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.
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”.
What does “fort”, “oil”, “electric”, “power”, and “wharf” have in common? They are all street names in North Point that reveals the neighborhood’s strategic location and utilitarian past. The “fort” or battery hill is long gone, leaving behind a parkette up on Fortress Hill Road that even local residents may not know about its existence, and the name “Fortress Hill” that defines the westernmost area of North Point District. The former oil depot, powerplant and wharf facilities that gave us the street names “oil”, “electric”, “power”, and “wharf” have all been replaced by high density residential developments. In the 20th century, North Point has gone through series of transformations, from just a defensive battery at the northernmost point of Hong Kong Island and a cluster of infrastructure facilities that supported the adjacent Victoria City, to an area teeming with domestic life where amusement park, theatres, swim sheds, department stores, and red-light businesses sprang up and then mostly faded away. Due to a large influx of mainland immigrants in mid 20th century, especially the Hokkien Fujianese and Shanghaiese, North Point has become the most densely populated place on earth in late 1960’s, according to the Guinness Book of Records. Today, the urban density of North Point may no longer ranked top of the world, but a stroll on King’s Road, the district’s main thoroughfare where blocks after blocks of concrete apartments encroaching in all directions, can still be disorienting for many.
Published by Hong Kong Art Centre as part of “Via North Point” art programme in 2020, a local magazine did a poll with a group of local residents about their favorite landmarks in North Point. Unlike the monumental and glamorous urban icons in Central or Tsim Sha Tsui, their top five selected landmarks include two theatres, a pier, a market and even a street intersection. For them, these daily scenery have defined the collective identity and a sense of belonging for the community. For us who have been working in the adjacent Quarry Bay for the past eight years, North Point is also an area we would pass by almost everyday. We share some of their sentiments and also find beauty from these what may seem like ordinary street scenery by first glance. Here are their top five favorite landmarks in North Point:
NO. 5: King’s Road (英皇道) and the North Point Road (北角道) Intersection (4.3%)
NO. 4: State Theatre (皇都戲院) 8.7%
NO.3 : North Point Pier(北角碼頭)10.9%
NO. 2: Sunbeam Theatre (新光戲院)17.4%
NO.1: Chun Yeung Street Market (春秧街街市)21.7%
LANDMARKS IN FORTRESS HILL:
Situated between Causeway Bay and the heart of North Point, Fortress Hill (炮台山) has long been under the radar. In recent months, East Coast Park Precinct in Fortress Hill has emerged as one of the hottest new attractions in Hong Kong. Apart from the harbourfront lookout, the following two spots in Fortress Hill are also gaining popularity on Instagram as well.
Oi! Art Space (油街實現), Former Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club
In Canada, there has long been a debate of tearing down the elevated Gardiner Expressway in Toronto waterfront. Maintaining the deteriorating and somewhat underused infrastructure has become a burden for the city. As the trend of urban sprawl reversed in recent two decades, land in downtown Toronto, especially along the waterfront of Lake Ontario, has become precious asset for the city. Since 1960’s, the Gardiner has been a prominent barrier that cut off the city from its waterfront. The uninviting wasteland underneath the expressway has prevented most pedestrians walking to the waterfront especially at night. Since 1990’s, studies have been made for replacing the expressway, such as turning it into a tunnel or an urban park like the Highline in New York. Despite all the studies and debates, most of the Gardiner Expressway still remains in Toronto waterfront today. On confronting an aging waterfront expressway that hinders urban development and pedestrian connection, Toronto wasn’t alone. Negative aspects of these waterfront expressway are quite universal: poor waterfront access, wasteland below the structure, discontinued harbourfront, undesirable air ventilation, unattractive streetscape, high maintenance cost, etc. Since 1990’s, a wave of waterfront revitalization projects and demolition of elevated expressways have sprung up across the globe. Double decker Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco was torn down in 1991, and so did Rio de Janerio’s Perimetral Elevated Highway in 2014, and Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct in 2019.
In Hong Kong, sections of elevated expressways flank the Victoria Harbour in Western Kowloon and Eastern Hong Kong Island. The idea of building an expressway in Eastern Hong Kong Island was brought out in 1968 to tackle the traffic problems of King’s Road. It wasn’t until 1980’s that an elevated expressway, namely Island Eastern Corridor (東區走廊), was erected between Causeway Bay at the centre of Hong Kong Island and Chai Wan (柴灣) at the eastern end. The expressway includes a viaduct along the harbour between Causeway Bay (銅鑼灣) and Quarry Bay (鰂魚涌), passing by North Point (北角) along the way. East of Quarry Bay, the expressway shifts slightly inland from the coast, leaving a strip of waterfront promenade between Quarry Bay and Shau Kei Wan (筲箕灣). Designating the waterfront for public enjoyment was never the top priority in the 1980’s. From Causeway Bay to Quarry Bay, there are only a few boat landings and viaduct pillar supports where the public can walk out to have a peek of the harbour. In 2008, the authority proposed to construct a waterfront promenade between Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter and Shau Kei Wan. In the past decade, stretches of waterfront promenades have been built to connect the harbourfront from Central to Causeway Bay, up to East Coast Park Precinct. East of Causeway Bay however, the waterfront promenades remain fragmented. After years of speculations, boardwalk constructions under the expressway have finally commenced in North Point. If the works can really deliver a continuous walkway below Island Eastern Corridor, then sooner or later we can walk along the north coast of Hong Kong Island all the way from Central Pier to Aldrich Bay Promenade (愛秩序灣海濱花園) in Shau Kei Wan, via a 9.5km pedestrian path. Then the barrier that separates the harbour from Eastern Hong Kong Island would finally be broken.
On 2 February 2022, we had our final visit to Gia Trattoria Italiana, an Italian restaurant at Fenwick Pier in Wan Chai. Two months have passed, and we have already missed their Bistecca alla Fiorentina, lobster pasta, and all the delightful moments we spent at the restaurant. A few days after our February visit, the restaurant was closed for good, as the government decided to terminate the lease of Fenwick Pier. The pier was set for demolition and the site would be redeveloped into a fire-station. A little out of the way from the closest MTR station, the 4-storey pier building looked a little worn out, with paint peeling off here and there. Occupying a small piece of land less than 150m inland from the new Wan Chai Harbourfront, the utilitarian box structure probably wouldn’t be missed if it was just an ordinary building. But Fenwick Pier was no ordinary building. For two months before returning the closing the pier, people flocked to Fenwick Pier to photograph and bid farewell to this remnant from the colonial times. The nostalgic visitors even formed a queue outside the gate in the midst of pandemic. For the latter half of 20th Century, Hong Kong was the first port of call in Asia for many American seamen and navy personnel, while Fenwick Pier served like the arrival gateway in the city. The pier fulfilled its duty till the very end, offering foreign sailors and seamen free guidebooks, free local sim cards, transportation shuttles, tourist information, shops and services such as tailoring, hairdressing, souvenirs, etc. Local Hongkongers could also join the pier membership right at the door, so that they could enjoy the facilities in the complex. Fenwick Pier offered locals a “taste of America” from fast food to fine dining, and foreign seamen a place where they could enjoy products and services that defined the concept of East meets West.
While 2022 marks the end for Fenwick Pier, and its NGO operator, the Servicemen’s Guides Association (SGA – 香港軍人輔導會), the story began in 1953 with a humble information desk on the sidewalk next to Fenwick Street to serve the arriving American military sailors during the Korean War. Later on, the SGA was granted by the colonial government a small piece of land to establish the Fenwick Pier. The pier was moved and rebuilt a few times due to typhoon damages and land reclamation, until 1970 when the current building was erected. In 1994, Fleet Arcade (海軍商場), the 4-storey shopping centre, was founded serving mainly visiting sailors. As incoming vessels have significantly declined since 1997 and the pier became landlocked in 2016 due to land reclamation, the final demise for the pier was almost certain. At its peak, the pier received almost 100 vessels with 97,000 visitors a year. Wan Chai, the area where Fenwick Pier stood, was the official hub for all foreign sailors. Restaurants, bars, strip clubs and all sort of entertainment businesses flourished in Wan Chai, during the golden age of Fenwick Pier. After receiving 1.26 million sailors in 69 years, Fenwick Pier was finally sealed off by the government, and officially became an important piece of history for Hong Kong.
In 1997, the first Standard Charter Hong Kong Marathon attracted 1,000 runners. As love for the sport grows universally, the annual event in Hong Kong has gained popularity and attracted about 70,000 runners (pre-pandemic) from around the globe, defying the humid conditions to run in the subtropical heat. Despite the dominance of East African runners in the race, local participants have increased in both numbers and results in recent years. In fact, the sport has become so popular in Hong Kong that more and more running related shows are broadcasted on television, and more and more sports equipment shops have popped up in busy commercial neighbourhoods in recent years. Runners are everywhere: on sidewalks and waterfront promenades, or in parks and on trails in the countryside.
Some run for health benefits, while some run just to loosen up their minds after a long day of stress. For people who have had enough time sitting in air conditioned offices, doing an evening run is a decent alternative for going to the gym. For a city as dense as Hong Kong, it might be surprising to find that pleasant running routes are never far away. For residents on the Island side, many choose Bowen Road in Wan Chai, or Lugard Road at Victoria Peak, while on the Kowloon side, West Kowloon Art Park or Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade are the obvious choices. In recent years, the government put efforts to transform the once out of limits harbourfront areas on the north shore of Hong Kong Island into public promenades. These promenades have become instant hits for local runners. Harbourfront scenery is particularly pleasant between Central Piers and the Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai when the urban skyline lit up after dusk. With such amazing backdrop, there should be no excuse for anyone not to put on their running shoes and headphones, take in the lovely views and seaside breezes, and burn some calories.
At midnight 12th of November 2006, Edinburgh Place Ferry Pier (also known as Star Ferry Pier 天星碼頭) Clock Tower played its last chimes of its 48-years service, before being decommissioned and demolished along with the third generation Star Ferry Pier. Manufactured by Dent (London clock maker who was responsible for the clock of the Big Ben), the clock had told the time and chimed every 15 minutes since 1958. Although the timepiece mechanism was eventually preserved, the clock tower was discreetly toppled in early morning on 16th December 2006 amid public outcries and activist protests. Then four months later, just a stone throw from the toppled clock tower, Queen’s Pier (皇后碼頭) became the next harbourfront icon to fall victim for the Central and Wan Chai Reclamation project. Named after Queen Victoria, Queen’s Pier was the main arrival and departure point for all colonial governors since 1925, and the landing spot for British royal visits (Queen Elizabeth II in 1975, and Prince and Princess of Wales in 1989). After their failed attempt to save the Star Ferry Pier, local conservationists reunited at Queen’s Pier to held rallies, hunger strikes and candlelight vigils to fight against the demolition. While winning support from the public and even some celebrities, the activists once again failed to convince the government to consider preservation the colonial pier. Despite their fruitless attempts, the incidents of Star Ferry Pier and Queen’s Pier have significantly raised public awareness on heritage preservation in Hong Kong, and triggered widespread support for later conservation projects such as Central Market, Police Married Quarter (PMQ) and Tai Kwun Police Headquarters.
As a port city, pier structures have always been essentials to Hong Kong. Based on an university study of photos from 1863, there were once 56 piers and jetties between Western District and Causeway Bay in mid 19th century. Excluding the restricted zones, that works out to be 56 piers in 5.5km of shoreline, or roughly a pier every 98m. As port facilities were moved away from the heart of Victoria Harbour and the opening of Cross Harbour Tunnel in 1970’s, pier activities along the north coast of Hong Kong Island have significantly declined, except for the pleasant Star Ferry and the other boat services to the outlying islands. I still remember the excitement as a kid in 1980’s when arriving at the Outlying Islands Ferry Pier (港外線碼頭) boarding a boat for day trips to Lantau or Yamma Island, or rubbing shoulders with foreign tourists taking photos of traditional rickshaws at Star Ferry Pier (天星碼頭), or watching couples taking wedding photos at Queen’s Pier (皇后碼頭) after tying the knot at the adjacent City Hall. Each pier had its own ambience and scenery. Each pier has become a unique piece of memory. Since the completion of Central and Wan Chai Reclamation project, the old Central piers are all but gone. About 300m north of the former piers, a cluster of ten new piers were established between 1990’s and 2000’s as the new Central Piers. Assigned with Pier No. 7 and 8, the current Star Ferry Pier was erected in Edwardian style mimicking its second generation predecessor from 1910’s. The “fake antique” and “theme park” approach of the architecture have drawn heavy criticism from the public. Between Pier No. 9 and 10, Hong Kong Observation Wheel, a 60m Ferris wheel, was erected in 2014 as a new tourist attraction. Despite being skeptical about the necessity of a new attraction, many do see the Ferris wheel as a delightful focus for the harbourfront, and a welcoming feature upon arriving at the Central Piers by ferry.