After last month’s post about exploring abandoned villages I want to tell you a little bit more about opportunities for urban exploration in Hong Kong. When I first arrived in the city I found it a real challenge to engage with the history of the place. My ballardian high-rise apartment just wasn’t conducive to doing psychogeography. But since moving to an older (tattier) flat in another part of town I have been coming across all sorts of interesting local history. I recently discovered that the area just behind my new flat was the site of a village where the third bubonic plague epidemic arrived in Hong Kong in 1894. The British occupiers burned the village to the ground to stop the spread of the plague, but not before the Franco-Swiss scientist Alexandre Yersin had arrived and become the first person to successfully isolate the bacillus that causes bubonic plague.
A distant folk-memory of these events seems to persist in local coffin workshops and temples and during the annual hungry ghost festival in August, when offerings are burnt in the street to appease restless spirits.
Anyway, there are a couple of very easily accessible sites for exploration that I discovered early on in my time in Hong Kong. The first is Kowloon Walled City Park.
At its height in the late 80s, Kowloon Walled City was home to around 33,000 people inside a plot measuring just 210 x 120 metres. Its reputation is one of lawlessness and squalor, but the walled city’s population formed a close-knit community, surviving with apparently little or no external government support.
Over the decades more and more buildings were crammed into the small space, around 350 buildings packed in, around and on top of one-another, reaching up to 14 storeys high. It was possible to traverse the city from end to end through its dense network of passageways without touching the ground.
In the 1990s the whole place was demolished and a park built in its place. Some of the foundations of the walled city can still be found there, along with this bronze model of the city as it once was:
Not far from Kowloon Walled City Park is the old Kai Tak Airport. Kai Tak closed in 1998, but in its day it was notorious as one of the most difficult places to land as a pilot, and most terrifying as a passenger. Approaching Kai Tak’s runway from the north, planes had to fly low over a range of hills and make a dramatic last-second turn to avoid the skyscrapers of Kowloon and reach the runway.
Today, what appears to be a newly built but empty airport terminal building stands on the site of the old runway:
It is, in fact, a cruise ship terminal, big enough to accommodate thousands of passengers, but vacant for the majority of the time when no ship is docked.
It is a nice spot for a picnic too.