In 1982, an electrician named Terence Wong got an unexpected call from Sino Land, one of Hong Kong’s biggest property developers: they wanted him to decorate one of its new harbourfront buildings with Christmas lights. Holiday decorations had become a big attraction in the area around Chater Road in Central, and Sino wanted to draw some of that attention across the harbour to Tsim Sha Tsui East, the new office, hotel and entertainment district that was being developed on former military land.
Wong arranged lightbulbs to look like Christmas trees, angels and snowmen, and came up with a way to string them across the building’s curtain glass façade. It was a hit. Sino asked him to expand his efforts the following year, and by 1984 more than 80,000 people thronged the streets of the neighbourhood to see the displays. The number swelled to half a million just a few years later.
The holiday displays turned Wong into the so-called “King of Lights.” And they helped cement Tsim Sha Tsui East’s reputation as the hottest new district in Hong Kong, where luxury hotels overlooked flamboyant nightclubs and offices that housed the trading firms that drove the city’s economy. Known colloquially as TST East or Zim1 Dung1 (尖東), the district’s low-slung blocks aren’t particularly remarkable by themselves, but the seasonal lighting displays helped turn them into an unmistakable icon of Hong Kong’s skyline.
These days, Wong’s services are still in demand, and his company now produces year-round LED displays for many office buildings and shopping malls around Hong Kong. But TST East hasn’t been as fortunate. After a long decline from its glory days in the late 1980s and early 90s, the district has been hit particularly hard by the Covid-19 pandemic and Hong Kong’s border closure, which has wiped out international tourism and made life difficult for the import/export firms that are still headquartered in the area. Its future is uncertain. But for now, it’s a fascinating time capsule of the neon-soaked, jet-setting days of Hong Kong’s golden era.
TST East got its start in 1977, when the British military withdrew from the Chatham Road Camp, a collection of training fields and semi-cylindrical Nissen huts that occupied the land between Chatham Road and Hung Hom Bay. Part of the bay had already been reclaimed for the entrance to the Cross-Harbour Tunnel, which opened in 1972, and the new KCR terminus that followed three years later. That turned the defunct military camp into prime real estate, wedged between an important transportation corridor and Tsim Sha Tsui, which at the time was the epicentre of Hong Kong tourism and nightlife.
What followed was a typically Hong Kong approach to development, albeit one that produced a neighbourhood unlike any other in the city. After the land was transferred from the military to the government, it was divided into blocks that were sold off to property developers. “There was no actual planning or urban design at all,” says veteran town planner Peter Cookson-Smith. “Those were the days when the government simply set out a block zoning plan.” The crucial difference with other parts of town was that, like other parts of Kowloon, TST East was in the flight path of the old Kai Tak airport, which limited building heights to 60 metres or roughly 20 storeys. To compensate, the blocks laid out by the government were much larger than normal, resulting in a collection of exceptionally bulky buildings that are much wider than they are tall.
Cookson-Smith and his landscape architecture and urban planning firm, Urbis, were tasked with laying out the space in between those big buildings. They designed a main pedestrian axis that runs through the entire district, linking a public park along Chatham Road with a main square that sits in the heart of TST East. (Both are officially known as the Urban Council Centenary Garden.) “We did all the work on the main square and all the incidental spaces,” he says. It’s not his proudest achievement. “Like so many new areas in the city, [the district’s] monolithic layout and lack of a dynamic public realm or building frontage at ground level fail to add up to anything more than a setting for new hotels.” On the whole, he says, the area isn’t any more “than the sum of the rather humdrum parts.”
That might be a little harsh. Part of what makes Hong Kong shine as a city is the way its citizens make the most of an unfavourable situation – which includes its urban spaces. With its ample space for pedestrians, TST East is an inviting place for a leisurely amble. Over the years, open-fronted snack stalls have emerged in the alleyways between buildings, as have restaurants and bars with expansive terraces. These patios were illegal at first, but were eventually given the official go-ahead, making TST East one of the few parts of Hong Kong with a decent amount of al fresco dining and drinking.
Before the pandemic, the main plaza was a lively place in the evening, full of tourists sitting around the large fountain and families out for a post-dinner stroll. South Asian kids who live nearby ran with abandon around the open space. The occasion cheer floated over from the large bar terraces nearby as football fans watched a match on big outdoor TVs.
Nightlife was a big part of TST East’s identity. Soon after its development, the district attracted a crop of lavish nightclubs, the largest of which was Club Bboss, which opened in 1984. Every night, countless Rolls Royces and other luxury cars pulled up to its gilded entrance, depositing patrons into a sprawling, 70,000-square foot space with a starlight ceiling and a 400-person dance floor surrounded by neon-lit pillars. Hostesses were on hand to guide them into a warren of private booths and rooms where they were plied with XO and champagne. It was a favourite hangout spot for travelling businessmen as well as local celebrities, tycoons and politicians.
The bright lights hid a dark side to the district’s nightlife. When Club Bboss closed in 2012, the South China Morning Post detailed the human trafficking that underpinned such nightclubs, which effectively operated as high-end brothels. While that may have been socially acceptable in the 1980s, by the time they closed in the 2010s, the clubs had given TST East a tawdry reputation.
It didn’t help that the shopping malls, with their brown tiles and gold-trimmed glass lifts, feel like 1980s time capsules. “It has a throwback feel,” says design critic John Batten. But there’s a certain charm to that, especially when the malls are so eclectic. Each is a warrens of tiny independent businesses: Indian tailors, specialty coffee houses, cha chaan teng, clothing boutiques that are both deliberately and incidentally vintage. In Wing On Plaza, there is a delicious South Indian vegetarian restaurant one floor down from a kosher banquet hall, right next to a synagogue and down the hall from a neon-lit karaoke lounge.
During the mainland tourism boom of the 2010s, it felt like TST East would become yet another playground for visitors from the north; Club Bboss was replaced by a massive duty free store. But the 2019 protests and the pandemic wiped out tourism. These are tough times for the district’s businesses and it’s not clear how it will evolve, even after the pandemic subsides. This being Hong Kong, there’s always the possibility that it could be redeveloped. Since the Kai Tak height limits were abandoned when the airport moved to Chek Lap Kok in 1998, highrises have mushroomed all over Kowloon, including the 284-metre Victoria Dockside tower right on the edge of TST East.
But that probably won’t happen anytime soon. Batten notes that the district’s malls and office blocks consist of individually-owned units, which would make assembling properties for redevelopment a long and arduous process. It’s always possible the Urban Renewal Authority—a statutory body that assembles large blocks of properties in older neighbourhoods, then sells them to developers—could get involved. “But it doesn’t really fall into a delipidated, run-down, slum-like category, so would be controversial with owners that would only be offered a replacement value for their property,” says Batten.
So there’s still time to enjoy the retro atmosphere of TST East. It may be a faded icon, but it’s an icon nonetheless.