A New Hong Kong


It's the same place, but it wasn't
December 11, 1999 - January 30, 2000

Hong Kong flag

On December 11 we returned to Hong Kong, arriving from Shenzhen by rail at the Kowloon station. But it wasn't a return. That is, we and it had changed so much, that at first it just didn't seem to be Hong Kong. Perhaps it is fair to compare it to seeing your parents after a similar lengthy absense. While you have grown older, they have grown much older. You are shocked to see them so much more gray and stooped. But eventually you get used to it and they seem normal.

But the comparison is a false one, or at least not complete. Because while parents can only grow old, Hong Kong had simultaneously grown younger and older. The first parts that we saw were all new. Coming in on the train throught the new territories, a ride of 20 minutes, we saw blocks and blocks of skyscraper appartments where in our day there had only been one story village houses. Our terminus, the KCR (Kowloon-Canton Railway) station, was on the waterfront when we left. When we emerged from the train onto the upper levels in search of a taxi we caught sight of the new landfill to its east with dozens of major new buildings underconstuction. Separating us from them was an entirely new link of freeway that had apparently opened within the week.

To the west and just opposite the train station is the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, where Gerry taught Computer Science from 1981-1985. PolyU, as it is now called. Gone was the old main building, then white colonial stucco, and six floors, where Gerry had his office and in its place was rising a 25-story modern tower. At its base were several other newcomers.

We got a taxi to cross the harbor with destination being the ferry terminal for Lamma Island. The initial route of the taxi was past the PolyU (in Gerry's day it wasn't a university and it was simply called "The Poly"), into the Tsim Sha Tsui district, and past it to the Western Harbor Tunnel. The entrance sits amid a tangle of roads built on a massive fill of the harbor that extends Tsim Sha Tsui 500 m west. None of this was there in 1985 and as we passed it in the taxi and entered the tunnel we looked at each other with slack jaws showing our amazement.

When we emerged from the tunnel on the opposite shore we were on a new land fill, this one extending Hong Kong Island north another 300 m into the harbor. A new highway took the taxi and us east to the ferry terminal, which of course was also new. Sitting between the ferry terminal and the old shore was the new International Finance Center, in which sat the terminus of the new metro to the new airport, all, of course, of  course, new since we left.

Convention Center, HK Island

We alighted from the taxi, piled our mound of bags on two rolling carts, and headed from the ferry. To our right, easily seen was the new, gull-winged Hong Kong Convention Center, opened in 1997 and first used for the ceremonies for the exit of the British. Toward the north, across the harbor, we could see the tip of Kowloon and the Tsim Sha Tsui Star Ferry terminal seeming impossibly close. Maybe it was a false perception, but the land fill upon which we were standing had seemed to reduce the distance across the harbor to half of what it used to be; whereas before Kowloon and Central seemed to be truly separate places, now the thought came that one should give up any such pretense and just fill in the remaining puddle.

From there we went on to our new home on Lamma, but came back many times, if not daily. As we did, we learned that not all was new. Only a few days after our arrival we made a visit to our old haunts in east Tshim Sha Tsui, where we had lived for three years. Our Poly-provided flat was at the edge of, or one might even say, in the heart of the Kowloon tourist district. Pak Tak Yuen, our apartment building, and everything within sight of it was built on landfill. Twenty years earlier it had been part of the harbor; five years earlier it had been filled land waiting to be settled. When we arrived and moved in some of the newest buildings were just being occupied.

Then we would go out our door, cross a few streets, and run along the newly built waterfront prominade. Or we would go in another direction and walk among the new built and occupied office buildings with spanking new and uncluttered shops at their base. But now, at our return, we felt a certain sadness. Like a creeping vine or an unnamed virus, the grime and clutter of the old parts of Kowloon had spread to our pristine world. Before we had marvelled at how sign hid sign along Nathan Blvd, so that from a distance or viewed through a telephoto lens the signs almost congealed into one continuous mass. Now it was so for the building next to Pak Tak Yuen and the next one and the next one. And, while the water front promenade was basically unchanged, it had decayed a great deal — many of the buildings now had black mold patches on them.

By our third week in Hong Kong we had pretty much seen all the changes we were going to see. But there was one big one left to see. From our patio on Lamma Island we had seen on Victoria Peak what we thought was a futuristic building. When we went there for New Years we found that indeed it was a modern, futuristic building. It was a double size replacement for what we, not financially involved, always thought was a very nice building. The old building and revolving restaurant was gone and one more chance to relive some memories.

Last updated May 11, 2000