Most places in the world have rather easy to understand and straightforward explanation of how they came to be known as a certain name. Then again, most places aren’t Hong Kong. Unlike Russia, which is named after the medieval state called Rus, Budapest, which comes from the merging of the towns of Buda and Pest, or even Jackson Hole, Wyoming, which obviously is located in a valley surrounded by mountains and named after a trapper with the surname of Jackson, nobody can really agree on how Hong Kong came to be known as, well, Hong Kong. In many ways, this may seem odd for such a prominent and eclectic city; however, in other ways, this murky mix of ideas can be taken as quintessentially Hong Kong.
At face value, Hong Kong, or, officially, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, can be literally translated as meaning ‘fragrant harbour’ or ‘incense harbour’, derived from the Cantonese words hēung góng. First written as “He-Ong-Kong” in 1780, the name originally geographically referred to a small inlet between Ap Lei Chau (or Aberdeen Island) and the southern coast of Hong Kong Island; however, not knowing the initial reference, the first British assumed it referenced to the entire island. Adding to the legitimacy of this theory is a map dating from the Ming dynasty which shows Ap Lei Chau as well as a village on the island called “Heung Kong Tsuen” (香港村), meaning ‘Fragrant Harbour Village’.
Looking at what makes a harbour fragrant, there seem to be 2 possible explanations. The first explanation refers to a small stream of sweet and clean drinking water, which residents had long referred to as ‘fragrance river’ (香江), and the name carried over to the general location. The second explanation references the harbour’s role in transporting agarwood and derived products from nearby Guangdong/Canton province to northern China, with agarwood being an important component in making fragrances, as a wine/liquor additive, and for herbal medicine – thus giving the “fragrant” aspect.
While this explanation makes sense, it is far from being the only explanation.
One theory involves the legend of a female pirate, Xianggu, who captured the island, which was later named in her honour; on the other hand, since there’s no historical record of any pirate by that name and locals have a long history of loathing pirates, this one will probably remain a legend.
Another theory has Hong Kong named for a censer (incense burner) that was found and placed in front of the Tin Hau Temple. With the censer at the temple close to the harbour, locals often referred to the harbour/bay as “Hongxianglu” (aka ‘incense harbour’), which soon spread to mean the entire island; however, considering evidence in the Xinan Gazetteer, this theory probably is incorrect.
Still, another theory postulates that Hong Kong comes from the name of a waterfall in Pok Fu Lam with fresh, sweet water, with the name deriving from Xiang Jiang, which is what locals often call Hong Kong. Unfortunately, the name Xiang Jiang is only a century old and the likely waterfall of reference in on another island in the area, Tap Mun.
For the true origin of the name, perhaps it is best understood as the city itself: half of the fun is exploring the possibilities.