Hong Kong: In Search of Kai Tak

1-kai tak at night by ian woodrow 1998

Kai Tak, shortly before closure in 1998. Photo by Ian Woodrow.

What is it about absence, the cult of something long since passed or a site that is no longer there that so enraptures the more inquisitive souls of our species. Is it nostalgia? A longing for a forgotten time and place. Or does this line of enquiry encroach on the more arcane worlds of ‘dark tourism’ and ‘psycho-geography?’ Whatever the reason, this exploration of a legend among airfields begins at the end. In 1998 the lights along the harbour runway at Hong Kong’s former airport Kai Tak were switched off and the terminal later demolished. Although you have to wonder who in their right mind gave the green light to it ever being an airport in the first place given its somewhat limited capacity and more so for its infamous landing.

My sole encounter with Kai Tak occurred on a June night 40 years ago as a six year old novice nomad. Landing in a British Airways 747 from Auckland my family were spared the crazy Checkerboard Hill and over the rooftops approach into runway 13. Instead we were subjected to the stilted terror of ‘mum, why are we landing in the sea!?’ Unknowing of the harbour jutting runway which were fairly common place even in 1977. With it being 40 years’ since that momentous occasion, and nearly 20 since its decommission in favour of the current and much better airport out on Lantau Island it seemed as good a time as any to explore this fascinating area.

In keeping with all great unfinished masterpieces like Gaudi’s La Sagrida Familiar cathedral in Barcelona and Cardiff Bus Station, you will be pleased to know that in two decades whomever is in charge of this project has managed to move some rubble, some dirt may have been dislodged near the northern end of the former runway. Some builders huts assembled. Other than that the only remaining structure visible from my peripheral perch was the former fire station, its dereliction aided (ironically) by a blaze a decade previous (see the bohemian blog link below). More impressive, Foster and Partners designed ocean liner terminal at the foot of said runway which makes a lot more sense doesn’t it.

You know what this location could have been used for? A London City style airport; small business jets or similar – A319s for example or 737s on regional Asian routes, now that could’ve been a goer couldn’t it? CBD or city airports are quite common in Asia; Gimpo in Seoul, Hongqiao in Shanghai and of course my favourite Songshan in Taipei. However with the present airports stylish and rapid train connection to the city there may be no need for such a venture. In any case, the best I could manage on a fairly hot April bank holiday Monday was a glimpse along the sidelines and from the umpteenth floor of the aptly named Megabox shopping mall.

The area in total extends further to the North than I caught sight of but blocked by roads, varying levels of construction activity and the spring heat creeping up on me I got the best vantage point possible considering my knowledge of this part of Hong Kong pretty much stems from that long distant night; sadly before my photography took flight. The bridge connecting the apron to the east of runway 13 to the taxiway is now a road which skirts alongside the former runway to the cruise terminal which pays homage to the bygone airfield in its eateries; The Old Hanger and the 1925 Club Champagne Bar (the latter temporarily closed at the time of writing).

Much like the HOLLYWOOD sign in America, the ageing checkerboard still graces the hillside at Lok Fu Park and peering up at it from Junction Road sent a spine tingling judder of disbelief that jumbo jets and other large craft were once a common sight so low over a major urban land mass hence Kai Tak’s notoriety. It’s amazing it lasted as a commercial airport as long as it did. However the Checkerboard is not really relevant to my story as both my approach into and out of Kai Tak were in darkness. It is possible we took off over Kowloon and I believe we returned to the legendary airport with engine trouble though I have little to zero recollection of a ‘go round.’ Likewise the terminal interior is a hazy blur. What I do remember though is in the immigration queue, a middle aged Oriental woman walking bow-legged; alien to my young and western eyes at the time. I later learnt this was due to how her mother had carried her as an infant probably sometime in the 1920s or 30s resulting in her disfigured promenade.


Overview of Kai Tak Construction Area 2017

Back to the present past (another bank holiday in early May) and I couldn’t help but return for a closer inspection beginning at the Regal Orient Hotel for an overview of the construction site. It was too much to take in and the changeable weather merely presented a murky wasteland; a pile of rubble here, a selection of builders materials over there and so on. From there I ventured on foot down Prince Edward Road taking in any possible vantage points. Soon enough I found myself in a subway and much the same way as London remembers its past via pictorial walls, so too does Hong Kong and before long I was like a kid in a candy store viewing computer aided imagery of Dakotas, Cathay Pacific 747s in both the old Green and White stripe and Brush-wing liveries as well as the terminal check-in facilities and arrivals board.

There was more to come, I still had to see and feel the vibe at the new cruise terminal and to get there meant hooking up to a mini-bus from Kowloon Bay MTR station. Somehow after waiting for what seemed like an eternity for a bus, one carries me not to Kowloon Bay but to Kwun Tong. It’s a baffling overshoot as I recognised some of the scenery around me. However, the good and helpful staff of the MTR inform me of the 5R that leaves from the adjoining Millennium City mall. Again it felt like forever as every other bus arrived first. My enthusiasm and excitement may have been dented but they were most certainly never dimmed as the brown double decker appeared and trundled to a stop.

Moments later the modern cruise terminal is right in front of me across the straight. I considered jumping off the bus to take photos but didn’t want to wait another aeon for the next one to show. Reluctantly I remained glued to my seat as the bus took the corner, coasting the new build (seen from the Megabox photo above) and onto what was the taxiway. Now for the first time in four decades I was on Kai Tak’s runway of yore; the last time I did this was in a nocturnal jumbo. It is pretty surprising how wide this seemingly slender peninsular actually is. Another irony is that when the bus pulled into the terminal’s parking bays it actually felt like an airport.

As an added coincidence the ship which has docked this very fine May-day is called the Superstar Virgo! Though humble folk are not allowed sea-side so I can only catch momentary glances of it through the terminal and later from the roof garden. My main interest is of course the runway and the harbour view. Not the view of the city, the one directly in my line of vision and preceding the long lost runway. It is difficult to believe now that many moons ago my six year old self sat on a jumbo jet hovering above that dark sea. From where I stood it would have been heading straight toward me!

Nowadays the only things flying into Kai Tak are insects and birds, it is incredible how much a space can change through a simple twist of fate and events. The last thing you would have expected from screaming jets in the seventies is a serene roof garden with flowers and fish. Like the aforementioned subway, the airport is fondly remembered by photos on one part of the cruise terminals upper levels and in the runway park below. Another checkerboard, this time in black and yellow signals the beginning of the bygone runway. An appropriate embellishment of this area would be a dedicated museum with more information, photos and artefacts. Why was the old terminal not preserved for this? Perhaps it could have been Hong Kong Transport Museum and amalgamated with the planned MTR depot. Nevertheless for now the park is a nice and necessary touch celebrating Kai Tak’s past and present.

So 20 years’ since and only the cruise terminal has been realised while the majority of the work is underway. I’m not certain if anything of the original runway remains. What I can be sure of is that elsewhere the site is to be carved up into the usual jigsaw puzzle of residential, parkland and sports facilities with Kai Tak station, due to open in 2019, fronting up part of the east-west metro line. This will provide a quicker alternative between Diamond Hill, Hung Hom and beyond. So transport looks set to remain part of Kai Tak’s future. In doing this, the airfield will have reinvented itself as a ground and sea transport hub. For me the journey is completed by minibus 86 and its chirpy female driver for the short jaunt up to Kowloon Bay via the all new Kai Tak fire station. The airport may have ceased to be but its legend and future is assured.

For a further look into Kai Tak’s history here are some links.

Credits: My personal thanks to the team and excellent concierge at the Regal Oriental Hotel for their assistance. You can view their site here…
and also to Ian ‘Woody’ Woodrow for the usage of his Kai Tak runway at night image, taken in May 1998 from the Checkerboard at Lok Fu Park.
All other images taken in and around Kai Tak during April and May 2017.


6 thoughts on “Hong Kong: In Search of Kai Tak

  1. The fact that one of the most fascinating airports in history vanished without so much of a small museum nor a detailed, worthy publication compelled me to build my own approximation of Kai Tak with the help of 3D drafting programs, plastic milling machines and a fair amount of elbow grease. By no means 100% accurate, due to limited time and more likely average at best model building skills and a lack of patience, it does however capture the spirit. It’s a full 1.5 meter wide diorama of sorts, and of course, a BA 747 is a permanent fixture at one of the parking bays.

    I grew up also eons ago glued to the window of my parents bedroom “plane spotting”, now I get to have a similar view right from my desk at work.

    When I read your article, it’s nice to see yet another person with fond memories of this airport. Well done and a thoroughly enjoyable read!

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