Arrivals and Departures: Hong Kong’s Aviation History, Part II

This is the second of a two-part story. Read the first part here. 

When he was growing up in the United States, there was a moment Hong Kong-born artist Christopher K. Ho anticipated every summer: his family’s arrival at Kai Tak Airport. It wasn’t the white-knuckle landing over densely-packed tenements that he looked forward to, nor the thrill of touching down on a runway that led straight into the waters of Victoria Harbour. It was the minute when he finally emerged from the liminal space of air travel and into the feverish embrace of his hometown.

“I looked forward to the moment after disembarking when the sliding doors to the arrivals hall opened, and a wall of humid air enveloped me,” he says. “There, amidst the sea of people and high-pitched chatter of reuniting families, would be my grandparents.”

This past summer, Ho channelled that feeling into an installation, “CX 889,” that reconstructed the Kai Tak arrivals hall through memory and photographs. Exhibited at the Vancouver Art Gallery’s outdoor art space at the base of the Shangri-La Hotel, the work was at once hazy in its recollection of a long-gone space and instantly recognisable through architectural elements—ceramic tiles, bilingual signage, luggage carts—that still reflect a certain Hongkongness. 

“CX 889” is the follow-up to a 2018 installation, “CX 888,” that was exhibited at De Sarthe Gallery in Central. Whereas the most recent work refers to the inbound Cathay Pacific flight from New York to Hong Kong, via Vancouver, the previous installation recreates the business class cabin of the famous flight that has taken generations of Hongkongers across the Pacific. “[‘CX 889’] is unabashedly nostalgic,” says Ho. “In contrast, the earlier installation celebrated the mobility of travel—and upward class mobility—then endemic to Hong Kong. ‘CX 889’ builds on ‘CX 888,’ and registers Hong Kong’s evolution, and Hongkongers’ evolving self-definition.”

The two installations acknowledge the fundamental reality that Hong Kong is a city that has always had one foot out of the door – or perhaps, as the case may be, one wing in the sky. When the British first laid claim to the territory in 1841, they found more people living in boats than on land, the better to migrate between good fishing spots. A few decades later, Hong Kong became a waypoint for countless migrants heading between China and points abroad. They came, they left, they returned. That constant churn has never ceased. 

Ho cites renowned artist, curator and cultural critic Oscar Ho, who once described Hong Kong as “an immigrant culture” whose older generation “has a kind of diaspora psychology.” What that means, says Christopher Ho, is that “Hong Kong is in the process of being punted from one empire to another, possesses limited landmass, and seems perpetually shadowed by an expiration date, [which] makes travel the necessary balm to diaspora psychology.”

While the arrival at Kai Tak was a reassuring exercise for overseas Hongkongers, it represented a particular kind of introduction for foreign visitors and expats. There is a scene in James Clavell’s 1981 novel Noble House in which an American businessman steps off a plane and notes “a strangeness on the wind, neither pleasant nor unpleasant, neither odour nor perfume – just strange, and curiously exciting.” 

That sense of excitement was preceded by a hair-raising descent unlike any other in the world. Nicknamed the “Kai Tak heart attack,” approaching the airport required fully manual operations, something pilots call a “stick and rudder” descent. When they spotted Checkerboard Hill, a concrete slope in Kowloon Tong painted white and red, pilots needed to make a 47-degree turn before descending over the rooftops of Kowloon City at more than 300 kilometres per hour. “I remember once landing at Kai Tak and seeing into a flat – a girl was brushing her hair by the window. It was that close,” says former Hong Kong resident Fiona Hawthorne. “That was the most exciting thing about Kai Tak, the proximity.”

The proximity to everyday life was perhaps the most defining thing about Kai Tak. When the airport first opened in 1925, it was on the very fringes of Hong Kong’s urban area. By the 1960s, it was completely engulfed, with jam-packed tong lau under its flight path and public housing estates like Choi Hung overlooking the tarmacs. Unlike most of the world’s airports, you could simply walk up to Kai Tak’s passenger terminal. Its central location gave it a central role in the city’s urban landscape. Right up to its closure in 1998, schoolchildren used to study in the arrivals hall to take advantage of the air conditioning, which was not as ubiquitous as it is now. Families gathered on the terminal’s rooftop viewing deck to wave goodbye to departing planes. 

The roar of 747s over Kowloon was a constant reminder of Hong Kong’s economic ascendance, but also its political and social precarity. The wealthier the city became, the more people were inclined to leave, especially after the 1984 agreement between Britain and China that paved the way to Hong Kong’s handover in 1997. Each arriving jet brought Japanese investors and American businessmen; each departing flight carried Hong Kong families leaving for new lives overseas. 

In few other places was air travel so omnipresent in everyday life, something reflected in Wong Kar-wai’s 1994 classic Chungking Express, which is punctuated by footage of jets zooming overhead. The first part of the film follows a drug trafficker who is preparing to hustle a group of mules through Kai Tak; the second part focuses on a lovesick policeman recently dumped by his flight attendant girlfriend; he is unwittingly pursued by a restaurant worker with dreams of jetting off to California. The airplane imagery in the film becomes a motif representing unfulfilled aspirations and a kind of existential restlessness – perfect metaphors for Hong Kong in the early 1990s.

A year after Wong’s movie was released, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas published The Generic City, an essay that advanced a new typology of high-rise cities oriented around shopping malls, hotels and an airport, defined by rootlessness and a perpetual state of transience. “I was astounded to realise that the three main characteristics of Koolhaas’s generic city were formulated using Hong Kong as his model,” writes scholar Leo Ou-fan Lee in the prologue to his 2008 book City Between Worlds. Lee argues that, even if Hong Kong is far from a truly generic city—it does have deep roots after all—there is a kernel of truth to Koolhaas’ idea. Like a peripatetic airliner that rests only for required maintenance, Hong Kong is a city in constant motion.

The new airport only underlined that situation. When it was announced in 1989, the Airport Core Programme was astonishing in its scope. Not only did it call for the construction of a new airport on Chek Lap Kok, a soon-to-be-expanded island off the remote north shore of Lantau, it would involve reshaping the very fabric of Hong Kong through hundreds of hectares of reclaimed land, new bridges, tunnels, roads and railways. To solve the problem of locating the new airport far from the city centre, the entire city would be reoriented towards it. “It was one of the most ambitious construction projects of modern times,” said Norman Foster, the architect hired to design the new airport terminal.

Foster’s vision for the airport was revolutionary. Air terminals in the 1990s were cramped, dingy and generally unsuited to the quickly growing number of international air passengers. His design called for a single terminal building with vast ceilings that allowed passengers to see from one end of the building to the other as soon as they stepped inside. “In an ideal airport, you move through it seamlessly – it’s navigable, and it’s intuitive,” he said. Connection to the city was just as seamless, thanks to the Airport Express, which zoomed to Central in just 26 minutes. It even offered in-town baggage check-in, a service that is still rare in the world today. 

Protest at the Hong Kong International Airport in August 2019. Photo: Wikimedia

There were no longer any schoolchildren studying in the arrivals hall, but Chek Lap Kok played as much of a civic role as Kai Tak. It’s telling that some of the most contentious episodes of the 2019 protests occurred at the airport. Like the gate of an old walled city, the airport was both a point of entry and a gathering place. “Why are Hong Kong protesters at the airport?” asked CNN in August 2019. The short answer: it’s a symbolically and strategically important place that accounts for five percent of the city’s GDP. “The airport is a source of pride in the city, with its sleek, glass-fronted terminal, world-renowned efficiency and smooth transport links,” the news outlet reported. “Since it opened 20 years ago, the airport has become a symbol of modern Hong Kong, with almost 73 million passengers passing through it annually.”

Those millions of passengers made Chek Lap Kok the eighth busiest airport for passenger air travel in 2018, a massive increase over the 28.6 million passengers it welcomed in 1998. The growth in traffic led to an ambitious expansion programme that called for a third runway and new passenger terminal to be built on 650 hectares of reclaimed land, at a cost of HK$141.5 billion. 

The project was controversial for its environmental impact, both in terms of its effect on the severely endangered pink dolphin population in nearby waters, as well as the pollution it would add to Hong Kong’s already smoggy air. “Nitrogen dioxide emissions will keep increasing,” said environmental activist Tsz Wai-loong in 2015. “It’s obvious. You cannot install a catalytic converter on a plane the way you can install one on a car. But the government doesn’t even see it as a problem at the moment.”

The Covid-19 pandemic upended all of that. The third runway opened in July, but travel restrictions meant that the airport is handling a small fraction of what it once did – just 1.35 million passengers in 2021 and 1.7 million so far this year. “All transport planning is upside down,” says architect and urban critic Chris Law. “People don’t fly anymore, and even when they start flying again, who knows if we’ll ever reach what the second runway used to support, let alone what the third runway was supposed to use.” In July, Bloomberg suggested the runway and accompanying infrastructure could be “one of the world’s most expensive white elephants.”

Rather ominously, the airport’s passenger traffic data has become a symbol of a new wave of emigration that has seen many Hongkongers moving overseas, particularly to the UK. In one week in February, the airport recorded 23,702 departures and just 5,713 arrivals. (Hong Kong recently registered its largest population drop on record, from 7.41 million in mid-2021 to 7.29 million in mid-2022.) The last time Hong Kong saw so many people leaving was in the years just after 1989; the difference this time is there are few newcomers taking their place.

But people come and people go. It’s impossible to say whether Hong Kong will reclaim its status as one of the world’s leading flight hubs, but the amount of air traffic will invariably pick up as Covid restrictions ease. And at least one traveller has once again passed through the arrivals gate into that curiously exciting strangeness on the wind: Christopher K. Ho, who returned to Hong Kong last year to take over the Asia Art Archive from founding director Claire Hsu. After the outbound CX 888 and inbound CX 889, his next artwork will reflect on his first year of living back in his birthplace.

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