A City in the Sky: Hong Kong’s Aviation History, Part I

Hong Kong’s aviation history began on March 18, 1911, when a Belgian pilot named Charles-Louis Van Den Born took flight from a beach in Sha Tin in a Henry Farman biplane made of wood, steel and glue. But an arguably more crucial moment occurred almost exactly 25 years later, on March 24, 1936, when Imperial Airways airliner Dorado landed at Kai Tak Airport after a trip from Penang, carrying 16 bags of mail and a single passenger. It was Hong Kong’s first-ever commercial flight and the start of something that would eventually transform Hong Kong into the globally significant city it is today. 

Before the pandemic, Hong Kong was a lynchpin of global aviation, with the world’s eighth-busiest airport by passenger traffic. That’s no small feat for a region of 7.5 million people in a part of the world thick with potential rivals. It would be logical to assume that Hong Kong’s high volume of air traffic was simply a reflection of its economic importance. “But it’s part and parcel of the same thing – a virtuous circle,” says John D. Wong, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong and the author of Hong Kong Takes Flight, a newly published book on the evolution of commercial aviation in the city. 

Wong argues that Hong Kong’s growth into a global economic hub was intertwined with its growth as a hub for commercial aviation: one couldn’t have happened without the other. And that has left a profound imprint on the city, not just economically, but also socially, geographically and culturally. Air travel is in Hong Kong’s psyche. This is a city where—at least until recently—a weekend retreat often meant a flight to Phuket or Danang, where long-haul flights were both a lifeline and an escape route, where the landscape was completely reshaped and reoriented to make for easier access to the sky. 

Imperial Airways route map in 1936

That’s something that was clear to Wong even as a child. “I grew up in the 70s and 80s during the period of Hong Kong’s economic takeoff,” he says. “I went to a school a stone’s throw away from the old airport at Kai Tak and we had to pause our class discussions for some 30 seconds when a plane flew over our heads.”

Kai Tak’s origins date back to 1912, when two businessmen, Ho Kai and Au Tak, teamed up to reclaim and develop land along the shores of Kowloon City – not for an airport but for housing. When that plan failed, the land was purchased in 1924 by the Hong Kong government with the intent of establishing an airfield. It was soon home to an aviation school with a grass runway that was used by the Royal Air Force and a number of flying clubs. Facilities were built for seaplanes, followed by a control tower and hangar, and by 1936, British-owned Imperial Airways was offering commercial service to London.

It was hardly a direct route. The technological limitations of early aircraft made them “puddle jumpers,” as Wong puts it, and the journey from Hong Kong to the imperial capital was cramped, noisy and very long: an 11-day voyage via 18 different cities in South Asia, the Middle East and Europe, including Penang, Bangkok, Calcutta, Baghdad, Cairo and Rome. Hong Kong represented the terminus of a new branch on Imperial’s main London-Singapore-Brisbane route, but it was soon forecast to expand north, serving lucrative new routes to mainland China. In the autumn of 1936, when Pan-American World Airways and the China National Aviation Corporation joined Imperial in serving Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Telegraph proclaimed Hong Kong to be the “new air hub of [the] Pacific.”

Kai Tak Airport in 1971. Photo by Barbara Ann Spengler

Those ambitions were complicated by the Sino-Japanese War, which began in 1937, and foiled completely by the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong in 1941. But hope returned with the end of the war in 1945. “By the time the British returned, there was this moment of exuberance that Hong Kong was going to become huge and that was largely fuelled by traffic through China,” says Wong. And for the first time, there were local upstarts to challenge the British, American and Chinese airlines: Cathay Pacific and Hong Kong Airways. 

Cathay Pacific was founded in 1946 by two pilots, Sydney de Kantzow, an Australian, and American Roy Farrell, an American, who had both made their names by flying a tricky route over the Himalayas. Hong Kong Airways was formed the following year as a partnership between Hong Kong trading house Jardine Matheson and the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), a state-owned enterprise created from the merger of Imperial Airways and British Airways. In 1948, Swire—another venerable trading house and the arch-rival of Jardine Matheson—purchased a majority stake in Cathay Pacific from de Kantzow and Farrell, under pressure from London to make sure both Hong Kong airlines were British-owned. 

With two rivals vying to represent Hong Kong in the skies, the colonial government decided to strike a balance and divvy up the routes each company could serve. In an agreement signed by both airlines in May 1949, Hong Kong Airways was given the right to fly to Macau and mainland Chinese cities, while Cathay Pacific won the concession for routes to Southeast Asia. (Since the Convention on International Civil Aviation of 1946, international air routes have been regulated by international treaties, with governments negotiating on behalf of their country’s carriers.) 

That particular dynamic was short-lived. Just a few months after the agreement, Communist forces claimed victory in the Chinese Civil War, and when the People’s Republic of China was founded on October 1, 1949, it closed its borders to the outside world – including British Hong Kong. It marked the end of the city’s ambitions to become the gateway to China, but it could still rely on its connections with the rest of Asia. “Cold War dynamics were a huge thing,” says Wong. “Hong Kong became an important hub for one side of the Bamboo Curtain.” 

A low-flying plane approaching Kai Tak Airport. Photo via Wikimedia

It was a boon for Cathay Pacific, whose Southeast Asian routes were now more valuable than ever. (Hong Kong Airways managed to hobble along for another decade before being acquired by Cathay.) Asia’s economies were expanding quickly, and so did Cathay Pacific, offering services to key Japanese cities in the early 1960s, setting the scene for Japanese investment in Hong Kong while also positioning the city as a key link between Europe, North America, Southeast Asia and Japan. 

With more and more air traffic, Kai Tak opened a passenger terminal to great fanfare in 1962, and its runway was extended in 1974, giving access to the new Boeing 747 jumbo jet. Cathay Pacific purchased its first 747 in 1979 and applied for permission to begin flying between Hong Kong and London, which was granted the following year. 

Hong Kong’s emergence as an international air hub marked a turning point in its history. “[It] developed into a service-oriented economy,” says Wong. “That really shaped our way of interacting with people outside Hong Kong – first it was the Americans, the Europeans and then the Japanese.” Cathay was a reflection of that. “It’s a representation of who we are and how we want to portray ourselves,” says Wong. 

He points to the airline’s uniforms, which began as utilitarian Red Cross-style outfits in the 1940s, evolved into cheongsam-style dresses in the 1960s, and were then redesigned by French designer Pierre Balmain in 1974. For Wong, that represented Cathay’s ambition to become a truly international airline, one that made abundant use of “East meets West” tropes in its advertising, which boasted of Swiss chefs and flight attendants from across Asia – or as one advertisement put it, “the prettiest faces of nine exotic lands smiling at you.” It brings to mind the travel posters used to advertise Hong Kong as a tourism destination in those years – many of which were in fact produced by Cathay Pacific. As it grew into one of the world’s top ten airlines, in terms of both annual sales and quality rankings, the airline was instrumental in shaping Hong Kong’s international image.

And it also reflected how Hong Kong was changing. “It paralleled the growth of Hong Kong from an entrepôt city, the last British colony, to a very international centre,” says author Xu Xi, who worked in the airline’s marketing department from 1977 to 1980. “Culturally, it was a real example of the cosmopolitan nature of Hong Kong. We hired women from Korea and Japan—women with university degrees—along with women from Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore. The image it created for Hong Kong was one that was modern, forward-thinking and international.”

But it was still very much a colonial institution. Xu Xi joined around the time Cathay was boasting of its pretty, exotic flight attendants. “Looking at it now it’s like, oh my god, how sexist, how Orientalist, but back then it was just the thing to do,” she says. And while its cabin crews were diverse—at least in national origin, if not gender—its upper echelons were dominated by white men. “Back then, we had no Asian pilots – they were mostly British and Australian, some Americans. [And] the pay package difference between expatriates and locals was vastly different at the time.” 

That wasn’t the only disparity. Xu Xi says that when she flew Cathay Pacific in the 1980s, she found the service towards her to be distant, if not unfriendly. “I found that as the other Asian airlines got better and matched Cathay [in quality], the service towards me as an Asian woman was better,” she says. “Cathay still had a bit of a hangover towards the Brits.” 

Cathay Pacific jets at Chek Lap Kok, Hong Kong’s new airport by Kevin Mak

But things began to change. In 1985, Cathay faced local competition for the first time in nearly 40 years when Ningbo-born Hong Kong industrialist ​​Chao Kuang-piu launched Dragonair. Not only did the upstart airline offer cheaper flights to a variety of Southeast Asian and mainland Chinese destinations—although not to exactly the same cities, because the Hong Kong government maintained a policy of only allowing one local airline to serve each route—it had presented itself as a more local alternative, with Chinese pilots, flight attendants and executives. 

By then, Britain and China had signed the agreement that would lead to the transfer of Hong Kong’s sovereignty in 1997, and Cathay clearly saw the writing on the way. It began hiring more Chinese people for high-ranking positions, and in 1987, Swire sold part of its stake to CITIC Pacific, a company owned by the Chinese government. It sold even more in 1996, when Swire officially became a minority shareholder. Cathay Pacific had also bought a majority share of Dragonair in 1990, effectively making it a subsidiary. It is now branded as Cathay Dragon.) “We are no longer a British airline. We are a Hong Kong airline,” said one senior Cathay executive at the time. The Wall Street Journal called it “post-1997 political insurance.”

(After a bailout by the Hong Kong government in the first year of the pandemic, Swire currently owns 42.3 percent of Cathay Pacific, while Air China owns 28.2 percent and Qatar Airways 9.4 percent, with the government controlling 6.1 percent.)

As with so much in Hong Kong’s aviation history, it was a reflection of the broader changes underway in the city. Those changes would turn out to be significant. Despite the uncertainty swirling around the handover—nobody knew exactly what would happen when Britain finally relinquished its last Asian colony—the city was building the foundation for an even more robust role as a global economic and aviation hub. 

This is the first part of a two-part story. The second part will explore the cultural legacy of Hong Kong aviation as well as the heritage of the city’s two airports.

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