5 Things I Miss Most About Old Hong Kong (Part 1)

Danny’s Take – In this series, Danny will be sharing his perspective on Hong Kong and what it was like to see a different side to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is one of the fastest growing cities in the world. What started as a modest trading post quickly transformed into a vibrant, metropolitan, finance capital of Asia. However, with changes and development also comes destruction and obsolescence. Growing up, my family visited Hong Kong every few years. Each time we visited the city would appear new and different. Most of these improvements are wonderful, such as the introduction of the Octopus card and the public smoking ban. However, there is a part of me that can’t help but feel nostalgic for things and places that have disappeared with time. Here is a list of things I miss most about Old Hong Kong.

1. Kowloon Walled City

The existence of a lawless slum in Hong Kong run by triads well into the 1990s is absolutely mind-boggling. Believe it or not, a place like that really existed: Kowloon Walled City. Infamous for its high rate of crime, prostitution, and drug use, Kowloon Walled City began as a military outpost in the late 19th century. After WWII, an influx of refugees inhabited the area. By the time the British government attempted to seize control of the area, thousands of people already called the city their home. In 1948, after numerous failed attempts, the government simply threw up their hands and gave up on the entire area. The wild-west of Hong Kong was born.

Top view of Kowloon City WAll
Top view of Kowloon City Wall – Credit: Greg Girard and Ian Lambot

Kowloon Walled City festered and thrived in the Pearl of the Orient. Rates of illegal construction skyrocketed in the 70s-80s. Living units were perilously stacked upon other units, transforming the slum into a highrise fortress nicknamed the City of Darkness. Deprived of light, the internal city was built as a network of dark hallways with leaky pipes and dangling wires. The neighborhood was one of the densest populated areas in the world. At its peak, 50,000+ residents were crammed into 6.4 acres of land.

Hallway of Kowloon City Wall
Hallway of Kowloon City Wall – Credit: Greg Girard and Ian Lambot

Triads would run numerous brothels, gambling parlors, and opium dens within the city walls. Policemen were petrified of the area and would only enter in large groups. Despite its reputation for chaos, the city was completely self-sustaining with amenities like kindergartens, restaurants, and even dentists. Surprisingly, many of the ex-residents still speak fondly of their time living in Kowloon Walled City. To them, it was simply their home.    

Children in Kowloon City Wall
Children in Kowloon City Wall – Credit: Greg Girard and Ian Lambot

Butcher of Kowloon City Wall
Butcher of Kowloon City Wall – Credit: Greg Girard and Ian Lambot

Kowloon Wall City also had significant cultural impact in mainstream media. The cult 80s martial arts film “Bloodsport” starring Jean-Claude Van Damme was one of several films set inside the city. Additionally, creators of “Batman Begins” designed their dilapidated neighborhood, “The Narrows,” with inspiration from Kowloon Walled City. Moreover, Japanese people were so inspired by the city that they recreated parts of it for a themed amusement park in Kawasaki City.

Bloodsport
Credit: Bloodsport

Narrows from Batman Begin
Narrows from Batman Begins – Credit: Batman Begin

Recreation of Kowloon City Wall
Credit: David from Randomwire.com

Recreation of Kowloon City Wall
Credit: David from Randomwire.com

Immerse yourself in the local culture

2. Planes Overhead

One of my fondest memories growing up in Kowloon was the incredible sensation of an approaching 747. As a kid, I thought if I climbed onto the roof, I could most certainly touch the wheels of the plane. This is, of course, when Kai Tak Airport was still Hong Kong’s airport. The landing strip, known to pilots as the infamous Runway 1-3, was situated only feet away from the highly populated parts of Kowloon. Given the constant crosswinds, dark mountains, and proximity to housing, landing in Hong Kong was one of the biggest challenges a pilot can face.

Planes landing in Kai Tak
Planes landing in Kai Tak

Pilots had to undergo numerous hours of flight simulation in simulators before certified to land in Kai Tak. According to the instrument approach chart, the pilot first has to approach Kai Tak by hooking around Lantau island. They have to do this over dense metropolitan areas, relying only on their on-board instrumentation. Seconds upon reaching western Kowloon, they look out their dashboard for a visual marker called Checkerboard Mountain, which is a hill painted in a red and white checkerboard design. At the appropriate distance from the marker, the pilot will execute a tricky 47° hard bank in attempt to line up with the runway, adjusting for wind along the way. It is the automotive equivalent of trying to parallel park at 50mph by looking only at Google Maps and then at the last second peeking up while pulling your handbrake to execute a perfect powerslide between two cars. Oh, and you’re doing it knowing that if you mess up, thousands of people may die.

Planes landing in Kai Tak
Credit: CNN

The proximity of the planes to the buildings quickly became an international attraction. Photographers from all over the world came to Hong Kong to take pictures – and in the process, creating some of the most iconic images of the city. Take a moment to savor these gorgeous photographs.

Planes landing in Kai Tak
Credit: CNN

Planes landing in Kai Tak
Credit: CNN

Also, if you have popcorn and extra underpants lying around, I recommend searching for cockpit videos of pilots landing in Kai Tak on YouTube. You’ll be pleased to learn that there hasn’t been any disasters in Kai Tak’s 73 year history, except in 1994 when China Airlines Flight 605 ran off the runway during a typhoon and had to be dragged up. Explosives were used but don’t worry, everyone survived.

Planes landing in Kai Tak
Credit: CNN

Check out the second part of article here: 5 Things I Missed Most About Old Hong Kong Part II

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About the Author

Danny

I'm originally from Hong Kong and grew up in California. I am now back in Hong Kong, reminiscing about old Hong Kong, and seeing a new side of the city with my camera lens. I love biking, swimming, and anything salt and vinegar flavored.

 

4 thoughts on “5 Things I Miss Most About Old Hong Kong (Part 1)

  1. Brett Stevens

    Great post Danny,

    I fondly remember many Qantas 747 landings at Kai Tak in the 80’s, as a passenger, and a good friend of mine was even fortunate enough to sit in the jump seat behind the pilots on one approach towards “checkerboard mountain”. I still remember seeing people cooking in the apartments through the windows on final approach.

    I didn’t know about the Walled City of Kowloon, that’s amazing !

    I look forward to reading Part 2 !

    Regards… Brett

    1. Danny Lam

      Appreciate the comment, Brett!

      I have nothing but envy for your good friend who had a front row seat to the landing. I have also had the privileged of landing in Kai Tak in the late 80’s, but only as a baby in the arms of my mother. To think that it was once an everyday experience is absolutely mind-boggling.

      Brett, you have to check out the present day Walled City! It’s now a lovely (and crime-free) park! During the demolition, the city stumbled onto bits and pieces of the the original wall dating back to the Song dynasty (that’s over a thousand years old.) Take a moment to digest that! Speaking of digestion, there are also a handful of delicious restaurants, especially if you like Thai food, within one block of the park. Sounds like a perfect afternoon to me.

      Stayed tune for part 2., which will be posted next Tuesday!

      Your friend,
      Danny

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