Hong Kong has undergone many changes throughout its transformation from a modest trading post into a modern, vibrant metropolis, but with development also come destruction and obsolescence. We take a trip down memory lane with Sam the Local resident tour guide Danny as he reminisces about the old Hong Kong and the things he misses most.
Growing up, my family visited Hong Kong every few years. Each time, the city appeared new and different. Most of these improvements were 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 rates 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. And so, the Wild West of Hong Kong was born.
Kowloon Walled City festered and thrived in the Pearl of the Orient. Rates of illegal construction skyrocketed in the 1970s and 80s. Living units were perilously stacked upon other units, transforming the slum into a high-rise 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 neighbourhood was one of the densest populated areas in the world. At its peak, 50,000+ residents were crammed into 6.4 acres of land.
Triads would run numerous brothels, gambling parlors and opiums 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.
The area also had a significant cultural impact in the 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 took inspiration for their dilapidated neighbourhood, The Narrows from Kowloon Walled City. Moreover, the Japanese were so inspired by the city that they recreated parts of it for a themed amusement park in Kawasaki City.
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 could face.
Pilots had to undergo numerous hours of flight simulation in simulators before being 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 had to look out from 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 would 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!
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. 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!
3. Haw Par Mansion: Tiger Balm Gardens
(aka The Villa of Tigers and Jaguars)
In 1993, a video game called Super Street Fighter II was released. That year, the popular fighting series introduced a new character, based on my childhood hero Bruce Lee, called Fei long. Fei Long quickly became my favourite character. So when my older brother pointed out that Fei Long’s arena was an actual place in Hong Kong, and one that I’d been to, it blew my mind.
I was too young to remember, but the garden did sound familiar. I mean, who can forget a cool name like that? It turns out that the garden was an amusement park built by the two eccentric brothers who founded the Tiger Balm company. In 1935, brothers Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par used ointment money to build the Haw Par Mansion alongside an 8-acre garden in Tai Hang. Two years later, the brother opened up the garden to the public and it became one of the first amusement parks in Hong Kong.
What made this garden so special and the inspiration for a popular 90s Japanese video game? Remember how I described the Aw brothers earlier? Eccentric – but eccentric is a bit of an understatement. The garden was a sculpture exhibit depicting Chinese mythology in a style best described as Alice in Wonderland meets Dante’s Inferno. Colourful sculptures of mythical animals like dragons and phoenixes were curated alongside the Monkey King from the famous novel, Journey to the West. It’s difficult to capture in words how truly bizarre some of these exhibits were – animals getting married, people committing suicide, hyper-sexualized statues and more! Perhaps most memorable was the sculptural depiction of the Chinese’s Ten Courts of Hell. Each exhibit grotesquely showed the punishment for a particular sin – adultery/decapitation, drug use/impalement, robbery/death by fire, etc. I vividly remember a piece showing people being run-over by demons on a pick-up truck while begging for mercy. Those were the stuff of nightmares!
However, Tiger Balm Garden was wonderful in an offbeat kind of way, drawing in millions of locals and tourist over the years. Unsurprisingly, with it’s gratuitous depiction of death and gore, there were incessant rumors about the garden being haunted. Those stories disappeared along with the park in 2004 when, without much commotion, the garden was purchased by real estate developers and subsequently demolished. The statues and artwork have been salvaged by the Antiquities and Monuments Office. It’s one of those things that nobody in Hong Kong thinks they’ll miss – until it has gone.
4. Non Air-Conditioned Buses
Public buses are a big part of life in Hong Kong. In most places, they serve only a practical purpose: transporting the public from A to B. In Hong Kong, however, buses enjoy a level of reverence seen nowhere else. You can find scale models of actual buses down to their commute routes in most local toy stores, with some costing well over $1,000. On weekends, you can find bus enthusiasts sneakily using their professional cameras to snap pictures of buses on the street. On their day off, these paparazzi are likely found posting their pictures and engaging in online debates. In conclusion, buses in Hong Kong are a big deal.
In 2012, Hong Kong bus companies made a decision that forever changed their industry: they discontinued the non air-conditioned buses. Non AC buses had existed since the inception of the industry in the 20s, so it was a sad day when Kowloon Motor Bus Co. (KMB) hung the banner “Farewell KMB Non Air-Conditioned Bus” on the side of their older vehicles. On May 8, 2012, the fleet of 399 non AC buses ceremoniously retired. Aside from two buses that were kept for commemorative reasons, the entire fleet was sold with the condition that it wouldn’t again be used in Hong Kong.
Air conditioned buses were only introduced in the late 80s. They caught on like wildfire, especially during the heat of the summer. No longer would you have to sweat through your clothes in 36° temperature while riding on the bus. However, Non AC buses had their perks as well. Firstly, they were cheaper to run and therefore cheaper to ride. Low income households were most affected by this change. Secondly, being able to open the window and let the cool breeze flow through was quite a lovely experience. Most depressingly of all, gone was another relic of Hong Kong’s past. One that had served so well the tiny island as it transformed into a world-class city; through World Wars, the handover of political control, and even SARs. Yes, it was been replaced by a service that is arguably superior in every way; however, I just can’t help but think how neat it would be to sit on the top deck of a bus and crack open a window.
5. Lai Chi Kok Amusement Park (aka Lai Yuen)
Locals in Hong Kong remember Lai Yuen very fondly. As a toddler, I enjoyed the amusement park so much that I demanded my father take us there every weekend. I don’t remember the details, but I do remember being terrified of the Dinosaur statue in front of the Dinosaur House. I would clamp my eyes shut every time we walked by, never mustering up the courage to get really close. As an adult, I figured that I would look back at that dinosaur and chuckle at my younger self, realising how silly it looked. Nope, I Googled a picture of the over-sized monster and it still terrifies me today.
Lai Yuen was built by a businessman named Cheung Kwan On in 1949. Over the years, the park expanded to include many different attraction and rides, including a zoo. An ex-circus Asian elephant named Tino was a fan-favorite, until he sadly died of pneumonia in 1989. Despite its growing operation, the entrance fee to Lai Yuen was always very affordable, never exceeding the cost of a fast food meal. The amusement park was built by Hong Kongers for Hong Kongers. The carnival games had a local spin to them, such as the game that tested your ability to identify Mahjong pieces by touch alone. However, due to competition from Ocean Park, the park fell on tough times in the 90s and the Government rezoned the land for public housing. During the last two days, 80,000 Hong Kongers flooded into the park to experience it one last time.
There are ongoing efforts by the owners to revive the park on Lantau island, but no real progress has been made. Over the summer of 2015, a temporary version of Lai Yuen opened in Central, Hong Kong. The park successfully reinvigorated the public’s nostalgia and became the talk of the season. They brought back Lai Yuen’s retro style attractions, including the old-school mahjong game. With free admission, the summer park was, in many ways, a huge success.