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.