Tunnel vision

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 June, 2012, 12:00am

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Massive modern bridges connect various points of Hong Kong's coastline. The enormous Tsing Ma Bridge, which towers over the Kap Shui Mun channel to link the city with Chek Lap Kok airport, is the most immediately recognisable example.

Along with the Ting Kau and Stonecutters bridges, Tsing Ma seamlessly connects Hong Kong's international airport and the city they were designed to serve. Another soaring bridge across Deep Bay links the northwest New Territories and Shenzhen, which further consolidates links between Hong Kong and its hinterland.

Controversial from the time it was first discussed, the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge across the Pearl River estuary is finally under construction on the Hong Kong side, after lengthy judicial delays. The decision to go ahead with this enormous project was confirmed by the State Council, and site formation work on the western side of the delta has been completed for a couple of years.

One stretch of water that still remains bridgeless, however, is Victoria Harbour's main fairway. In the early 1950s, it seemed probable that Hong Kong would eventually get a cross-harbour bridge. After the end of China's civil war, and the massive influx of refugees from the mainland in the late 40s, the local population soared. From about a million in 1946, there were 2.5 million people living in the colony by the mid-50s.

As a result, annually increasing volumes of traffic made a reliable all-weather link between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon imperative. In 1955 a working party was set up to explore the feasibility of a bridge or tunnel to connect both sides of the harbour. Engineering reports in 1961 recommended a bridge as it would be cheaper to build and maintain.

In 1963, however, the Hong Kong government agreed, in principle, to a cross-harbour tunnel. Victoria City Development, a subsidiary of Wheelock Marden, was appointed to handle the project, and, in 1965, the Cross Harbour Tunnel Company was formed. Wheelock Marden chairman John Marden and Hutchison International taipan Douglas Clague were appointed as alternate chairmen.

While the Hong Kong government was willing to provide land on either side of the harbour for road access, it was not prepared to assist financially in construction work without external guarantees, and gradually the project stalled.

The Cross Harbour Tunnel became a local political issue during the 1967 riots, as Britain's unwillingness to underwrite significant capital projects was seen to signal a lack of long-term confidence in Hong Kong. In the late 60s, after extensive lobbying in London by Clague, who threatened to seek funding from the French government should British interests refuse to become involved, the British government eventually agreed to guarantee the loans. Construction work started in 1969 - without any open tender - and in 1972 the Cross Harbour Tunnel was completed.

It was officially opened by the Queen of England's cousin Princess Alexandra, who was a frequent visitor to Hong Kong, both for official duties as honorary commandant of the Royal Hong Kong Auxiliary Police Force (Clague was commandant) and in connection with hus-band Sir Angus Ogilvy's membership of certain Wheelock Marden boards.

There are now three cross-harbour tunnels, and with them, Hong Kong and Kowloon's time-honoured geographical separateness has been reduced. Or has it?

In many people's minds, a lingering sense of two very diff-erent cities remains. One com-mon Cantonese expression for crossing the harbour, gwo hoi ('crossing the seas'), succinctly captures the feeling many residents of Hong Kong Island - and Kowloon - experience when they visit each other's respective 'dark side'.

The Cross Harbour Tunnel is a series of concrete tubes that were submerged, and very large vessels risk dragging their keels if they pass overhead.