SECOND LIFE OF AN INDUSTRIAL TOWN, Kwun Tong (觀塘), Kowloon, Hong Kong
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.
BREAKING THE BARRIER, Island Eastern Corridor (東區走廊), Hong Kong
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.
INSTAGRAM PIER, A Short-lived Paradise in Shek Tong Tsui (石塘咀), Hong Kong
On 28th February, 2021, joggers, dog walkers, photographers, and fishing enthusiasts in Shek Tong Tsui were shocked to see their beloved Western District Public Cargo Working Area (西區公眾貨物裝卸區) had been closed off to the public. Several times voted as one of the most favourite public spaces in the city, the government freight pier was more commonly known as the Instagram Pier, thanks to its high popularity on the social media throughout the past decade. Extended westwards into the Victoria Harbour, the pier was famous for its unrivaled sunset views, along with its rustic cranes and construction materials for selfie backdrops, and handsome reflections of sunset skies in water puddles after rain, an effect that prompted netizens to name the pier “Mirror of the Sky” (天空之鏡). The magnificent open space has become an Internet sensation since 2010, but not until 2015, when the MTR extended to Sai Wan (西環), that a much larger influx of outsiders and oversea visitors, especially the younger generation, had arrived at the pier to chill out under the western sun.
For the local community, the pier had served as their collective backyard since the 1990’s. They would hang out at the loading and unloading area, to jog, fish and walk the dog. It was the sense of freedom and spatial openness (a rarity in Downtown Hong Kong) that made the pier such a unique public space for the community. In November 2014, the Marine Department put up warning notices at the pier to dissuade the public from entering the pier. The notices had make little impact on altering the common perception that the pier was a leisure space available for all. Since then, the authorities had made a few proposal to erect railings and partially converted the pier into a “proper” park. The government’s intent had met with fierce objections from the community. While the government’s main aim was to reduce liability (if any accident happen) and establish a higher degree of control, what the community and visitors truly appreciate about the pier was the vast open space and unobstructed views, the freedom to use the space in any way one could think of, and the lack of unwanted street furniture, eyesore decorations, and flimsy exercise equipment that might not last for a few months.
Between 2010 and 2021, the Instagram Pier has left its unique mark in the story of Shek Tong Tsui. Not only was it the most visited attraction in the neighborhood, it was also the perfect spot in town where one could idly spend an afternoon to simply do nothing without interference from another human being (not even a park caretaker). It was also one of the most interesting spots in Hong Kong for people watching: strangers mingling with strangers, couple taking wedding shots, students sitting in a circle having their first sip of beer, girls learning skateboard with her boyfriend, man practicing guitar by the sea, unleashed dogs chasing one another, photo enthusiasts lying on the floor just to make the perfect shot of reflection out of a water puddle, women in fancy dresses climbing up and down the shipping pallets, scaffolding bamboo and construction materials to make all sorts of weird posts for selfies… Of course, such freedom would lead to issues with safety, hygiene and garbage to deal with. For the authorities, a public space should be finished with pavers, bounded with handrails and walls, equipped with park benches and flower beds, and spaces clearly defined for specific functions. For many, on the other hand, the Instagram Pier had represented almost the opposite: a stress-free and causal open space with little regulations and no specific facilities, just good views and emptiness. Recently, the pier has another layer of political consideration: a possible springboard for exploring the next potential land reclamation, connecting the west of Hong Kong Island to the distant Lantau Island via bridges and artificial islands. Even if the land reclamation doesn’t go ahead and the pier gets renovated and reopened as a public promenade in the future, we can pretty much assume that the space would be properly paved and fully equipped with railings. The floor would be flattened, leaving little chances for water puddles. For photography enthusiasts, the “Mirror of the Sky” at Sai Wan has officially become a story of the past.
While the Instagram Pier was closed down indefinitely in 2021, the adjacent Central and Western District Promenade has opened in the same year to the public. The ambience reflects quite a different story from the Instagram Pier, from rustic and cool environment preferred by the youth, to kid-friendly and orderly catered for the kids and elderly.