Between the former manufacturing powerhouse Kwun Tong (觀塘) and the old Kai Tak Airport (啟德機場) lies a vast piece of reclaimed land that is neither bustling nor world famous like its neighbours. Yet, without this piece of in-between place where the MTR established its headquarters and Kowloon Motor Bus built its largest depot, and where dozens of industrial complexes, cargo centres and godowns called it home, Kai Tak could hardly become the world’s busiest cargo airport, and Hong Kong would lack its essential heart to keep things running. Reclaimed from the waters of Kowloon Bay in the 1970’s, the district of Kowloon Bay had served as an industrial and logistic centre packed with airplane hangars and cargo storage to support the neighboring airport. On 6th of July 1998, after Kai Tak Airport closed for good, the destiny of Kowloon Bay fell into the unknown. In 2001, signals for a new direction for Kowloon Bay began as the district’s designated zoning changed from industrial to business. A bold statement of the new urban vision emerged in 2007 when the eye-catching MegaBox opened its doors. Capturing the eye from far and near, the red structure instantly became the district’s new icon. With the city’s first IMAX theatre and largest skating rink, MegaBox is probably Hong Kong’s largest shopping mall. Since then, industrial complexes and cargo centres were gradually replaced by commercial towers around MegaBox, turning the heart of Kowloon Bay into a mixed-use neighborhood. Zero Carbon Building opened its door in 2012 across Mega Box as Hong Kong’s first ever carbon neutral architecture. The ZCB signifies another new vision for Kowloon Bay towards a sustainable future. But the story of revitalizing Kowloon Bay is much more complicated than erecting new structures. Urban redevelopment is not a simple matter of replacing concrete buildings with glassy structures, or overriding an old dream with a new vision. Whether the new developments can attract enough business demands or sustain economic downturns is yet to be seen. And in what way can the creative and efficient spirits of the industrial past perpetuate in the reinvented Kowloon Bay, creating a unique identity for this ever-changing neighborhood?
Thanks to work projects and a good friend who works in the area, we visit Kowloon Bay regularly in the past few years, and have witnessed its evolution like a time-lapse video. Today, depending on who you ask, some may say that Kowloon Bay is still an industrial hub of Hong Kong, while others may say it is a core business centre of Kowloon East. Among the cluster of sleek commercial towers, dozens of old industrial blocks packed with small companies and startup businesses are still going strong. The oddity of seeing multi-level drum ramps of cargo centre standing side by side to glassy office towers, or walking from a wide arterial road designed for trucks and trailers into a network of lush green pedestrian paths catered for healthy jogging often intrigue us. These somewhat contradicting experience in a changing neighborhood offers an interesting urban scenery and a transient beauty. It is a picture that celebrates the convergence of distinct planning visions, contrasting ambiences, and conflicting visual identities that may seem odd at the first glance. Yet, the beauty of finding diversity, ambiguity, equilibrium and even contradictions would eventually creep in, especially when seeing the juxtaposition and layering of distinct architecture somehow complementing each other, or the mingling of people in different professions at the same public square. Singular and segregated zoning was largely a product of industrialization when polluting and noisy industries were separated from residential and commercial centres. In many cities, especially in North America, highways and railways were often used to demarcate the boundaries of different zones. As heavy industries shifted away from city centres in recent decades just like the case of Kowloon Bay, many former industrial buildings have become a venue of opportunities for young startups. Together with financial institutions, restaurants, retail, and other small businesses, these small entrepreneurs would form a diverse urban ecosystem and a multifaceted community. Would there be room in the revitalization of Kowloon Bay that some industrial components can be retained and reach a harmonic relationship with the new commercial establishments? There is still much more to be seen in the coming years.
Apartment blocks mushroom in clusters north of Kwun Tong’s MTR viaduct all the way to the slopes of Sau Mau Ping and Lam Tin, where stone quarries once dominated the skyline of Kowloon East. With 59,000 persons per square kilometre (2016), Kwun Tong is the most densely populated district in Hong Kong. Since the first public housing was erected in late 1950’s, Kwun Tong has become home to many public housing estates: Ngau Tau Kok (牛頭角邨), Lam Tin (藍田邨), Sau Mau Ping (秀茂坪邨), just to name a few. At the neighborhood centre lies Yue Man Square (裕民坊), the former commercial heart, and Shui Wo Street Market (瑞和街街市), the bustling street market that fascinates me every time I walk by the area. While Shui Wo Street Market remains as busy as decades ago, the original Yue Man Square is all but gone, giving way to new shopping malls and glassy towers. Beyond the vibrancy, noises, and dust, I was surprised to find pockets of breathing spaces beyond the crowded streets of Kwun Tong while exploring the area. Be it a decades old temple that was left untouched and hidden from plain sight throughout all these years of urban transformations, or forgotten reservoir structures that were left for decay in a lush green ravine, these peaceful corners have been serving as peaceful “backyards” for local residents, and any curious outsider who chooses to explore Kwun Tong beyond its shopping malls.
Surrounded by apartment blocks of Tsui Ping Estate (翠屏邨) and several school compounds, traditional Tai Wong Yeh Temple (大王爺廟) sits on a slope that is invisible from the streets below. Meandering between groups of school kids and elderly at the covered plazas of Tsui Ping Estate just minutes ago, entering the tranquil temple complex felt like going into an hidden retreat. During my brief visit, I was the only visitor and was free to wander around the temple complex all by myself. Clustered over a slope on three terraces, the complex was erected in 1958 as a replacement of an earlier temple in Lok Fu. I took my time to check out the colouful wall reliefs around the temple. Reliefs of a tiger and dragon particularly captured my attention. They may not be the most exquisite artworks found in galleries, but nevertheless they are valuable relics of the old Kwun Tong, from a time when skillful mural artisans were much more common.
North of Lok Wah Estate (樂華邨), lush green Jordan Valley (佐敦谷) wraps along the northern boundary of Kwun Tung. It is at Jordan Valley that the 648,541 (2016) Kwun Tong residents can cool themselves off at a 1.7 hectare swimming compound, hike in forested trails, picnic on park lawns, exercise in public playgrounds and ball courts, under the shadow of the majestic Kowloon Peak (飛鵝山). What fascinates me is that much of these pleasant green spaces and recreational facilities were once occupied by 16 blocks of social housing apartments known as Jordan Valley Estate (佐敦谷邨). In 1990’s, the former colonial government decided to tear down the housing estate and replace it with the much needed public recreational facilities of Kwun Tong. This was the only time in Hong Kong where a public housing estate was torn down and not replaced by taller apartment blocks. Perched above Jordan Valley, a red running track awaits anyone who is willing to hike up to the secret getaway of Kwun Tong High Level Service Reservoir Playground (觀塘上配水庫遊樂場). Attracted by photos of the running track against the dramatic backdrop of a ruined reservoir wall and Kowloon Peak, I braved the summer heat to climb up the hill for the relatively little-known scenery. On the way up, I passed by the main dam of the former Jordan Valley Reservoir, a decommissioned facility that once supplied Kwun Tong with seawater for flushing. Completed in 1960, the reservoir ceased operations in early 1980’s and was subsequently filled up. Today, apart from elderly residents or the few who come to exercise at the dam or running track, hardly anyone knows about the reservoir remnants. Without much documentation about its history, memories of the former Jordan Valley Reservoir are actually fading fast.
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.
Before the pandemic, Hong Kong was a highly popular tourist destination in Asia, ranked among the top cities in the world for the number of international visitors. Just like many tourist cities around the globe, tourism in Hong Kong has suffered enormously during the pandemic. The numbers of foreign visitors have plummeted, and the once crowded sights across the city have been largely tourist free. Despite the loss of tourist activities, this situation is prompting the return of Hongkongers to places they would normally avoid before the pandemic. Apart from popular museums, beaches, amusement parks, and shopping centres, waterfront promenades along Victoria Harbour, especially in Tsim Sha Tsui at the tip of Kowloon Peninsula, has always been packed with tourists before the Covid. Just like our childhood years, today we can once again wander freely on the Avenue of Stars or linger in the shadow of the Tsim Sha Tsui Clock Tower without bumping into aggressive tourist groups. At night, the undulating reflections of neon lights, LED billboards, and glittering building facades in the water provides the perfect foreground for the skyline of Central, backed upon the silhouette of Victoria Peak. For decades, this postcard perfect Harbour panorama has served as the impeccable visual representation of Hong Kong’s prosperity and vibrancy, illuminating the legend of a city that never sleeps. Beyond the charming skyline on both sides of the water, the busy Victoria Harbour has much more to offer than just its visual glamour.
In Feng Shui, the traditional Chinese practice that harnesses the energy of surrounding environment, the element “water” is often associated with wealth and fortune. For Hong Kong, this water element can be definitely identified as the Victoria Harbour. From founding of the trading port, to the establishment of Far East’s finance and servicing hub, Victoria Harbour, the 41.88 km2 stretch of sea between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon Peninsula, has always played a vital role. The Harbour is indeed where the story of Hong Kong begins. Known for its deep and sheltered water, the natural landform of the Harbour was one of the main reasons why Hong Kong was chosen by the British in 1841. Since the mid-19th century, the British put a great deal of effort to establish Hong Kong as their subtropical metropolis in the Far East and commercial gateway into China. The Harbour and its waterfront developments have been at the centre stage of Hong Kong’s evolution every since. To sustain population and economic growth, major land reclamation projects have never ceased to transform the urban extent of the city ever since 1840’s. More office towers, residential complexes, hotels, shopping centres, government buildings, museums, convention centre, stadiums, cruise terminals, promenades, piers, etc. would be erected after each reclamation scheme, redrawing the urban coastline at least once in every generation.
For many neighborhoods in the city, Victoria Harbour is always just a few blocks away. Exploring the everchanging waterfront areas is an interesting way to understand the past, present and future of Hong Kong. Our next series of posts will do exactly that.