An artificial peninsula became a symbol of Hong Kong

Kai Tak Airport runway and Kwun Tong breakwater
The Last Tribute
Cathay Pacific 747-300 passing Kowloon Walled City
The Last Farewell
Insanely close
Students after school, Kwun Tong breakwater
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Kai Tak

The peninsula known as Kai Tak has reflected Hong Kong since its inception. It began as a land reclamation and property development project, morphed into an efficient infrastructure project, became a Japanese military base before becoming an international gateway to China. Having outgrown its utility, it is now metamorphosing to fit the needs of the twenty-first century.

Kai Tack Land Investment Company

The name Kai Tak came about in 1914 when Chinese merchants Kai Ho Kai and Au Tack formed the Kai Tack Land Investment Company Limited to profit from an anticipated housing boom. The end of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) and the rise of the Republic era (1912-1949) led to a massive influx of refugees to the British Crown Colony, leading to a housing crisis. At the time, Kowloon was transforming from agrarian to urban use aided by the paving of Nathan Road, which began in 1905 and a new China Light and Power plant in Hung Hom in 1909. They aimed to fill in the shallow waters along Kowloon Bay and build garden estates. By 1920, the Kai Tack Bund had 200 mansions facing the harbour. However, they did not sell well and then came the 1925 labour strikes, which caused reclamation delays that forced the company into bankruptcy.

Kai Tak Airport

At around the same time, Harry Abbott founded the Abbott School of Aviation and began using part of the grassy reclaimed land as a runway. Others, including the Royal Air Force (RAF), used the informal airport. The first officially recorded flight from Kai Tak occurred on Lunar New Year’s Day in 1925. Recognising the need for an air force base and that the newly reclaimed land was ideal for its capacity to accommodate air and seaplanes, in 1927, the Hong Kong Government bought back the land and completed the reclamation. Kai Tack Airport officially opened in 1930. Shortly after that, the name, or rather the name’s translation, was amended to Kai Tak, and the first control tower and a hangar were built. By 1936 they were handling 10,000 passengers a year.

Hong Kong International Airport

The Japanese made several alterations to the airport during their occupation of Hong Kong (1941-1945). They tore down the Kai Tak Bund and made a second runway. Successful allied bombing and sabotage by forced labourer prisoners of war meant that significant repairs were required after the war to make the runways usable again. But the most significant changes happened in the early 1950s when it was decided to make an airport appropriate for the jet age. They would build a single three-kilometre runway able to support passenger planes weighing over 200,000kg. This enormously expensive decision was a turning point as it enabled the international tourism and cargo traffic critical for Hong Kong to become the gateway to China. The new runway became operational in August 1958 with the official name of the Hong Kong International Airport.

Kai Tak Heart Attack 

The new 1958 airport was not without issues. For instance, the thirteen-storey building height restriction across Kowloon and the love-hate relationship pilots had for the flight approach. Surrounded by densely populated areas and mountains, the airport’s location only added to the difficulty of approach and landing. This challenging approach nicknamed the “Kai Tak heart attack,” could not be automated since pilots had to navigate through a series of hills and buildings before making a forty-five-degree turn below 150 metres to align with the runway. Despite this, the sight of planes across the panoramic view of the city’s skyline made the airport famous for aviation enthusiasts and photographers.

Kai Tak was designed to handle twenty-four million annual passengers, but in 1996 it handled twenty-nine and a half million, plus one and a half million tonnes of freight, making it the third busiest airport in the world for passenger traffic and busiest in terms of international cargo. In 1998 the airport was closed in favour of the new Chep Lak Kok Airport on Lantau Island.

Greg Girard & Birdy Chu

As the airport approached its imminent closure, the aircraft themselves became a spectacle for onlookers who tried to capture a piece of history, a memento of that era. Photographers Greg Girard and Birdy Chu sought to record and uncover different facets of life around the airport, whether it be planes flying over Tong Lau or crowds in busy districts. While the airport may be gone, its legacy lives on in the memories of those who experienced it, and these photographs offer us a chance to revisit the extraordinary airport and the everyday lives surrounding it.

Blue Lotus Gallery

In many ways, Kai Tak’s metamorphosis is symbolic of the changes Hong Kong people have experienced over the last century. Greg Girard’s and Birdy Chu’s photographs at the exhibition at Blue Lotus Gallery offer a wonderful reminder of how we got here.      

Text Martin Wray / Photos courtesy of Blue Lotus Gallery