15 May Little Ginza in Hong Kong: A Brief History of Causeway Bay’s Japanese Department Stores
No other area in Hong Kong has so successfully and radically reinvented itself as Causeway Bay. Long known as ‘East Point’, it holds the legacy of being the first plot of land ever auctioned in Hong Kong. It was Captain William Morgan — in the name of trading firm Jardine Matheson & Co. — who won the bid for ‘East Point Hill’ in 1841. The site was sold for the then hefty sum of £565 and was used to build warehouses and go-downs, essential in facilitating its transpacific shipping trade. They were used until the area was reclaimed in the 1960s. Hong Kong’s ‘Opium King’ Lee Hysan bought East Point Hill from Jardine’s in 1923. He spearheaded its transformation from an industrial wasteland to a thriving commercial district with restaurants, theatres and the Lee Garden amusement park. But Lee is not the only one to credit for its reputation as Hong Kong’s heart for fun and leisure: Causeway Bay could not have become what it is today without the wave of Japanese department stores that began in the 1960s with Daimaru. In their heydays, the four main Japanese department stores in Causeway Bay — Daimaru, Matsuzakaya, Mitsukoshi and SOGO — had a combined retail space of 500,000 (!) square feet. They turned Causeway Bay into a ‘little Japan’ and simultaneously made it Hong Kong’s most important shopping destination. Join us for a journey back in time to learn more about the history and legacy of these four iconic Japanese stores.
1. Daimaru (1960 – 1998)
Christmas shopping in Causeway Bay, November 1976 (Photo: SCMP)
What is now local hipster destination Fashion Walk was for many years popular Japanese department store Daimaru, and long before that, a soybean warehouse. Until the 1950s, Hong Kong’s popular Vitasoy milk was made in Causeway Bay, until the company moved to a new purpose-built modern factory in Wong Chuk Hang.
When Daimaru opened its doors in the wintery month of November 1960, 4,000 guests attended the cocktail party to celebrate the occasion. The Japanese department store’s first overseas venture revolutionised Hong Kong’s retail landscape. SCMP reported: “The store is ultra-modern and streamlined. The goods are attractively displayed on well-spaced counters and soft music provides a constant background”.
Advertisement of Daimaru’s opening, November 1960
The store employed 400 local shop workers who were trained in Japanese etiquette by the 15 Japanese managers who supervised them. The high level of customer service was Daimaru’s hallmark, and all of the other Japanese department stores that opened in Hong Kong followed Daimaru’s example. Locals flocked here for toys, trendy clothes and fancy home appliances such as rice cookers and television sets.
Daimaru in 1975 (Photo: Gwulo)
For many years, Daimaru was synonymous with Causeway Bay. Daimaru, or its Cantonese name, ‘Daai Yun’, was even adopted as the name for the minibus terminal in Causeway Bay. Even though the department store has long gone — rising rents meant that the family-friendly emporium couldn’t survive; it closed in 1998 — the name has stuck around. Its fiery red neon light signage on top of Great George Building has also become a landmark for the area.
2. Matsuzakaya (1975 – 1998)
News advertisement of Matsuzakaya’s opening in 1978 (left) and the opening day (right) (Photos: SCMP)
Many Hongkongers got their first introduction to Japanese culture — from records, homeware, snacks, stationery and of course Japanese restaurants — at Matsuzakaya, the centre of Hong Kong’s ‘Little Ginza’. Its shops were wildly popular, and snacking queues were often seen outside its four-storey tall podium building on Paterson Street.
Matsuzayaka’s entry to Hong Kong in 1978 was actually its second foray into the city. During the Japanese Occupation, from 1943 to 1945, the Japanese military government took over Lane Crawford’s store at Central and gave its operating rights to Matsuzayaka, which was one of the few western-style department stores in Japan back then.
In the mid-1990s, several overseas retail shops decided to withdraw from the Hong Kong market in anticipation of the 1997 handover. Matsuzakaya was one of them and left Hong Kong in 1998 after 23 years of business.
2-20 Paterson St
3. Mitsukoshi (1981 – 2006)
Last operating day of Mitsukoshi, September 2006 (Photos: SCMP (left) and Cara Chow via Wikimedia Commons)
Many Hongkongers still remember the shopping frenzy the days, even hours, before Mitsukoshi Department Store closed its doors on 17 September 2006. It was the end of an era. Mitsukoshi was very successful: the earnings from its Hong Kong store accounted for about 40% of the company’s overseas sales. Yet, the department store had to close because Hennessy Centre, the building they were in, was due for demolition, just about 25 years after it was built. It is now the 40-storey luxury office and retail Hysan Place.
Mitsukoshi Department Store was synonymous with quality goods at competitive prices, popular among Hong Kong’s shrewd shoppers. Hong Kong was one of the first overseas branches of the leading Japanese retail chain and opened to much fanfare on 26 August 1981. For many years, this was the place-to-be for trendy fashion brands. Popular home-grown brand Ice Fire and Italy’s United Colours of Benetton were first introduced in Hong Kong through Mitsukoshi.
The Kung Sheung Daily News reporting on Mitsukoshi’s opening in 1981
A little-known secret is that Mr Richard Charles Lee — the patriarch of the Lee family and son of ‘Opium King’ Hysan Lee — played a key role in Mitsukoshi’s entry into the Hong Kong market. When Hennessy Centre was completed in 1981, plans included opening a theatre and performance centre on the lower floors, but when Mr Lee heard that Mitsukoshi was looking for a prime location for its first Hong Kong store, he immediately shelved the earlier plans and offered the space to the department store.
500 Hennessy Rd
4. SOGO (1985 – present)
SOGO in 2006 – note how its huge signature LED screen (the largest one in Asia Pacific!) is not there yet… (Photo: Eric Chan)
A relative latecomer to the Hong Kong Market, SOGO is the only one of the four Japanese department stores that is still there. When the Japanese SOGO got in financial trouble in the 1990s, the local operation was sold to two local billionaires, who took the company public and expanded it into its current form.
Today, SOGO is still a well-liked shopping destination and a true centre of Japanese culture. Other tenants of the building include the Hong Kong Japanese Club and the Hong Kong Japanese Chamber of Commerce & Industry.
SOGO in 2008 (left) and 2006 (right) (Photos: Eric Chan)
SOGO is synonymous with Causeway Bay. The department store even has its own MTR exit and is a popular meeting point. It is one of the places that define the geography of Causeway Bay.
555 Hennessy Rd
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Words by Ian Tan
Ian Tan is a PhD candidate at the Department of Architecture, University of Hong Kong. His research focuses on iron structures found in British port cities such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Calcutta. He is interested in how new building technologies materialise and manifest socio-economical changes during the late 19th century. Vice versa, he tries to uncover how people’s attitude and behaviour were affected and shaped by these new structures and spaces they inhabit. Ian is also the founder of Forward Heritage, an advisory consultancy offering services in heritage planning, architectural conservation and curatorial interpretation services.
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