02 January 2009

Kowloon Complex - Part 2 九龍的心結-下卷

I decided to spend a lazy Saturday afternoon exploring West Kowloon. I dragged a friend of mine along for company and to get a second opinion on things. Jack moved to Hong Kong from Los Angeles to take up a banking job two years ago. Like many other expatriates, Jack’s knowledge of Hong Kong is limited to Central, Wanchai and Causeway Bay, and anything outside this tiny comfort zone completely eludes him. I thought my friend’s unfamiliarity with Kowloon would give his perspective some objectivity.

Driving through the Western Tunnel felt a bit like going through immigration in a foreign country: there was that mix of excitement and trepidation. It was, after all, the first time I took my car to the other side of the harbor. Jack made the old joke about Kowloon, I think I forgot to bring my passport.His remark got a few chuckles from me. At the toll booth, the uniformed cashier asked me for a whopping HK$45 (US$5.50) for a one-way passage, which prompted me to gripe to my friend about the Western Tunnel. Eleven years after its completion, the tunnel still languishes at 33% capacity, doing little to ease the bumper-to-bumper traffic at the old Hunghom Tunnel that charges half as much and handles 50% more vehicles daily. To make things worse, government officials flatly admitted to the frustrated public that they were powerless against CITIC Group, the PRC state-owned company that built and operates the tunnel. Big businesses walk all over us like a doormat and the government throws up its hands. Suddenly our 15% income tax rate doesn’t seem like such a bargain.

As soon as we came out of the tunnel, we were greeted by clear skies and cool breezes. There are far fewer tall buildings on the Kowloon side, thanks to the old Kai Tak Airport that for 75 years imposed stringent height limits on nearly all of the peninsula. Ever since the old airport became defunct a decade ago when the new Chek Lap Kok Airport took over, high-rise residential blocks have been shooting up like mushrooms one after another, as property developers scrambled to make up for lost time. Today, the Tsim Sha Tsui cape is flanked by the cloud-hugging ICC Tower on its left and the brand new 64-floor Hyatt-Regency Hotel on its right. Smack in the middle is the swanky One Peking Road, which together with the two skyscrapers creates a curious W-shaped skyline against the Lion Rock ranges in the back.

We made our first stop at the Elements shopping mall atop the Kowloon MTR Station. Opened in October 2007 with much fanfare, the million square foot mega shopping center declared war on glitzy competitors like the Landmark and Pacific Place. Bulge bracket investment banks like Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse and Deutsche Bank have all signed leases to move into the nearby ICC Tower, at literally half the rent they were paying in Central. But the global financial crisis and the collapse of the banking industry have caught the property developer off guard, and sale clerks out-number shoppers even during the holiday seasons. Bad timing, coupled with several miscalculations, such as a dizzying layout and the inclusion of an indoor ice-skating rink – hardly an “it” sport for the mall’s target demographics – may very well sound the death knell for the snake-bit shopping mall.

With my insistence, Jack and I left the Elements to explore the neighboring Yau Ma Tei area, walking eastward on Jordan Road (佐敦道) lined with double-decker buses. Our quick detour through Shanghai Street (上海街) proved worthwhile, as vestiges of the post-war era fed our curious eyes. The three decades between the 50s and 70s were Hong Kong’s most romantic period, when my parents’ generation, still struggling to make ends meet, welcomed free television broadcast into their living rooms and set foot in the first Japanese department stores. My nostalgic trance was interrupted by Jack’s candid remark. “This looks just like those old streets in Wanchai near the Pawn,” he observed, referring to the old Lee Tung Street (利東街), now boarded up to make way for a bridal shop city. Jack had a point: there are no short supply of these quaint neighborhoods on the Hong Kong side. His casual remark put me out of my short-lived fascination in Yau Ma Tei.

By the time we reached the kitschy but still charming Temple Street (廟街), the winter sun had set and we were both a little Kowloon’ed out. We took a taxi back to the Elements, hopped back into the car and retraced our path home. At the other end of the Western Tunnel, office towers in Sheung Wan formed a receiving line to welcome us back. I felt instantly at ease. I don’t know what it is, but here on the Hong Kong side, the streets look a bit friendlier and even perfect strangers seem familiar. Perhaps I am just a hopeless islander.



  1. Just out of curiosity... Why The Reaction you could choose are.. Funny, interesting and Cool...

  2. I didn't choose them. The three reactions are dictated by Blogspot.

  3. hi. i randomly came upon your blog and found it to be decidedly real. i've moved to HK for 4 months now from canada...and well, the love-hate relationship isn't quite there yet. more hate than love. like your blog's voice. keep it up.

  4. Thanks, akmy! If you enjoyed this one, check out "Hong Kong State of Mind" parts 1 and 2 and "My Pet Peeves." Good luck with settling in Hong Kong!

  5. I don't understand what you made your choice on...the toll fee? the bill? "Perhaps the unattractive economics was a message to Hong Kongers that we are not their target customers in the first place." This makes no sense to me. Don't make up a sentence just for the sake of making your blog sound "interesting". Of course you footed a huge bill. You're driving a car. You were at Elements, the most expensive mall in Kowloon.

    I also don't understand why you need to write a whole entry about a daytrip to Kowloon. As if it's such a huge road trip. And your friend who never comes across the Victoria Harbour because he's too afraid to step outside the vicinity of Pokfulam/Causeway Bay? What a small world wuss. Hong Kong is such a small city--how much of a cultural divide is there between Kowloon and Hong Kong? It's still Hong Kong. You go to another country, people don't know the difference. Kowloon= Hong Kong. Hong Kong island=Hong Kong. People who encourage the whole perception of class difference between Kowloon and Hong Kong are so full of bull.

    Try taking the MTR or the bus or something, and bring yourself back down to earth like a local Hong Konguese. Not everybody in HK works at an investment bank and makes top tiered salary you know. Psh.

    Zealous observer? Yeah right, more like prejudiced, pretentious and stupid.

  6. Feisty response. Love it! Pls keep them coming.

  7. ha ha, no worries. I'll definitely keep my bitchy responses coming.

  8. Cool Blog! I just got into Hong Kong and saw your ad on Facebook. Will be following...

  9. Thanks for your supporting words, Q Mau. And welcome to Hong Kong. I hope you will fall in love with the city as much as I did!

  10. Hi Karin, 

    I will be counting on your honest comments to keep me grounded.


My piece on Kowloon was simply to bring out the Hong Kong-Kowloon rivalry, which exists in many world cities that are subdivided into boroughs (like Manhattan vs. Brooklyn and Shinjuku vs. Metropolitan Tokyo). Perhaps I did overdose on sarcasm.


At the risk of appearing defensive, I do urge you to read my "Hong Kong State of Mind" series and "Kowloon Complex (Part 1)" to get the true voice of my column. I hope, by the end of your reading, it is not snobbery you find, but a genuine interest in and love for a diverse and colorful city.


  11. "more like prejudiced, pretentious and stupid"....Can't agree more.

  12. So you're making the assumption that they're both "Kowloonites", isn't assumption a negative trait when you work in law?

    Personally, I appreciate your attempt at being witty in your analysis of the difference between HK and Kowloon, but your criticism does come across rather pompous. First of all, if you don't want to pay the $45 toll, use the other tunnel, it's $20. Or take public transport, we do, in my humble opinion, have one of the best public transportation systems in the world. Secondly, about your assumed rivalry between HK and Kowloon? I don't quite agree there, HK is an insanely diverse city. Hell, it would have to be, we were colonized by two different countries and our population origins come from a mish-mash of people who were part of the influx from Mainland China. Instead of seeing rivalry between the island and the peninsula, you might learn (or re-learn) to enjoy HK more if you make the effort to see the city as a range of diversity on the broad spectrum that makes this city so unique.

    For someone whose profession calls for him to be objective in order to see the bigger picture, I'm surprised by how determined you are to see things a certain way. There are certainly things about this city that isn't to everyone's taste, but if you take deliberate pains to compare HK with another city in the world, instead of appreciating it on its own in all its luxurious and gritty glory, you're missing out on a lot and I for one do not envy you.

    Come to the New Territories some time, and take your friend, you'll find even more interesting sights here. But I suggest you take the MTR then the East Rail, see things the way the most people see it and you might gain another perspective. And just to clarify why I feel that you're not doing this city justice, I'm HK born but I grew up in Sydney, Australia, a place that I would go back to in a heartbeat. But that never stopped me from appreciating this city without dissecting it to within an inch of its life to dig up all its lesser qualities. All major cities are going to be bloody awful and brilliant in their own way, you're just limiting your experience if you've made the decision to compare them, instead of enjoying them each as individual cities. There is so much to HK that you've yet to explore, and the sad thing is, it seems like you would rather stick with what you've grown comfortable and familiar with, instead of giving them a shot and the benefit of the doubt that this dynamic and vastly varied city deserves.

  13. I understand your point of view between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon vs. Brooklyn and Manhattan. Both are incredible cities.

    I do have to admit, Hong Kong is a rapid growing city, not to mention their buildings growing taller every decade or less.

    Living in the NT area, Kowloon is still more familiar to me than Hong Kong Island. But that's the same to people living on the Hong Kong Island; Kowloon is a foreign place for them.

    Hope you'll enjoy Hong Kong, Kowloon and the NT.

  14. you can have a 3-hr complimentary parking in Element if you spend $180 or more...that's what i normally do;)