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.
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.