25 Apr 2014

Hong Kong -then and now

Hong Kong has two parts.Hong Kong Island is ,as its name states, an island and it is the hub of the territory and then across the harbour and joined to mainland China is Kowloon.The area known as Hong Kong covers both the Island and Kowloon.
I first went to Hong Kong in 1974 on business and I have been there many times since although my last visit to the city as opposed to a transit stop at the airport until last month was over 20 years ago.
Hong Kong in 1974 was an extraordinary place.It really was the exotic Orient-truly where the East met the West .
Back then the British ran the place( they handed it back to China in 1998)-it was the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong-a British administered territory on the underbelly of China.The population then was 4.2m whereas today it is over 7.2m.The colonial buildings and commercial centre on Hong Kong Island had their own space but away from that golden heart and the prosperous enclaves around Stanley and the Peak it was a shabby,crowded and dirty place.There was no mass transit railway (MTR- subway).To cross from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon you took the Star Ferries which crossed the harbour packed with passengers every few minutes.See photo below taken by me in 1983.

At the Star Ferry terminal on the Island side there was a line of rickshaw drivers waiting to take workers to their offices.These were not tourist rickshaws but man pulled taxis.There were barrows and carts everywhere and people in conical hats .The colonial administrators and senior managers and directors-European and Chinese-from the banks and big trading houses lunched at the Hong Kong Club.I ate there once and it was like something out of Downton Abbey with silver service,Chinese waiters in white jackets,roast beef on a trolley carved at the table and served with Yorkshire pudding.This was lunch in a very hot and humid place.

The harbour was full of junks and around in Aberdeen Harbour on the island was an enormous floating city of junks.There were British warships in the harbour and policemen in British police uniforms and red pillar boxes and phone boxes.Most of the cars,vans and taxis were British although the Japanese car invasion was getting underway.There were quite a few expats in Hong Kong in 1974-predominantly British but with a good smattering of Australians and Americans and assorted Europeans.But the British touches were just on the margins even then it was 95% Chinese and that was what made the place so unique.Kowloon in particular was full of filthy overcrowded tenaments.Washing was hanging everywhere.The streets were full of hawkers and hustlers and there was an all pervading smell of food cooking and joss sticks burning and the unique Hong Kong smell ingredient .The back streets were full of markets and seedy places and crime was a big problem-some tenements in Kowloon were "no go "areas for the police.The main shopping street in Kowloon-Nathan Road -was full of "duty free" shops-although they never had any duty in Hong Kong- selling cameras and watches at what were then rock bottom prices and Indian tailors touting their ability to knock you up a suit in a day.They are still there.

And there was Kai Tak airport -- the world's most dangerous airport until its closure in 1998 and replacement by the superb new airport on Lamma Island.Hong Kong airport is now the second busiest in the world and it is a very impressive facility- photo below.Kai Tak was allowed to run down completely at the end of its life but I always remember it as being overcrowded ,dingy and dirty even in 1974.

The approach to Kai Tak was extraordinary and it is difficult to believe today that massive airliners were landing there every few minutes even if a few did fall off the runway and into the sea including a China Air 747 in 1993
Originally the landings were totally done visually with pilots lining up with a checkerboard marker in a Kowloon park and planes approached the airport by descending very low over the tenaments and apartment blocks of Kowloon with the flight path marked by flashing lead in lights on the tops of buildings then they did a sharp right turn -wing tips missing TV aerials and washing lines by metres and they lined up with the runway and then descended onto it very rapidly.
Often they were not lined up totally straight and they slewed across the runway.See Kai Tak
Later an instrument guidance system was installed which made the approach easier but still required a high level of pilot skill and the planes still followed the same dramatic track so close to the rooftops of Kowloon.
Until Kai Tak closed in 1998 it was illegal to have any flashing building signs in Hong Kong to ensure that there was no possibility of pilots picking the wrong track.

Porsche 356 expert and current Qantas 747 pilot,David Nicholls,has been kind enough to describe landing at Kai Tak for me.

KAI TAK. Landing Runway 13 in the old days
The famous Checkerboard was built before electronic approach aids became the norm, for aircraft coming in to land. Pilots would have visually aimed for the Checkerboard first, then when the runway came into view, turned right and landed.
The Kai Tak 13 IGS was an Instrument Guidance System.In the cockpit, it gave the pilots lateral guidance, left and right of the center line, and vertical guidance, above and below a 3.1 degree glide slope. Down to 675 feet. If they weren't doing so already they looked out the window, disconnected the autopilot, hand flew the 48 degree right turn, and did a nice landing.
In my time with Malaysian Airlines in the early 90s, I did about 30 IGSs in the Airbus A300. 
In fine weather, after 675 feet we would follow a curved line of Lead In Lights as we made the turn. The crosswind was usually from the right, so the technique was to stay just inside the curve, with only about 20 degrees bank angle, because if you flew outside the curve, it was hard to get back onto it, and then line up to the runway. A constant rate of descent landed us just past the displaced Threshold.
In bad weather, at 675 feet and 3300 meters from landing, we didn't have to see the runway at all, only features that were identifiable with the Approach End of the Runway. What is "identifiable" ? Hmmm, buildings, shoreline, a hill, streets, the Ferrari workshop, eventually we'd see the Lead In Lights, then the Runway. Very satisfying, when successful.
Big airliners usually didn't make this type of manoeuvre at low level, anywhere, nor did the pilots do it often, which is why the 13 IGS at Kai Tak was so unique.
For expat families living in Hong Kong, Kai Tak airport was their escape route to the rest of the world. It was also the front door when they returned "home". When it closed in 1998, many of those expats, where ever they then lived, had a party and drank a toast to their beloved Kai Tak.

I was extraordinarily lucky that in 1985 I was up the pointy end of a Cathy Pacific 747-not I should stress my usual domain- coming into its home base in Hong Kong from London when a flight attendant asked me if I would like to go onto the flight deck for the landing.Is the Pope a Catholic? I was in like Flynn.They strapped me into the jump seat and I saw it all first hand.Really spectacular.

At the end of that first visit to Hong Kong in 1974 a typhoon came through  and I was confined to the hotel on Kowloon for three days until it passed and the flights returned to normal.Seeing a typhoon first hand was an interesting experience.

I did take a few photos on that trip on an Olympus Pen half frame camera.By chance I found one a few weeks ago which I have been able to replicate 40 years later.In the 1974 shot I included an attractive tourist to give the photo depth-well that's my story. An equally glamourous tourist is sadly lacking along with sunshine in the shot I took from almost the same viewpoint three weeks ago.

These photos were both taken from a viewing platform at the top of the Peak Tramway (actually a funicular).In 1974 the viewing platform was directly outside the tram terminus.Now a 4 storey shopping emporium has been built above the terminus and the viewing platform sits on top of that so the viewing platform is at least 50 metres higher than before.Comparing the two photos shows how much Hong Kong has expanded and in particular how much it has expanded upwards.The grand colonial buildings-visible above the leaves of the plant in the top photo- have either gone or are totally lost in concrete canyons.At the same time reclamation has markedly narrowed the harbour.The harbour foreshore is now dominated by expressways on the Island side.And the British warship clearly visible in the 1974 picture has long gone.

The Star Ferries are no longer a key part of the transport system -now the superb MTR subway system carries millions around Hong Kong safely underground.But the trams still run and indeed the tramway system has been extended and although the interiors have been modernised they are still the same vintage double decker trams.
I came away from my recent trip to Hong Kong feeling that it has lost some of its charm and its uniqueness.But perhaps that is to be expected.It is nowadays more than ever a commercial powerhouse and it looks and feels prosperous.It seems a lot more efficient and cleaner than in the past and I am sure that for most of the people who live there it is a much better place to live than the Hong Kong of old.And away from the towering office blocks, massive shopping centres much of the old Hong Kong remains in the back streets even close to the commercial centre.

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