Just as these streets are close to one another, so were those after whom they are named. The Earl of Aberdeen served as British foreign secretary under both Peel and Wellington.

In terms of their contribution to Hong Kong, Aberdeen is the winner among these three. The British government took formal possession of Hong Kong when a Royal Navy party landed in 1841. The Earl of Aberdeen was foreign secretary from 1841 to 1846 under Peel and thus played a critical role in the early development of Hong Kong as a British colony.

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For example, he suggested to Queen Victoria in 1843 that a governor be appointed and a Legislative Council established in Hong Kong and that the governor should be given the power to make laws and ordinances for the colony. A bill to give effect to the proposals, which broke with precedent for the governance of British overseas territories, was duly tabled to Parliament, where it met strong opposition from some MPs. They were worried that the bill would give the governor “uncontrolled and a despotic power of legislating, criminally as well as civilly, for all British subjects in China”, in the words of Lord Campbell.

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The bill was eventually passed, the establishment of the Legislative Council was authorised and Sir Henry Pottinger was appointed the first governor.

Today Aberdeen Street, which slopes up steeply from Wellington Street past PMQ to Caine Road, is lined with boutiques, stores and restaurants, including the Lin Heung Tea House, which has been in operation for over a century. At the bottom of the street are small stalls selling mahjong sets and second-hand books and offering services such as watch and clothing repair.

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