The Coat of Arms of Urban Council
|Established||18 April 1883|
|Disbanded||31 December 1999|
|7 March 1995|
|City Hall Lower Block, Edinburgh Place|
The Urban Council (UrbCo) was a municipal council in Hong Kong responsible for municipal services on Hong Kong Island and in Kowloon (including New Kowloon). These services were provided by the Urban Services Department. The equivalent body for the New Territories was the Regional Council.
The council was founded as the Sanitary Board in 1883. It was renamed the Urban Council when new legislation was passed in 1936 expanding its mandate. In 1973 the council was reorganised under non-government control and became financially autonomous. Originally comprised mainly of ex officio and appointed members, by the time the Urban Council was abolished following the Handover it was comprised entirely of members elected by universal suffrage.
The Urban Council was first established as the Sanitary Board in 1883. In 1887, a system of partial elections was established, allowing selected individuals to vote for members on the board. On 1 March 1935, the Sanitary Board was reconstituted to carry out the work which remained much the same until World War Two broke out. The board gained a new name in 1936 when the government passed the Urban Council Ordinance, legally expanding the range of services provided by the council, which had been gradually increasing in scope regardless.
After the Second World War, the Urban Council received its pre-war form but without any elected members. The work of the Sanitary Department of the government began to separate out from the medical and health service. The first Urban Council meeting to take place after the Japanese occupation was held on 28 May 1946, with the council being empowered to carry out all its old duties – cleaning, burying the dead, running bath houses and public lavatories, hawker control – as well as some new ones, such as the use of bathing beaches throughout Hong Kong.
Only in May 1952 were elections returned to the Urban Council when two members were elected. And later in 1952, the number of elected members was doubled, their terms of office extended to two years and the electoral roll enlarged.
Finally by April 1956 half of the members of the Urban Council was elected by a small minority of the population eligible to vote. The qualifications for eligibility were very complex: For example, a voter had to be at least 21 years of age, have lived in Hong Kong for at least 3 years and must be qualified in at least one of 23 categories, which included educational qualifications (School Certificate Examination or equivalent), be a juror, salaried taxpayer, or a member of certain professional organisations. More details can be found in Schedule 1 of the Urban Council Ordinance (Cap. 101, Laws of Hong Kong). It was estimated that in 1970 there were 250,000 eligible voters and in 1981 the number had increased to 400,000 – 500,000.
In 1960s, the responsibilities of the Urban Council continued to multiply. The City Hall in Central was opened in 1962, followed by the first multi-storey markets in Jardine's Bazaar in March 1963.
In 1973 the council was reorganised under non-government control with financial autonomy, which meant that the budget could be planned without the approval of the legislative council. Furthermore, the changes also removed housing as one of its main tasks. Since then, there were no government officials on the council and both the chairman and vice-chairman were elected among the 24 members. At that time, the council was the only one which solely consisted of members of the public.
Source: Norman Miners, 1986, The Government and Politics of Hong Kong p. 167.
registered voters who
voted in the election
|Voting rate (%)|
Source: Norman Miners, The government and politics of Hong Kong (Hong Kong; New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 224.
The Urban Council celebrated its centennial anniversary in 1983. The Urban Council Centenary Garden was named to commemorate the occasion.
In 1994 the Council became fully elected based on universal and equal adult suffrage.
Duties and services
The Urban Council provided a spectrum of services to the Hong Kong people over the years. The Urban Services Department was the executive branch of the council to implement policies and services. In 1997, it had about 16,000 employees, according to its published leaflet of 'service promises'.
The council's services included: recreational venues and activities, libraries, museums, cultural and entertainment venues, ticketing, wet markets, hawker registration and control, cremation, street cleansing, issuing licenses, and operating abattoirs.
Arts and culture
The Urban Council had played a significant role in the artistic and cultural development of Hong Kong.
It also managed the Urban Council Public Libraries system in Hong Kong Island and Kowloon which, upon the dissolution of the municipal councils, was merged with the Regional Council Public Libraries to form Hong Kong Public Libraries.
Since 1976, the council held its major cultural presentation – Festival of Asian Arts. The International Film Festival was another council-sponsored event, taking place annually mid-year and giving Hong Kong people a rare chance to see a range of international film-making, as well as Chinese films.
The Hong Kong Museum of Art gives regular exhibition of both Chinese and Western art and sculpture and frequently arranges art exchanges with overseas countries. The Hong Kong Museum of History, once temporarily housed in the Kowloon Park, featured the recording of local history and oral tradition. It is now located at Chatham Road in Tsim Sha Tsui. The Hong Kong Space Museum presents shows in the Space Theatre and exhibitions on astronomy, nature and space exploration with IMAX techniques.
The council directly financed and often even managed many local arts groups. In 1983, at "An Evening With the Council's Performing Companies" – one of the events in the Urban Council Centenary Celebration – the then-council chairman Hilton Cheong-Leen said, "Together with the Government, the Urban Council is committed to the development of the arts in Hong Kong. We aim to do so at the professional level so that gifted Hong Kong citizens can develop their artistic potential. We also aim to make available to all members of the community a wide range of artistic performance for their enjoyment and appreciation. And in the not too distant future we hope to see Hong Kong recognised as a major international centre of the performing arts."
The Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra was established in 1977, under direct financial support and management by the Urban Council.
The Hong Kong Repertory Theatre was also founded in 1977 and was directly financed and administered by the Urban Council, aiming to promote and raise the standards of the theatrical "stage play" drama in Cantonese in the territory with professional actors, directors, playwrights, administration, training and production.
The Hong Kong Dance Company was established in May 1981, and was at one time directly administered by the Urban Council. It aims to combine classical and folk traditions of China with contemporary international awareness. These groups were later taken over by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department when the Urban Council was dissolved. In 2001, the groups were privatised and became limited companies, but still receive funding from the government.
Recreation and sport
The council operated sports grounds, parks, indoor games halls, and public swimming pools.
The council was responsible for street cleansing, refuse collection, and pest control. It operated refuse collection points, public toilets and bathhouses, and was responsible for rubbish bins throughout the urban area. It was also responsible for the control of hawkers, issuing hawker licences and operating hawker bazaars.
The elected body, together with the Provisional Regional Council (its equivalent in the New Territories), was dissolved on 31 December 1999 under the then-Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa's plan to streamline and centralise municipal services as part of his government's policy reforms.
Within days of the dissolution of the Urban Council, its distinctive symbol was systematically removed from public sight, such as by pasting over it with paper on all litter bins and information boards. Shortly afterwards, all the litter bins were themselves discarded, replaced by a similar design, but in green rather than purple.
Before 1973, the chairmanship was occupied by the Director of Urban Services:
- A. de O. Sales, 1973–1981
- Hilton Cheong-Leen, 1981–1986
- H.M.G. Forsgate, 1986-1991
- Ronald Leung Ding-bong, 1991–1999
- Lau 2002, p. 32.
- Norman Miners. 1981. The Government and Politics of Hong Kong. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press.
- “Elected Urbco protest over reform plan,” in: South China Morning Post, 1970
- “Sing Tao Jih Pao,” in Hong Kong Standard, 8 March 1981
- CACV 1/2000
- "Municipal Councils Archives Collection". Hong Kong Public Libraries. Retrieved 27 January 2015.
- Lau, Y.W. (2002). A History of the Municipal Councils of Hong Kong 1883–1999. Hong Kong: Leisure and Cultural Services Department. ISBN 962-7039-41-1.