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Memories and Origins of the Kai Tak Airport

 


At midnight last night, seven years ago, Kai Tak airport in Kowloon City had seen its last flight take off. Many of us long-time residents of Hong Kong have wonderful memories (as well as not-so-wonderful ones) of the place, but particularly the hairy landing onto runway 13/31, or usually just 1-3 (so named because it was angled at 135 and 315 degrees). The approach took people past a hillside painted by red-and-white checkerboard markers just five kilometers away, and over the tenements of Kowloon City, allowing voyeuristic passengers to look straight into living rooms (where people were generally just watching TV). There was no room for error, requiring pilots to bank hard right, and then straighten back out quickly, turning back to the left to land on the runway at just the right time.

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I remember planespotting with some friends 8 or 9 years ago, seeing which pilots managed the best landings - after all, all pilots had to get special certification qualifying them to land at Kai Tak. The Cathay and Dragonair pilots were easily the most adept at the complex maneuver; the worst I saw that day was an Alitalia pilot that just about missed the runway and pretty much banged his wing on the tarmac.


Given the sewage-like quality of the water of the surrounding harbour, the smell would be immediately evident upon touchdown. I always loved the quote in James Clavell's Noble House, set in the 1960s. When the Americans landed at the airport, one asks what the smell is, and the other says: "That's the smell of money."


Those of you with a more poetic bent may like this poem by Andrew Parkin in his excellent volume with Lawrence Wong entitled, "Hong Kong Poems" by Ronsdale Press. I highly recommend the book, based upon this excerpt from his "Descent to Kai Tak International Airport" for your benefit:


Descent To Kai Tak International Airport


By Andrew Parkin


Islands stick to the sea

green or brown shells

sanded around the edge

limpets and barnacles it seems

sucking the smooth turquoise paint job

of the ocean'’s hull.


We fall hundreds of feet

and no longer upturned painted hull,

the South China sea becomes a ruffled silk

where flocks of ships have perched

to drape their long white feathers astern.


We fall towards a rock'’s edge

and tip the continent aslant

finding the sea urchin city

pointing glass spines at the huge reddened sun.


We swoop above the lurching decks of shadowed junks

and then wheels spin with a puff of burnt rubber

on the long hall carpet of tarmac...."


Speaking of glass spines, on our Tsim Sha Tsui walk we point out the reason Central has so many more skyscrapers than Tsim Sha Tsui is because the proximity to Kai Tak imposed height restrictions on the entire district. This is now rapidly being addressed by demolition and new construction throwing up new buildings like One Peking Road. The airport itself also came into being because of construction, particularly during the Japanese Occupation when the wall of the Kowloon Walled City was torn down, as well as Sung Wong Toi, once a resting point for the last Sung dynast, to make way for a longer runway for Japanese Zeros.


But why, you might ask, is it called Kai Tak? It is because it was named after Sir Kai Ho Kai, perhaps the most influential Hong Kong Chinese in the 19th century, and his business partner Au Tak. They'd bought this piece of land hoping to make millions from real estate development, and when it didn't work out, it fell into the hands of the government who bought it for a small RAF and pleasure plane aerodrome.


Sir Kai Ho Kai (really just named Ho Kai), was one of 11 children of the Anglican minister and real estate tycoon Ho Fuk-Tong (anything goes in Hong Kong eh?). He was one of the first Chinese to study in England, graduating from University of Aberdeen with high honours and as a qualified surgeon four years later (following in the steps of William Jardine, perhaps...). He hadn't had enough schooling and so also qualified as a lawyer, being called to the Bar at Lincoln's Inn. He returned to Hong Kong with his English wife, tried to set up a medical practice, but gave it up and pursued law instead when he realized local Chinese would have nothing to do with Western devil medicine.

 

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He became well-known in town and became only the third Chinese in Legco, a post he held for twenty-four years. He was conservative, preferring a laissez-faire approach to Chinese living, sanitary and housing standards but working tirelessly to combat the evils of gambling, vice and opium. His English wife died shortly after their return, and he funded a hospital built in her honor, the Alice Ho (later Nethersole) hospital. He was also responsible for funding the beginning of a medical teaching hospital in Hong Kong, and for mentoring its first graduates; one of whom, of course, was a chap named Sun Yat-Sen.


He advocated total Westernization of China, and wrote strident essays to that effect. One gets the sense Sun regarded him as too much of a colonial collaborationist, preferring China to find its own way, but nevertheless respected Ho Kai for his tireless energy and willingness to help those in need. So much was his charitable streak that he often neglected his own business, and died heavily in debt and with a number of failed projects such as Kai Tak. Fortunately for his family and second wife though, then Governor Sir Francis May petitioned the Colonial Office in London for financial assistance for his wife and his seventeen children.


What we regard as being most important about Sir Kai Ho Kai though, was that he was the first Chinese to leave behind a record of a dual identity - both as a Chinese, and as a Hong Kong citizen. This duality remains central to Hong Kong's identity today, and to its future in China. 

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