Sitting on the Kowloon side of the harbour, Kwun Tong was Hong Kong’s first “new town” in the 1950s. It was here in hastily erected concrete housing estates that the working classes lived, employed in local factories building ships, toys and clothing. The working classes still live here, but the industries that once supported them have long since migrated to factories over the border, where the wages are lower.
What has been left behind is a grimy, bustling neighbourhood of street markets, warehouses and stark utilitarian architecture. The feeling here is very different from Hong Kong island with its gleaming malls and neon signs. Kwun Tong is hard, industrial and unpretentious but also at times, stark and depressing.
The HK government has been eying the site for some time for its most ambitious ever redevelopment plan. It has closed parts of the historic Ngau Tok Kok estate which will soon be demolished and replaced with a series of malls, plazas and office towers. The first signs of this revitalization are already in evidence – the vast and gleaming ApM mall by Kwun Tong station. But many urban planners and locals have criticised the plans for bulldozing an already rich heritage – will the Kwun Tong of the future have any connection to its past? Historical sites, like a former Communist movie theatre – targetted by anti-PRC terrorists in a 1972 explosion – have been closed. A beautiful old cinema and pool hall had been turned into an evangelical Christian church. And there were blocks and blocks of forlorn-looking buildings with washed-out concrete facades and peeling paint.
With some time over the Chinese New Year break I took a trip out to the neighbourhood to try and get a sense of it. It was a cold drizzling day and my first impressions were not good. The apartment blocks by the station has been jazzed up with bright new colours (in accordance with a HK government scheme) but elsewhere, flaking concrete blocks hulked over the district’s main “square”. The streets were surprisingly packed, but with a very different feel from elsewhere in the city – old and tired-looking women hawked lottery tickets, men wheeled iron barrows in and out of the foot traffic, alarm clocks beeped at roadside stalls and pigeons in cages cooed. It felt raw – much more like the mainland than the slick streets of Causeway Bay.
I had heard that Kwun Tong was developing a hip “scene” (see below) but there was no sign of this. Just long, straight streets of vast shiny new office blocks interspersed with mechanics garages, midcentury factories, parking vans and little alleyways through silent concrete blocks where every building bore the stamp “Government propery. Tresspassers prosecuted”.
I didn’t know what to think about this. It was sad that these places would be demolished, erased from the city’s memory. But at the same time, I had to admit they looked squalid, outdated. I would not want to live in them. Was destroying them the only way forward?