The first rule of urban exploration: be prepared to wait. As a murky dusk settles over the former taxiways of the Kai Tak Airport, a group of people crouch behind an excavator, hiding from some construction workers who are passing in the distance. Darkness offers little shelter; the lights of the city keep even this unlit quadrant — fenced-up and off-limits to outsiders — stuck in a permanent twilight.
“Last time we had a whole TV crew with us and waited over an hour,” says one of the explorers, Ghost, a member of HK Urbex, which infiltrates abandoned buildings around Hong Kong. Another member, Echo Delta, peers out from behind the excavator with a tiny pair of binoculars. “There’s a van on the bridge blocking the way,” he reports. More waiting.
The goal tonight is to reach the former Kai Tak Airport Fire Station, a burnt-out relic from the time when this was the city’s only airport, surrounded by water on one side and city on the other. The famously harrowing descent into the airport took planes close enough to the surrounding buildings that passengers could see people watching television and hanging up laundry.
Most of the Urbex crew are too young to have firm memories of flying into or out of Kai Tak — Echo Delta only remembers his mother insisting he look out the window as they landed — but the airport still has a weight and a presence that hasn’t disappeared more than 20 years after it closed.
“I don’t recall my personal flights in and out per se, but I remember the incredible sound of the planes from above, a cacophonous roar let out by the metallic winged beasts that flew above and blocked out the sky momentarily,” says Ghost. “The noise would start before the planes came into view. It began as a high-pitched screech before merging into a thunderous engine sound.”
The incessant noise of aircraft united all the nearby residents, whether they were squeezed into in a subdivided flat in Kowloon City or living comfortably in a Kowloon Tong villa. After the airport closed in 1998, replaced by the much larger, more spacious and far more remote Hong Kong International Airport on Chek Lap Kok, the neighbourhoods around it began to change. High-rises sprouted in Kowloon City and office blocks in Kowloon Bay. But the old airfield itself remained curiously untouched, a void in the midst of frenzied redevelopment.
Now, finally, work is underway to transform Kai Tak into a new residential, commercial and recreational area. A vast cruise terminal has already been built on the former runway, and apartment towers have sprouted around the edges of the site. There are plans for a big new stadium and a park along the shores of the Kai Tak River, an old nullah that once deposited sewage and filth into Victoria Harbour, greeting air travellers with a distinctively acrid scent as they emerged from their planes. “That’s the smell of money,” says a character in the 1988 miniseries Noble House, based on the James Clavell novel published seven years earlier.
Aside from a street named after the Concorde, and a jet parked near the new cruise terminal, the only remnant of Kai Tak’s aviation history is the old Kai Tak Fire Station. This is where crews waited to respond to any trouble on the runway. Over the years, 15 planes crashed at or around Kai Tak due to bad weather, mechanical problems, the airport’s tricky location or a combination thereof.
The fire station closed along with the rest of the airport and it was gutted by an inferno ten years later. “It was a no man’s land for so many years and it was popular for cosplay and graffiti,” says Ghost. One of these illicit visitors may have sparked the fire. “It’s ironic to have a fire station burnt down – you can see the heat was so strong it melted the metal.”
As the construction all around it can attest, the fire station won’t be around for much longer. Rather than wasting more time crouched behind the excavators, the Urbex crew looks for another way in. Scrambling over a heap of metal cylinders — lampposts waiting to be erected — they climb through a fence and tip-toe over a concrete ledge surrounded by vegetation. Traffic roars along an adjacent highway.
Eventually, the ledge gives way to a clearing near the Kai Tak River, where another bridge runs along the edge of the construction site. A splashing sound gives everyone pause, but it’s just fish jumping out of the water. Stricter pollution controls and a better sewerage system have cleaned up the river to the point where its once putrid water now runs clear.
On the other side of the river, the crew dart between heavy equipment, trying not to be noticed by workers that have gathered on the other side of a fence. Nearing the fire station, it becomes apparent that the van blocking the original route was still there. Two men sit inside, waiting for something. “Just run,” says Echo Delta, and everyone bolts towards the fire station, across a rutted dirt road and a field of wild grass. Everyone makes it there safely.
It’s easy to imagine how the station must have looked in the past: a stalwart concrete structure with a courtyard sheltered by a metal canopy. The fire a decade ago caused part of the canopy to collapse; its corpse lies snarled on the ground. The air is heavy and humid, infused with the odour of rot and something metallic. “It smells like blood,” says Echo Delta, surveying the metal wreckage. The ground is littered with the empty shells of smoke bombs used by cosplayers posing for photoshoots.
The crew know their way. They head to the right, down a corridor whose tile floor has been smashed to pieces, and up a stairwell littered by debris. A glass brick wall is mostly shattered. “It must have been a crazy fire,” says Ghost. “The glass just exploded.”
On the second floor, a slanted passageway flanks the courtyard. Echo Delta is leading the way. “I wonder if the Hello Kitty is still here,” he says, reaching the end of the passageway and turning left into a dark room. There are remnants of lockers and smashed ceramic – this was the change room and toilet. Echo Delta is standing in front of an open stall, laughing. Inside, a Hello Kitty doll encased in years of mould and grime sits askew on the rim of a toilet. “This is legendary,” he says.
A quick exit leads to another staircase, which opens onto the fire station’s roof, above which stands an observation deck where firefighters had a panoramic view of the entire airport. The air is still and quiet, the city’s roar faint despite the skyscrapers all around. In the distance, construction crews work through the evening.
Banyan trees have begun growing out of storm drains and cracks in the roof. “The trees are bigger than the last time we were here,” says Ghost, looking around. “It kind of speaks volumes about how nature takes over when humans aren’t there.” Something catches his eye. “Look at those birds!” he exclaims, pointing towards a tree a hundred metres in the distance. Hundreds of cranes are perched on its branches, resting before they swoop over the Kai Tak River to feed on the newly resurgent fish.
Not much has changed since the Urbex crew last visited the fire station, but with the Kai Tak redevelopment gaining pace, it could well be their last. In fact, given the real estate frenzy that has gripped Hong Kong over the past decade, Urbex is running out of abandoned buildings to explore. “There aren’t many interesting ones left,” says Echo Delta.
A member of the crew steps over to the edge of the roof and looks out at the Kai Tak River flowing into the harbour. “I’ll miss this, dude,” he says to no one in particular. Crickets chirp rhythmically. Traffic is backed up on the Kwun Tong flyover, its noise muffled by distance. The city is all around, but here in this half-forgotten, half-destroyed remnant of the recent past, everything is calm.