Many Hongkongers still cherish fond memories of the city’s old Kai Tak airport. A place where many of the now-elderly citizens probably took their maiden flight overseas, the airport has been an integral part of the territory’s history and development in the latter half of the 20th century.
Apart from the airport, the broader Kai Tak district has also played a unique role in Hong Kong’s ascent on the global stage as a major economic and social hub.
As the area undergoes a transformation following the opening of the new airport at Chep Lap Kok in 1998, it is worth taking a look back at Kai Tak’s early days of development.
Kai Tak was named after two businessmen, Ho Kai (何啟) and Au Tak (區德), to commemorate their joint contribution to the construction of the city’s first airstrip along the east Kowloon waterfront in the 1920s. The pair, however, originally wanted to build luxury homes in the area.
Records from the Transport and Housing Bureau show that a firm called Kai Tack Land Investment formed by Ho and Au acquired plots near the coastline in the early 20th century.
Reclamation projects were started subsequently to meet the demand for upmarket housing when many wealthy people fled to Hong Kong after China’s Xinhai Revolution in 1911, which saw the overthrow of the nation’s last imperial dynasty.
But the projects were halted when some large-scale strikes and social turmoil took place prior to World War I.
The strip of reclaimed land was soon targeted by the colonial government which wanted to build an airport to make Hong Kong an aviation entrepôt to other British dependent territories in Asia. Officials regarded the Kai Tak Bund as the most ideal location for the proposed airport, and the administration bought the entire land in 1927 for slightly over HK$1 million.
Hong Kong’s civil aviation took wing from Kai Tak thanks to a slew of navigation and support facilities since then. In 1936, Imperial Airways – progenitor of British Airways – kicked off the territory’s first scheduled commercial flight linking Penang in Malaysia, which was also under British rule. Other routes to San Francisco, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing were added in the following years.
A 457-meter runway was built in 1939 in the current neighborhood of San Po Kong. During one stage, when planes landed or took off, part of the then Clear Water Bay Road (now Choi Hung Road) had to be closed.
Kai Tak endured shelling and mortar fire during World War II. When the territory was liberated from Japanese occupation, the government was said to be considering other venues – including Ping Shan in Yuen Long and Stanley on Hong Kong Island – for a new airport. However, various factors such as exorbitant costs forced the authorities to scrap the plan and focus instead on redeveloping Kai Tak.
In 1958, a 2,194-meter runway was finished on reclaimed land along the Kowloon Bay and Kwun Tong coastline which permanently reshaped the landscape of east Kowloon harborside to what it looks today. The length was increased to 2,541 meters in 1970 when Hong Kong was among the world’s first places to receive the new generation wide-body Boeing 747 jumbo jet.
The runway was further extended to 3,390 meters in 1975. The supersonic passenger airliner Concorde, a symbol at that time of the futuristic strides made by the aviation industry, called at Kai Tak several times the following year, when the airport served its four-millionth passenger.
Although it has been shut down for more than a decade now, Kai Tak still enjoys wide recognition among the global airline pilot community as well as ordinary aviation enthusiasts. Part of the reason is that landing or taking off at Kai Tak was considered to be quite dangerous amid a sea of high-rises, requiring extremely special skills on the part of the pilots.
During landing, a pilot had to turn the plane and enter the harbor from the west. When flying over the Kowloon Tsai Park (九龍仔公園) in Kowloon City, the plane would just be less than 300 meters above the ground and the pilot would have to look for a small hill inside the park marked with a huge orange and white checkerboard (famously called “Checkerboard Hill”) as the sign for a sharp right turn to line up with the runway for the final approach.
Any mistake or delay in the entire process could send a plane crashing into nearby hills or residential quarters.
During departure, a pilot had to make a turn to the south shortly after takeoff to avoid the Lion Rock and Beacon Hill. The usual crosswinds and gusts caused by surrounding hills added to the challenge.
The 1980s were heyday for Kai Tak as traffic soared along with the boom in the local economy. Passenger throughput exceeded 10 million in 1986, putting Hong Kong on the global map of prime aviation hubs.
Even after the government commenced the construction of the twin-runway new airport, expansion projects were still on at Kai Tak during the 1990s. In 1996, Kai Tak was the world’s largest airport in terms of cargo throughput (1.56 million tons) and the third busiest in terms of international passenger flow (29.5 million), operating far above its designed capacity.
But July 6, 1998 saw the curtain fall on the airport as the new facility at Chep Lap Kok took over all the services.
Anson Chan and Richard Siegel, who were then serving as Hong Kong’s chief secretary and director of civil aviation respectively, pressed the button to shut the lights on the runway.
Siegel bid the final farewell saying: “Goodbye Kai Tak, and thank you!”
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