Above: A crossing near the Chungking Mansions.
Often overshadowed by the island across the harbor, Kowloon is fast shedding its “dark side” image as new businesses and cultural projects transform the peninsula into one of Hong Kong’s most vibrant districts
By Simon Ostheimer
Photographs By Matthieu Paley
Round 1270 A.D., as legend has it, a young emperor stood on the shore of a sparsely inhabited peninsula, his back to the ocean, gazing at the hills ranged around him. “What is the name of this place?” he asked a courtier. Seizing the opportunity to flatter his royal master, the courtier replied, “Let us call it Gau Lung”—literally, Nine Dragons, a reference to the ancient belief that mountains were the home of dragons. “But I only count eight,” replied the child king. “That is because you, my liege, are the ninth dragon.” And so, Gau Lung, or Kowloon as it’s known today, was born.
My family moved to Hong Kong when I was just one. Growing up here, I probably should have been familiar with this fable—after all, every kindergartner can count to nine. But I was raised in colonial Hong Kong, the son of a British civil servant, and the product of a Western educational system. At Quarry Bay School, Cantonese was never on the curriculum. Instead, we were taught “practical” European languages like French or German: neuf or neun were never going to lead me to gau (or kow, for that matter). Staring out of the school bus window on my way to and from our Mount Butler apartment every day, I remained blissfully ignorant of the etymology behind the district across Victoria Harbour—though oddly fascinated by the “other half” of the city.
Hong Kong is a melting pot of cultures and religions; a geographical jigsaw puzzle of 235 islands and a slice of the Chinese mainland. But there has only ever been two ways to see the place. You’re either a fan of Hong Kong Island—the economic center—or of Kowloon, today home to roughly one-third of the Special Administrative Region’s population.
I was from the Island, which meant that Kowloon was a mysterious place—a place that Islanders half-jokingly refer to as the “dark side.” I would visit it only occasionally with my mother, who held my hand tight as we made our way to the Star Ferry pier in Central, en route to Harbour City on the other side of the water. But to an expat schoolboy, Kowloon in the early 1980s was exotic in a way the Island could never be. Kowloon was the China that I saw in movies.
Whereas Central was populated by luxury boutiques and gweilo (“ghost man”) businessmen with their tai-tai wives, Tsim Sha Tsui at the southernmost tip of the Kowloon Peninsula was home to Indian tailors (“would young sir like a suit?”), scruffy backpackers, and what I perceived as real “local” people—Hong Kongers beyond the immediate orbit of British life. It was also very rough around the edges, an endless source of wonderment to someone growing up in a spick-and-span complex of apartments built specifically for civil servants and their families.
Not far from the Tsim Sha Tsui ferry pier, a road leads northward, cutting through the center of Kowloon. It runs all the way from Salisbury Road to Boundary Street, which served as the border between colonial Hong Kong and mainland China prior to Britain’s lease of the New Territories in 1898. Named after Hong Kong’s 13th governor, Sir Matthew Nathan, the formerly tree-lined Nathan Road was once nicknamed “Nathan’s Folly”—it was, at least in the early 20th century, a road to nowhere, and it became the subject of much mirth among the colonial community. In later years, it more than proved its worth, opening up the peninsula to development and eventually becoming the main route to the New Territories. Today, it’s one of the best-known thoroughfares in Hong Kong, cluttered with shopping malls and offices illuminated by garish neon signs. As I approached adolescence, the road’s real allure, however, was the Chungking Mansions.
Built in 1961, the five interconnected, 17-story buildings were designed as an apartment complex for the Chinese middle class. As the original tenants moved out over the following decades, however, members of the South Asian community took their place, attracted by the low rent and convenient location in the center of Tsim Sha Tsui. Guesthouses and hostels began to appear, proving popular with backpackers, as did curry houses and cheap CD shops. Today, the Chungking Mansions are home to some 4,000 souls—it’s estimated that people representing more than 140 different nationalities passed through the buildings in 2008 alone.
As a child, I often wondered where (or indeed, what) this “Chungking” was. I’d always wanted to cross the Mansions’ threshold, but the reputation of the place preceded it—“There are drugs! Danger! It’s dirty!” my mother would proclaim—pretty much negating the possibility of family outings to its dark interior. Finally, when I turned 13 and convinced my parents to allow me to explore the city with some degree of independence, I was given the opportunity to test my manhood.
With a group of friends in tow, I strolled out of the Tsim Sha Tsui subway exit across the road from the looming complex. We were trying to look confident, as though we belonged and knew what we were doing. I’m sure that the throngs of people around us saw us for what we really were: nervous expat teenagers. We brushed our way past the Nigerian traders (“Drug dealers!” we whispered to each other), ignored the entreaties of the Indian touts—“Suit? Curry? Hashish?”—and walked inside.
The scene that met us was a mix of mysterious sights, sounds, and, most notably, smells—the heady odor of thousands of people crammed into a claustrophobic space. It teemed with Africans, South Asians, Western backpackers, and ethnicities I couldn’t begin to identify. Surprisingly, Chinese were in the minority.
That first visit didn’t last long. After an exhilarating 10 minutes spent browsing racks of Bollywood VCDs and sampling exotic snacks, we fled back to the street. But I returned many times afterward, to explore the warren of shops and hole-in-the-wall eateries hidden on the upper floors. Today, the Chungking still has that smell of South Asian spices intermingled with sweat. But since the installation of 208 security cameras across the building in 2004, it’s lost some of its edge, and feels somewhat safer, tamer.
Indeed, the entire neighborhood has undergone a facelift over the past decade—a sparkling gloss added to the previously dull, muted tones. Perhaps the best example of this makeover is the Mira building, just a short stroll up Nathan Road from the Chungking Mansions. Known as the Miramar Hotel for 51 years, in 2007 its owners spent US$50 million to revamp the property, relaunching it as The Mira hotel late last year. The glitz and gilding have gone, replaced by contemporary design features like custom-made installations and sculptures and Arne Jacobsen egg chairs. Like many reincarnated places in Kowloon, it’s now unrecognizable. One place that hasn’t changed much over the years, though, lies just down the road.
Since opening more than 80 years ago, the Peninsula has always been considered the grande dame of Hong Kong hotels, holding court opposite what was once the terminus for the Kowloon–Canton Railway. Passengers would ride the rails here from as far away as Moscow, by way of Peking, disembarking right beside the harbor in order to connect with the Star Ferry and complete their journey to the Island. Many, however, hopped off the train, walked across the road, and checked into “the Pen.” It became the place to see and be seen, and movie stars and moguls descended for fancy parties and balls that would see the hotel awash with journalists and paparazzi. Despite the 1994 addition of a 30-story tower replete with twin helipads—as seen recently in the Batman film The Dark Knight—the interior of the Pen’s original building hasn’t changed much over the years. Certainly, in the early 1980s, when my mother would meet friends there for afternoon tea, the colonial charm had lost none of its luster.
Beyond the rows of “Peninsula green” Rolls-Royce sedans, bellboys in pillbox hats would greet visitors at the door, welcoming back return guests while first-timers stood agape at the splendor of it all. At least, that’s what I imagined happened—I was never actually allowed to accompany my mother for scones and Darjeeling in the hotel’s Neoclassical lobby. But she did take me and my younger brother, Nick, for lunch at the old YMCA on Waterloo Road; the harbor views from its rooftop café were almost as grand as those enjoyed from the Peninsula. Built in 1929, just one year after the Pen, YMCA International House underwent a makeover of its own in 1996. Today, it’s the Cityview Hotel, and boasts a wedding chapel alongside tennis and squash courts. Getting there is also a much-changed affair.
Back in 1980, our walks to and from tiffin, as some of my mother’s “lunching lady” friends would refer to it, would often take us past the forbidding headquarters of the Marine Police, set atop a leafy hill adjacent to the water. Built in 1884, this compound—one of the territory’s four oldest remaining colonial structures—has made news headlines of late, ever since it was announced that the Hong Kong Police Force would be vacating the premises to make way for redevelopment. However, unlike the fate of many heritage buildings before it, there will be no demolition. Instead, the site, along with the Old Kowloon Fire Station, has been sold to Flying Snow Limited—a subsidiary of property tycoon Li Ka-shing’s Cheung Kong Holdings—under the Hong Kong government’s new (if wordily named) Revitalising Historic Buildings Through Partnership Scheme. Upon completion later this year, the heritage program’s pioneer site will feature a mix of eateries, shops, and bars, not to mention a potentially spectacular boutique hotel in the former main building—an establishment that may well give the Pen a run for its money.
Still, it’s hard to imagine this development drawing too much attention from the building behind it: One Peking Road, home to signature outlets by the Aqua restaurant group. Opened in 2004 and 2005, respectively, Aqua and Hutong have become mainstays of locals and tourists alike. Hutong is particularly popular for its mod-Chinese decor, but both impress with their sweeping views of Victoria Harbour.
One Peking was among the first high-rises to be constructed in Tsim Sha Tsui following the removal of height restrictions imposed to protect the flight paths of planes using Kai Tak. Hong Kong’s old airport, with its finger-like runway extending into Victoria Harbour, closed on July 6, 1998. Its antiquated facilities had been superseded by the new Chek Lap Kok, built on reclaimed land north of Lantau Island.
It was a sad day for Nick and me. On incoming flights we used to fight for the window seat, mesmerized as the plane swooped low over Kowloon, wingtips almost brushing the buildings. We were close enough, it felt, to lean out the window and pluck the clothes drying on the rooftops. And then the plane would make a dramatic, 47-degree right turn at the “giant checkerboard”—a hill painted red-and-white to mark the airport—and people would start clapping because they knew they were home (and were relieved they hadn’t ended up in the harbor).
Back then, you were landing in the heart of a big city. The urban buzz was palpable as soon as you touched the tarmac. From the car on the way home to the Island, I would catch glimpses of the people who lived and worked directly opposite the airport. Their shop fronts bore names written in Chinese and another script that I didn’t recognize; red-, white- and blue-striped flags fluttered in the wind. It wasn’t until much later in life that I discovered that these people were Thais.
By the early 1960s, the Golden Triangle—where northern Thailand abuts Laos and Myanmar—had become the largest opium-producing region in the world, and Hong Kong was fast developing a reputation as a major transit point for narcotics. The main entry site for opium was naturally Kai Tak. And with the growth of the drug trade between the territory and Southeast Asia, the area bordering the airport became populated with traffickers, including a burgeoning community of Thais. They opened restaurants, grocery stores, and—rumor has it—collected rice bags full of drugs that were thrown over the high airport fence by crooked customs officials. While the influence of the traffickers began to wane by the late 1970s, the Thai community remained. The streets surrounding Kai Tak are still lined with neatly stacked pyramids of fresh fruit and vegetables, bags of spices, and hole-in-the-wall restaurants dishing up piping-hot bowls of the most authentic tom yum goong this side of Bangkok.
The airport itself has remained forlornly empty since 1998, the tarmac used, alternately, as a golf driving range, carnival site, and parking lot—a far cry from the chaotic entrepôt of my youth. Recently, I was excited by the lead story on the front page of the South China Morning Post: “Kai Tak project ready for takeoff.” The government will inject US$12.9 billion into the redevelopment of the site, it seems, constructing a residential complex, a 45,000-seat sports stadium, and a new cruise terminal and heliport at the tip of the old runway. Come 2021, visitors to Hong Kong will once again disembark in the center of the city.
Just north of Nga Tsin Wai and South Wall roads, the hub of Kowloon’s Thai neighborhood, sits a landscaped park, laid out with Chinese pagodas, covered walkways, and, at its heart, a three-story yamen, the traditional residence of Qing-dynasty mandarins. While pleasant, the park is unremarkable except for a carved granite stone near the south gate: Kowloon Walled City.
Throughout primary school, I remember hearing stories about a lawless place across the harbor, a city within the city, run by tattooed triad gangsters. Growing up on a diet of superhero comics, my brother and I found the idea of an impenetrable fortress populated by otherworldly characters terribly exciting. Then, when I was eight, my parents announced that we were going to visit it.
The Walled City was a historical anomaly. As its name suggests, it was originally founded as a small, stone-walled fort in the early 19th century by Chinese imperial forces, and was subsequently expanded following the British occupation of Hong Kong Island in 1841. In 1898, the New Territories were leased to the British for 99 years, including the areas surrounding the Walled City, and the Qing officials were driven out of the fort a year later. However, the site itself had not been part of the agreement, and its self-governing population continued to recognize Chinese, not British, law. Although the wall was knocked down by the occupying Japanese army during World War II in order to extend the Kai Tak runway, the area retained its semilawless air in the postwar period, and was off-limits to policemen and government officials alike. Buildings sprang up without permission, businesses were run without license, and the area developed an unsavory reputation for drugs, prostitution, and crime. Then, after 184 years, and with the blessing of mainland China—to whom the Walled City residents still owed some kind of loose allegiance—the “City of Darkness” was finally demolished in 1994.
Meanwhile, on the west side of the peninsula, a new development was about to change the face of Kowloon forever.
To accommodate the demands of the new airport, railway and highway links needed to be constructed to link Chek Lap Kok with Hong Kong Island, by way of Kowloon. The government decided that since land would have to be reclaimed anyway, they may as well go big. So big, in fact, that the proposed reclamation would increase the size of the Kowloon peninsula by one-third (3.4 square kilometers)—the largest such project undertaken in the city.
Work began in 1994 and continues today. The zone at the southernmost tip—just in front of the new Western Harbour Tunnel entrance and adjacent to the planned West Kowloon Cultural District —was earmaked for Kowloon’s tallest set of buildings to date: Union Square. Here, Hong Kong’s tallest residential tower, the 74-story Harbourside, sits alongside four more gargantuan housing blocks. The complex also includes a shiny new W hotel, the 93,000-square-meter Elements shopping mall, and the still-under-construction International Commerce Centre (ICC)—all this over a combined subway and Airport Express train station.
Shooting 484 meters into the sky, the ICC will become, upon completion next year, the third-tallest building in the world, after the Burj Dubai (818 meters) and Shanghai’s World Financial Centre (492 meters). Like its high-flying counterparts, the ICC will be home to a five-star hotel: the Ritz-Carlton, occupying the top 15 floors of the building.
The Ritz-Carlton didn’t always call Kowloon home. From 1993 to January 1, 2008, it was a prominent landmark in the Central skyline, squeezed between the Hong Kong Club and what was (before being bulldozed to make way for today’s AIG Tower) the Furama Kempinski hotel. Just seven years after the Furama’s demise, the Ritz-Carlton followed its neighbor into the history books, making way for yet another multinational office building. All was not lost, however, with the announcement that the hotel group was set to open a Kowloon replacement property —and the highest hotel in the world at that, with a lobby hovering 425 meters above ground.
With the ICC’s 100th-floor viewing deck unfinished, and the W hotel facing the water not the city, one of the best places to take in the changes Kowloon has seen over 149 years of continuous development looms large to the north: Lion Rock, one of the eight dragons of legend. Only a 1.5-hour hike up from the suburb of Kowloon Tong, the 495-meter-high prominence offers an unbroken vista of the peninsula, spread out in all its misshapen glory below. It’s certainly a breathtaking perspective—one that a certain young emperor might have enjoyed, too.
Where to Stay
The Peninsula (Salisbury Rd.; 852/2920-2888; peninsula.com; doubles from US$542), offers classic rooms in its original colonial building and more modern lodgings in its new tower. Nearby, The Mira (118 Nathan Rd.; 852/2368-1111; themirahotel.com; doubles from US$232) occupies the former premises of the old Miramar Hotel; its newly renovated rooms are sleek and modern. With a prime waterfront position, the InterContinental Hong Kong (18 Sailsbury Rd.; 852/2721-1211; ichotels.com; doubles from US$350) has 495 well-appointed rooms and several notable restaurants. The hotel’s rooftop pool is one of the best places in town to enjoy views of Victoria Harbour.
In west Kowloon, W Hong Kong (1 Austin Rd. West; 852/3717-2222; whotels.com; doubles from US$303) threw open its doors in 2008, offering 393 designer guest rooms adjacent to the upmarket Elements shopping mall. Meanwhile, in the heart of Mongkok, Langham Place (555 Shanghai St.; 852/ 3552-3388; langhamplacehotels.com; doubles from US$181) is one of the largest hotels in Kowloon, with 665 rooms highlighted by contemporary Chinese art.
Where to Eat
When it comes to fine dining, the InterContinental should not be missed for nouveau French fare at Alan Ducasse’s Spoon (852/2313-2323) and innovative Japanese at Nobu (852/2313-2323). The Peninsula is also popular for its contemporary restaurant Felix (852/2315-3188), where the water views are as impressive as the cuisine. For similarly breathtaking vistas, don’t miss out on a meal at Hutong (1 Peking Rd.; 852/ 3428-8342), dishing up mod-Chinese cuisine from the 28th floor of the One Peking building. The rooftop terrace of the Elements mall is now home to a handful of new restaurants and bars, including the standout Middle Eastern lounge Malouf’s (1 Austin Rd. West; 852/2810-8585), opened by notable Australian chef Greg Malouf.
What to Do
The Hong Kong Museum of History (lcsd.gov.hk) is worth stopping by, if only to gaze at the impressive collection of photos dating to the 1860s. Check out the latest works by emerging Chinese artists at the Cattle Depot Art Commune (artist-commune.com) and Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre (net3.hkbu.edu.hk/~jccac). For a spot of evening retail therapy, head to the bustling Temple Street Market, where crowds descend to bargain hard for electronics, clothes, and accessories.
Originally appeared in the April 2009 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Kowloon Calling”)