Hong Kong’s Skyline Icons: Bridges

There are many cities known for their bridges. San Francisco wouldn’t be San Francisco without the Golden Gate. New York’s Brooklyn Bridge has inspired poems by Walt Whitman and Jack Kerouac. London’s most notorious bridge, though unremarkable in its current state, looms large in the minds of every English-speaking child thanks to an ancient nursery rhyme. 

But Hong Kong? It’s just not one of those cities. In the mind’s eye, it’s a place defined by the glittering dance between skyscrapers, mountains and sea. The spectacular view across Victoria Harbour is unimpeded by any span of concrete or steel; there is no bridge to Hong Kong Island, only tunnels. 

And yet there are bridges in Hong Kong. Enormous, impressive, monumental ones, not in the heart of the city, but clearly visible from it. Take the Star Ferry from Central to Tsim Sha Tsui and you’ll see the Stonecutters Bridge from the port side of the vessel, its steel towers and cables shimmering in the afternoon light. Board a ferry to the outlying islands and you’ll spot three more spans: the Tsing Ma Bridge and Kap Shui Mun Bridge, a pair of bridges together known as the Lantau Link, and the Ting Kau Bridge, a mesmerising cable-stayed span that runs between the mountains on either side of the Rambler Channel. 

Ting Kau Bridge -Photo by Kevin Mak for Zolima CityMag

But these magnificent structures are a recent addition to Hong Kong’s skyline. For most of its history, this was a city without any bridges of note. That is rather remarkable for a city whose heart is bisected by a narrow harbour, and whose expanse encompasses 263 islands and 733 kilometres of craggy shoreline. And yet, for many years, if you wanted to cross the harbour, or to get from one island to another, your only choice was to take a boat. Even as the city exploded in population in the decades after World War II, the only bridges built were unassuming structures like the Tsing Yi Bridge, a 1,250-metre reinforced concrete bridge that was built across the Rambler Channel in 1974.

It was not for lack of ambition. In 1901, Hong Kong Harbour Master Robert M. Rumsey—who was in charge of overseeing the city’s ports on behalf of the government—proposed a bridge across Victoria Harbour that would either lift or swing to allow boats through. It was almost immediately dismissed as too expensive; so was a tram bridge proposed two decades later.

It turns out Hong Kong is a particularly difficult place to build a bridge. To begin with, it is unrelentingly damp: the average relative humidity is 77 percent, compared to 64 percent in Tokyo, 63 percent in New York, and 57 percent in Sydney. That means that without proper safeguards, steel can easily corrode, weakening a bridge and shortening its lifespan. Hong Kong is also prone to typhoons, and while it’s rare for the city to suffer a direct hit, bridges need to be particularly strong to prevent catastrophic failure in the event of a bad storm. “​​You have to have aerodynamic stability of 95 metres per second of critical wind speed,” says Naeem Hussain, the Hong Kong-based Global Bridge Design Leader for international engineering, architecture and design firm Arup.

That means it would take serious investment—and some serious engineering prowess—before Hong Kong could begin building anything as remarkable as the Sydney Harbour Bridge or the San Francisco Bay Bridge. Its chance finally came in 1989. That’s when Governor David Wilson announced the Airport Core Programme, a HK$160 billion scheme to build a new international airport on the island of Chek Lap Kok, just off the north shore of Lantau. Not only would it involve the construction of the world’s most expensive airport to date, it required the reclamation of hundreds of hectares of land from the sea and the construction of new roads and railways linking Hong Kong to the new airport. 

Hong Kong’s first long-span bridges, the Tsing Ma and the Kap Shui Mun bridges – Photo by Kevin Mak for Zolima CityMag

None of it could happen without the construction of Hong Kong’s first long-span bridges. (A long-span bridge is generally defined as one with a span of 120 metres or more.) Two bridges and a viaduct, together known as the Lantau Link, would connect the island of Tsing Yi to Lantau Island, via a third island, Ma Wan. The longest passage would be spanned by the Tsing Ma Bridge, a suspension bridge, whose 1,377 metre span made it the second-longest suspension bridge in the world at the time of its completion in 1997. A cable-stayed bridge, the Kap Shui Mun Bridge, was chosen for the shorter passage between Ma Wan and Lantau; its span is 430 metres, making it the longest such bridge in the world at the time of its construction. Both bridges and the viaduct carry two decks of traffic, with six road lanes on top, and two railway tracks and two emergency road lanes below. 

Designed by British firm Mott Macdonald, and made of British and Japanese steel assembled in Dongguan, the bridges represented a new era in Hong Kong: an ascendant city fully connected to the globalised economy. Not long after they opened, they allowed the Airport Express train to reach the sparkling new Chek Lap Kok airport in just 24 minutes, and they provided the crucial link in a new corridor that would eventually become home to West Kowloon, an expanded container port and the Tung Chung new town. 

The Lantau Link was officially inaugurated on April 27, 1997 by former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, along with Hong Kong’s governor, Chris Patten, and chief secretary, Anson Chan. The South China Morning Post greeted it with a string of superlatives. “It is truly a tribute to man’s engineering skills,” raved the paper, waxing poetic about its new presence in the Hong Kong landscape: “Steely grey in the early morning gloom, the Tsing Ma suspension bridge, to be officially completed today, stands like some surreal sentinel guarding both gateways to Lantau Island and urban Kowloon.”

Intriguingly, the same article noted that the project’s steelwork subcontractor had hired a British figurative painter, Tabitha Salmon, to document the Tsing Ma Bridge’s construction. “It’s a friend now, while in the beginning I didn’t understand it,” she said of the massive structure. “All the time you have a feeling of wires and strings, and sometimes there is a humming sound that resonates through it. And when the deck sections are lifted up by cranes, there is a sound of sighing.” 

Salmon’s work captures some of that spirit. In one of her paintings, “Spinning Wheel Tsing Ma Bridge,” three hard-hatted workers are buffeted by energetic blue brushstrokes. The scene is alive, which underscores something most people don’t realise: that bridges are living things, constantly adapting to their environment.

“Bridges are like human beings. Like you, like me,” said Xu Youlin, head of Polytechnic University’s structural engineering department, in 2012. Described by the South China Morning Post as Hong Kong’s “bridge doctor,” Xu oversees a system of 350 sensors that keep tabs on how the Tsing Ma Bridge is doing in terms of wind sway, humidity and  “Some people work too hard, and so do bridges – we call it fatigue as well,” he said.

Stonecutters Bridge – Photo by Kevin Mak for Zolima CityMag

That was top of mind when plans were drawn up for the Stonecutters Bridge in 1999. The bridge would provide a more direct route from West Kowloon to the Lantau Link, and its location would make it plainly visible from many parts of the harbour. “From the outset, the Highways Department wanted a cable-stayed bridge,” says Naeem Hussain. Why that kind of bridge in particular? “They wanted a world record: the longest cable-stayed bridge ever built. A suspension bridge was not even looked at.” 

Cable-stayed bridges have their advantages over suspension bridges. On a suspension bridge, cables holding up the bridge deck are attached to a set of long load-bearing cables that are draped over the towers and anchored at each end of the bridge. On a cable-stayed bridge, cables directly connect the deck to the towers, which bear the weight of the deck. This creates a stiffer structure less prone to deformation under heavy weight, and it also uses less steel, which makes the structure less costly to build. It also has an advantage in maintenance. “You can’t replace the main cables in suspension bridges,” says Hussein. If the cables become damaged or severely corroded, the entire bridge may need to be rebuilt. By contrast, he explains, “the beauty of a cable-stayed bridge is that you can replace each of the cables.”

At the time, the longest cable-stayed bridge in the world was the Tatara Bridge in Japan, which has a span of 890 metres. The Stonecutters Bridge would need a span of more than 1,000 metres. “So we did a feasibility study,” says Hussein. “It’s in a very high typhoon area, very high winds, so the question was can one design a bridge with these kinds of wind conditions? The answer was we could. That was the start of the project.”

Arup organised an international design competition, and the jury chose an entry by Danish bridge architects Dissing+Weitling that called for two steel towers that would soar 298 metres above the entrance to the Rambler Channel. (By contrast, the towers of the Tsing Ma Bridge are 209 metres tall.) “We had to do quite a lot of changes, because in a design competition you only have a limited amount of time, you can only do so much,” says Hussein. “We always kept the basic form. But in terms of the engineering, the articulation, the deck spans, the way the cables were done, even the shape of the deck, we had to change because when we were investigating the performance in the typhoon we found there were problems.”

The bridge opened to traffic in 2009. It didn’t end up being the longest cable-stayed bridge in the world; it was beaten to the punch by the Sutong Yangtze River Bridge, which opened a year earlier in China’s Jiangsu province, with a span of 1,088 metres, compared to the Stonecutters’ 1,018 metres.

But Hussein takes satisfaction in knowing that the Stonecutters Bridge is particularly sophisticated in terms of its structure, even if it didn’t beat any world records. “It is a very, very robust design,” he says, noting that not only was it tested against severe winds, it is built to withstand a “one-in-10,000-year” earthquake. A dehumidifying system keeps corrosion at bay and a similar sensor system to the Tsing Ma Bridge monitors all aspects of the bridge’s performance. Like its suspension bridge sibling, the Stonecutters Bridge was built to last for a minimum of 120 years. 

It was conceived not just as a bridge but as an icon. “It looks spectacular,” says Hussein. “There’s over 100 metres of stainless steel and it catches the sunlight coming off the South China Sea. It’s probably the last time someone would spend that much money on stainless steel.”

Tseung Kwan O Cross Bay Link – Photo by Kevin Mak for Zolima CityMag

There are more bridges on the way. The Cross Bay Link is currently under construction across the mouth of Junk Bay, with a 200-metre-long double-arch steel bridge serving as the centrepiece. Hussein says two additional suspension bridges are also in the works for the area around Ma Wan. “It will be a fantastic collection – five major bridges in a small area. That beats New York,” he says. “And the topography is so fantastic with the hills all around. Unlike many other places, in Hong Kong you can see these bridges from high points and low points – from the tops of hills or tall buildings, from ships going underneath.”

Hong Kong may not yet be famous for its bridges, but give it time: this is a bridge city in the making.

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