We weren’t that familiar with Kwun Tong (觀塘), a major industrial district and former satellite town in East Kowloon, until recent years when work brought me to the district a couple of times. Witnessing the dramatic makeover of Kowloon East into the Hong Kong’s newest business district was like watching a time-lapse video of factory blocks being torn down and replaced by glassy towers. Work has also gave me the opportunity to learn about the new master plan of Kowloon East, which encompasses the former industrial districts of Kwun Tong, Kowloon Bay, and Kai Tak, including the land strip point out into Victoria Harbour that once served as the runway of Kai Tak Airport. Referred as CBD 2.0 (Central Business District 2) by Energizing Kowloon East Office (EKEO), the government has high hopes in reshaping Kowloon East and its waterfront into a vibrant and highly livable neighborhood that serves as an alternative to Central, Wan Chai and Quarry Bay. Inaugurated in 2012, EKEO is the government body that oversees urban revitalization of Kowloon East with the new master plan and various different pedestrian enhancement projects. One of the first major projects by EKEO is Kwun Tong Promenade (觀塘海濱花園), a narrow strip of land between the elevated Kwun Tong Bypass and the waterfront along Kwun Tong Typhoon Shelter (觀塘避風塘). Formerly a cargo working area, the promenade was completed and opened in two stages, first in 2010 and then 2015, and has soon become the most popular public space in Kwun Tong.
Further inland from Kwun Tong Promenade lies the industrial area. From government salt ponds centuries ago to a designed landfill in 1925 and later oil depot of Shell Company, Kwun Tong was considered a back-of-house area until 1954, when massive land reclamation took place to construct the city’s first industrial estates, whereas hilly areas further inland were designated for residential developments. Centered around the commercial complex Yue Man Square (裕民坊), Kwun Tong soon became one of the two first satellite towns and industrial hubs in Hong Kong along with Tsuen Wan (荃灣) in Kowloon West. Since then, Kwun Tong flourished along with the boom of manufacturing industries, including textiles, clothing, toys, watches, plastics, etc. As costs of labour and rents grew exponentially in 1980’s and 1990’s, many factories were relocated to other parts of Asia and China. With the decline of industries, Kwun Tong was in need to reinvent itself with a new vision and identity. In recent two decades, urban revitalization has come in various forms, from replacing old factories with new commercial buildings, to retrofitting the old industrial blocks into mixed use complexes, offering affordable spaces for all sorts of small businesses, from restaurants to offices, gyms to recreational venues, retail to workshops. Despite the major makeover, traces and memories of its industrial past remain as a crucial component for the identity of Kwun Tong.
This summer, the Conservancy Association Centre for Heritage (CACHE) has organized a number of guided walks in Cha Kwo Ling, hosted a small exhibition at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, and published Travelling through Cha Kwo Ling – A Memoir of the Urban Village, a free publication that documents the oral history of villagers who have spent decades in Hong Kong’s last quarry community. These personal recollections might seem fragmentary, but once pieced together they form a comprehensive set of living memories for a place pretty much frozen in time for the past few decades. The fact that Cha Kwo Ling has been able to evade bulldozers all these years was quite remarkable, especially when the adjacent Kwun Tong (觀塘), a former industrial district and Hong Kong’s most densely populated area (57,250 persons per sq.km as of 2014), has gone through series of major makeovers since 1990’s. One of the main reasons why villagers prefer not to rebuild or renovate their squatter homes was because they never knew when the government would arrive to lock down their homes. Decades have past, Cha Kwo Ling gradually becomes a special place in Hong Kong where aura of the 60’s and 70’s still rules, allowing contemporary visitors to have a sense of the village’s heyday, when granite and Kaolin clay mining were major industries in East Kowloon.
Oral history of villagers records stories of Cha Kwo Ling from a bygone era, many objects in Cha Kwo Ling, be it a set of rusty metal shutters, a stone stele with fading inscriptions, or an abandoned animal cage, can still be found today, representing tangible evidences for the villagers’ stories. If these objects can speak, what would they say about the urban village and its generations of inhabitants? These silent artefacts would probably be gone in two years’ time, along with the squatter homes, community stores, small tea shops, narrow alleys, etc. Before their disappearance, we did a small walk in Cha Kwo Ling and photo documented the village scenery. Once Cha Kwo Ling is gone, former villagers and anyone who is interested in the city’s urban transformations would sadly mourn the loss of these precious artefacts. Here are objects that caught our eyes during our two recent visits.
On 21 September 1989, the city’s second harbour tunnel Eastern Harbour Crossing (東區海底隧道) officially opened between Quarry Bay of Hong Kong Island and Cha Kwo Ling of Kowloon. Cha Kwo Ling (茶果嶺), a lush green hill in East Kowloon, was once home to about 10,000 villagers in its heyday, when granite quarrying was a major industry in Hong Kong. Sitting below the green hill facing the harbour, the Hakka village of Cha Kwo Ling has a 400+ years of history, thriving long before this part of Kowloon and the New Territories were leased to Britain in 1899. In the 19th century, Cha Kwo Ling and three other mining villages in East Kowloon, namely Ngau Tau Kok (牛頭角), Sai Tso Wan (晒草灣), and Lei Yue Mun (鯉魚門), were administered as the Four Hills of Kowloon (九龍四山), each had its own leader who would report directly to the Qing government office at Kowloon Walled City. After becoming part of the British colony, the four mining villages continued to flourish as a collective community with shared schools, community facilities and temple. Similar to many neighborhoods in Hong Kong, Cha Kwo Ling saw an influx of newcomers from Mainland China during mid 20th century. Stone quarrying at Cha Kwo Ling ceased after 1967, when the government no longer licensed permits for industries using explosives. Apart from granite stones, Kaolin clay mining was also a major industry in the village. The white Kaolin clay is used in a wide range of products, from ceramics, toothpaste, cosmetics, paint, industrial insulation, paper, etc.
In 1980’s, the government put the second nail in Cha Kwo Ling’s coffin by tearing down a part of the village, including a former stone quarry, to make way for Eastern Harbour Crossing (東區海底隧道). A shrank Cha Kwo Ling continued to exist as a village of squatter houses somehow isolated from the surrounding urbanization. Since 2011, a number of government plans were released to replace Cha Kwo Ling village with a high density housing development. The 2021 plan gave the final verdict: erecting six residential towers at the Cha Kwo Ling site, and demolishing the existing village in two years’ time. As one of the last remaining urban village, Cha Kwo Ling has long been a unique place in Hong Kong where things seem to be frozen in time since decades ago, luring photographers and filmmakers seeking for a bygone Hong Kong, from a time when many poor were living in squatter homes but enjoying a strong community bonding. Cha Kwo Ling’s inevitable fate might long be sealed since granite quarrying ceased operations. Witnessing the final demise for one of Kowloon’s last remaining urban villages and anticipating yet another high density housing development that can be found all over the city is rather upsetting.
At the east end of the Eight Mountains of Kowloon (九龍群山), dozens granite quarries had been around in the area of today’s Kwun Tong (觀塘) since late 18th century. Mostly operated by skillful Hakka workers from Guangdong, four of the largest quarry settlements, namely Cha Kwo Ling (茶果嶺), Ngau Tau Kok (牛頭角), Sai Tso Wan (晒草灣), and Lei Yue Mun (鯉魚門), were collectively known as the Four Hills of Kowloon (九龍四山). Beside stone quarries, houses were constructed for the miners and their families, and piers were erected along the harbour to export the mined granite to other parts of Hong Kong, China, and even overseas to Japan and Europe. From granite stone in the 19th century to concrete aggregates in the 20th, stone quarrying was once a major industry in East Kowloon. Not until 1967 when the government banned the use of explosives at a time of social unrest that stone quarrying in Hong Kong had officially came to an end. Since then, many former quarries and worker villages have been built over and entirely erased from the urban context. In East Kowloon, not a trace of the historical quarries and worker settlements can be found in today’s Ngau Tau Kok and Sai Tso Wan. Two years from now, Cha Kwo Ling would also get wiped out from the map. With Victoria Harbour’s last stilted houses still standing along the shore, perhaps by reinventing itself as a tourist attraction and seafood designation that Lei Yue Mun may be spared from the fate of brutal demolition a little longer. Sitting across the harbour from Shau Kei Wan (筲箕灣), Lei Yue Mun and Cha Kwo Ling have long been seen as remote and accessible only by boat from Shau Kei Wan. In the latter half of 20th century, roads were finally built to connect Lei Yue Mun with Kwun Tong industrial town. With Lei Yue Mun’s affordable rent, seafood restaurants gradually found their way into Lei Yue Mun, transforming the former quarry settlement into a vibrant tourist destination. The former quarry and ruined structures have since become selfie backdrops for visitors.
Rising 200m above Lei Yue Mun Village, the lush green Devil’s Peak (魔鬼山) offers visitors a pleasant lookout of the surrounding scenery. Long before the arrival of tourists, Devil’s Peak was a crucial military site overlooking Lei Yue Mun Channel and Victoria Harbour. Batteries and redoubts were built between 1900 and 1914 on the peak to guard the eastern gateway of Victoria Harbour. While Devil’s Peak has nothing to do with the Devil, the name does remind visitors that Lei Yue Mun was once home to notorious pirates, prompting the colonial government to name it Devil’s Peak. Today, remnants of the military structures have become popular attractions for tourists and war game players. For anyone willing to climb the stairs up Devil’s Peak would certainly be rewarded with a magnificent view of Victoria Harbour on one side and Junk Bay (將軍澳) on the other. It wasn’t the finest day when we climbed Devil’s Peak. But the hazy sunset over Victoria Harbour was still impressive, forcing us to make a brief stop to take in the scenery. Below the hill, we meandered through the narrow alleys of Sam Ka Tsuen Village (三家村), passed by the pebble beach and small lighthouse where contented sunset watchers were about to leave. Back at Sam Ka Tsuen Typhoon Shelter near the village entrance, neon signs of Gateway Cuisine (南大門), one of the village’s largest seafood restaurant, were lit up to welcome the first customers of a rather peaceful night.
As the tram turns into Shau Kei Wan Main Street East (筲箕灣東大街), all passengers are getting ready to hop off at Shau Kei Wan Tram Terminus, the easternmost tram stop in Hong Kong. Winding through Shau Kei Wan Main Street East where the original coastline used to be was like walking into an outdoor feast, with restaurants and eateries of all sorts lining on both sides. For some reasons, On Lee Noodle Soup (安利魚蛋粉麵) across the street from Tin Hau Temple (天后廟) is often the busiest. With so many options, it is often hard to pick a restaurant here. On the hill between Tin Hau Temple and Lei Yue Mun Park, thirteen blocks of 60-year social housing estate Ming Wah Dai Ha (明華大廈) awaits for their turn to be demolished and replaced by new highrise apartments. To the north, the foodie paradise Shau Kei Wan Main Street East abruptly ends as it reaches the overpass of Island Eastern Corridor. Beyond the elevated expressway, the view finally opens up to Victoria Harbour, where the reclaimed Aldrich Bay opens to Shau Kei Wan Typhoon Shelter (筲箕灣避風塘), one of the several last remaining typhoon shelters in Hong Kong. Outside the causeway, Victoria Harbour enters a narrow channel to the east, with a width at times no more than 500m. Known as Lei Yue Mun (鯉魚門), the sea channel signifies the eastern end of Victoria Harbour.
Despite fishery is no longer a dominant industry, the typhoon shelter is nonetheless full of boats. Right by the typhoon shelter, a historical temple known as Tam Kung Temple (譚公廟) reminds visitors that Shau Kei Wan was once a prosperous fishing village under the protection of sea deities such as Tam Kung (譚公) and Tin Hau (天后). That was exactly what the British found at Shau Kei Wan in 1841: storm shelter, fishing village, shrines of sea gods, and lots of fishing boats. Continuing east on Tam Kung Temple Road, a dozen or so small shipyards stand in between the sea and the road. These shops now serve mainly yachts for wealthy customers. Next to the row of shipyards, a monumental concrete shuttle lift tower appears out of nowhere against a lush green hill. The once essential fortification hill overlooking the harbour where guns were mounted and soldiers were stationed has been transformed into Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defense (香港海防博物館). Preserving military structures dated back to 1887, the museum is perhaps the most ideal place in the city to learn about the defense of colonial Hong Kong and Victoria Harbour. At both Kowloon and Hong Kong side of Lei Yue Mun Channel, numerous defensive structures were erected at places including Devil’s Peak (魔鬼山) at Lei Yue Mun in Kowloon, the hilltop Lyemun Barracks (now Lei Yue Mun Park) overlooking Shau Kei Wan, and the former hill fortifications at Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defense signified the crucial roles Lei Yue Mun played to protect Victoria Harbour. Out of all the military sites, perhaps the most interesting one is the former Torpedo Station (舊魚雷發射站). It was quite a shock to see an old torpedo on display in a vaulted cave right by the sea.
From the Sai Wan Swimming Shed in Kennedy Town to Shau Kei Wan, we have loosely follow Victoria Harbour along the north shore of Hong Kong Island in the last few months. Next we will cross the harbour to the Kowloon side.
In 1974, the master plan to redevelop 96 acres of Swire’s land in Quarry Bay was approved by the Hong Kong government. The proposal included converting Taikoo Sugar Refinery into the city’s second business hub that is now known as Taikoo Place (太古坊), and transforming 53 acres of former Taikoo Dockyards into Taikoo Shing (太古城). Literally translated as “Swire’s City”, Taikoo Shing contains 61 residential towers (12,698 apartment flats) and one of the island’s largest shopping and commercial complex known as Cityplaza (太古城中心). The development of Taikoo Shing led the dramatic transformation of Swire from an industrial giant into a real estate developer and business conglomerate.
After inheriting the family trading business Swire Group from his father in 1847, British businessman John Samuel Swire took the company overseas to expand his cotton and sugar trade in China. In Shanghai, he established Taikoo Sugar Refinery and later the shipping business China Navigation Company, laying the foundation for the modern Swire Group (太古集團). In 1881, John Samuel Swire selected a site at Quarry Bay (鰂魚涌) in Hong Kong, below lush green Mount Parker (柏架山) to establish his sugar refinery factory. The factory expanded rapidly to become the world’s largest sugar refinery in 1925. After John Samuel Swire died, the company further developed the adjacent land into a massive dockyard that serviced, repaired, and built vessels for their shipping business China Navigation Company. Completed in 1907, Taikoo Dockyard (太古船塢) constructed some of the world’s largest ships in early 20th century, along with its Kowloon counterpart Whampoa Dockyard (黃埔船塢). With the sugar refinery and dockyards, Quarry Bay emerged as the largest industrial district in Hong Kong before WWII. After the sugar refinery ceased production and the dockyard moved to Tsing Yi Island in early 1970’s, Swire Group looked to reinvent itself for the contemporary era, and to transform Quarry Bay into a new residential and business hub. The 1974 master plan opened up a whole new world for Swire, diversify the company’s profile with real estate, retail services, and hospitality.
Four decades have passed since Taikoo Dockyard was turned into Taikoo Shing, and Taikoo Sugar Refinery into Taikoo Place. After work, we would sometimes walk from our office to Taikoo Shing for grocery. The 20-minute walk along Quarry Bay Promenade Pet Garden (鰂魚涌寵物公園) is one of the most pleasant harbourfront walks in Eastern Hong Kong Island. Constructed in late 2012, the pet garden offers a great venue for pet dogs and people to mingle, and lookouts to enjoy the spectacular view of Victoria Harbour and East Kowloon. As the waterfront walk reaches Taikoo Shing, the decommissioned Fireboat Alexander Grantham, Hong Kong’s flagship fireboat that served the city between 1953 to 2002, was on display at the promenade. Built in early 1950’s by Hong Kong & Whampoa Dock Co. Ltd., the fireboat is a splendid reminder of the city’s shipbuilding history, the once thriving industry at the Victoria Harbour when Hong Kong has yet become a financial and business hub.
For several occasions a year, usually in summer, fiery red skies would blanket Victoria Harbour. People at both sides of the harbour would flock to the waterfront after work to take photos of the beautiful skies. For me, the closest harbourfront lookout is North Point Pier, a public ferry pier situated below the expressway Island Eastern Corridor (東區走廊) at the northernmost point of Hong Kong Island. Built in 1963, North Point Pier connects Hong Kong Island with Kowloon City, Hung Hom, and Kwun Tong in Kowloon. Together with the adjacent bus terminal and MTR station, the pier has established North Point as a transportation hub in eastern Hong Kong Island. But for many, North Point Pier is much more than just a transport interchange. It is also a community node where neighbours mingle, a dog park, a fishing spot for retirees, a dining destination, a seafood market, a venue for the controversial fish release ceremonies for Buddhist believers, and most recently, a hotspot for real estate investors. For us, North Point Pier is where we would hop on and off bus 23 to and from work, and have Japanese omurice or Vietnamese pho for lunch at the new Harbour North Shopping Centre (北角匯) below the luxury apartments of “Victoria Harbour” (海璇). Awkwardly, “Victoria Harbour” here is used as the name of the real estate development, the project that pushed up the record square foot rate of North Point to HK$65,846 (US$ 8,400) in 2018.
But North Point Pier was not always about money and luxurious living. Back in my childhood, North Point Pier was also home to North Point Estate (北角邨), a public housing estate comprised of seven 11-storey blocks with a total of 1,956 flats. Completed in 1957, the famous social housing complex was designed by architect Eric Cumine. With its convenient location at city centre, North Point Estate was a highly popular social housing estate back at its heyday. In late 1980’s, I often come to take lessons with Mr. Ip, a dedicated art teacher and traditional Chinese painter. I still remember walking in the open corridors and stairs of the housing complex where sea breeze would come all the way to the unit doors. Many residents would keep their doors open behind the metal gates so that sea breeze could reach their living spaces. Through the gate, I would count on seeing Mr. Ip’s paintings, images of Virgin Mary and photos of Mrs. Ip’s visit to the Vatican on the wall to ensure that I had arrived at the right flat for my art lessons. North Point Estate was cleared in 2002 and demolished in 2003. The land was subsequently sold to a local real estate developer and became what we now know as “Victoria Harbour”.