Kai Tak River, Hong Kong

When it comes to claiming the title as the New York of Asia, Hong Kong makes a convincing case based on its seaport, diverse history and population, a downtown, urban islands, densely developed but also with plenty of nature preserves within its borders. And of course, a number of hidden urban streams flowing behind buildings and beneath the streets. the Kai Tak River is one such example.

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Confined to a concrete channel for most of its course and hidden beneath an airport for much of the past century, it is now the subject of an ambitious redevelopment project and innovative design proposals that aim to restore its natural appearance.

Where it flows

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Prior to development, Kai Tak’s headwaters flowed down from the slopes of the mountain range containing Lion Rock. As the region urbanized, the upstream section of the creek were covered by the Diamond Hill and Po Kong Village public housing estates. Like their counterparts in New York, these are towers-in-the-park built in the postwar period for low-income families.

The stream emerges today just south of the interchange where Lung Cheung Road meets Po Kong Village Road. This road merges onto Choi Hung Road, which circles around the former San Po Kong industrial district. At the intersection of Shatin Pass Road, a guard turret overlooks the waterway as its culvert passes by the Wong Tai Sin police station.

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The stream is hardly visible to motorists and pedestrians and crossings such as Tai Shing Street below have only most minimal of decorations by the water’s edge.

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Kai Tak River flows as a culvert towards Prince Edward Road, where it enters the former Kai Tak Airport before emptying out into Kowloon Bay. Originally known as Long Jin River, it was later renamed after the nearby Kai Tak Airport. The airport’s namesakes are businessmen Sir Ho Kai and Mr. Au Tak, who sought to reclaim land in Kowloon Bay for residential housing. Their project failed and in its place an airport carrying their names was constructed. The stream flowing towards the airport also took on their names.

For centuries, Kai Tak plagued the landscape with flash floods that followed heavy rains and as the territory developed calls grew for taming this stream. As with many channelized waterways in Hong Kong, this stream is known colloquially as Kai Tak Nullah. This word is a Punjabi term imported by the British colonial administration, along with the owrkers who tamed this stream.

Kai Tak Airport

Much of this stream’s history, including its name is tied to the former airport, which served the territory from 1925 to 1998. Located inside a tight cove in Kowloon Bay, it was expanded over the decades by filling in the cove into a finger-like pier extending into the bay.

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The airport was in many ways an embarrassment for local officials and a nuisance for residents. Airplanes flew too low and too close to neighborhoods and while it made for unique photo opportunities,  it was very difficult for pilots to access, and its usage exceeded its capacity. On July 6, 1998, the last flight had taken off at Kai Tak and within six hours, the enormous Hong Kong International Airport on Chek Lap Kok Island was inaugurated.

The Future of Kai Tak River

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The airport’s closing signaled the end of an era as much as the historic handover of control of the territory from the British back to China in the previous year. Possibilities for Kai Tak’s future appeared limitless, offering everything including 30,000 housing units, parks, entertainment complexes, offices, hospital, and a cruise ship terminal, connected by new public transportation and highway routes.

The construction of this city-in-a-city suffered delays relating to land reclamation. After more than a century of relentless expansion into its waterways, increased environmental awareness led to public campaigns against further land expansion. As a result, government plans to fill in the section of Kowloon Bay inside the airport grounds was cancelled.

Along with this accommodating to nature approach, plans to force the Kai Tak Nullah into a covered concrete channel were also revised. Inspired by the Cheonggeycheon park in Seoul, local lawmaker Chan Yuen-han proposed a linear shoreline park for the stream, along with a re-branding that now calls it Kai Tak River rather than nullah. The stream will flows through the former airport grounds as a park, connecting older neighborhood upstream to the new developments along Kowloon Bay. In January 2015, the architecture firm Morphis was declared the winner from among 90 entries on redesigning the river. Below is one image from its proposal.

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Nearly a century after Kai and Tak envisioned a residential community at the mouth of this stream, it is now on its way to becoming reality.

A note on Hong Kong:

When I am not engaged in work, I dream of entrepreneurial ideas. A few years ago, I proposed a television reality game show resembling CBS‘ Amazing Race where instead of exploring famous cities, contestants would learn about New York City’s neighborhoods, competing for the title of the city’s top tour guide.

Each guide would receive a randomly selected focus group and assigned a randomly selected neighborhood. The winner is judged based on accuracy, storytelling, and presentation. The prize to the top guide is a vacation in a city whose reputation as an international city rivals that of New York. Somewhere such as Mumbai, Istanbul, London, Singapore, and Hong Kong.

I developed the idea while working as a guide atop the double-deck Gray Line buses. I submitted a detailed proposal to the History Channel and haven’t heard back. As my book picks up in sales and reviews, perhaps my show idea will see the light of day just as of the hidden urban streams that I highlight on this blog.

In the News:

New York Times reports on the near completion of the Bronx River House, an educational and community center on the Bronx River.


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