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History of Hong Kong districts

Lok Fu, corner of Kowloon that encapsulates Hong Kong’s history

From its settlement in the 13th century to the growth of Kowloon Walled City, post-war public housing and the city’s biggest urban park, to its regeneration today, Lok Fu offers a microcosm of Hong Kong’s history

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 May, 2016, 7:01am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 April, 2018, 1:13pm

“Tiger’s Den to be no more” – that was a headline in the August 10, 1971 edition of the South China Morning Post. The resettlement estate that had been known for more than a decade as Lo Fu Ngam (meaning Tiger’s Den, or Tiger’s Cliff), would henceforth be called Lok Fu, meaning “happiness and wealth”.

The estate had taken the name of the surrounding countryside, which had been presumably named after the tigers that once roamed Hong Kong. The last wild tiger in the city was killed in March 1915, shortly after it had mauled two police officers to death in Sheung Shui, but the residents of Lo Fu Ngam weren’t about to take any chances. More than 40,000 of them petitioned the government to change the name of their estate.

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These days, there are no tigers in Lok Fu but there is artisanal coffee. It is roasted inside the Stone Houses, a row of old village houses that have been converted into a speciality coffee shop and history museum.

“When this was a village for grass-roots people, there used to be little restaurants and cafes around here,” says Mo Pui-yee, secretary general of Wing Kwong So-Care Company, the NGO chosen by the government to renovate and manage the historic site.

Shaded by towering candlenut trees, the cafe’s spacious terrace is a good place to watch the world go by.The 286-year-old Hau Wong Temple across the street isone of the few local shrines dedicated to Yeung Leung-jit, the general who protected the last Southern Song emperor when he took refuge in Kowloon.

A few hundred metres away lies the site of the Kowloon Walled City, which once towered above Carpenter Road. To the north stand the housing blocks and shopping mall of Lok Fu Estate, and to the west is “Checkerboard Hill” (named after the orange and white squares painted on the hillside), which pilots used as a visual reference when making their final approach to Runway 13 before landing at Kai Tak Airport.

Lok Fu is the kind of Hong Kong neighbourhood that is overlooked and underrated – just another MTR station surrounded by housing estates and shopping malls. Yet few places are as emblematic of Hong Kong’s history, from its days as a far-flung outpost of the Chinese empire to its role as refuge for the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war, famine and political persecution in China.

As Mo and her team found when they started their research into the Stone Houses’ history, it’s a surprising place.

“I went to school next door for a few years but I didn’t really notice there was a village here,” Mo says. “It was covered in trees, but there were factories, even a film studio.”

Kowloon Walled City: Life in the City of Darkness

The area around present-day Lok Fu was settled by Southern Song loyalists in the 13th century. Imperial authorities built a military and administrative outpost on the site of what would eventually become the Kowloon Walled City. The area remained rural even as the expansion of urban Kowloon touched on its fringes in the 1920s. But things changed in the 1930s, when refugees from China began to build shanty homes on thesurrounding hills.

The Stone Houses were part of an area known as Hau Wong New Village. Featuring pitched tile roofs,wooden cocklofts, wood-burning stoves and outdoor privies, they seem ancient. But the row was actually built in the 1940s, when the occupying Japanese army displaced villagers to expand the Kai Tak airport.

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Squatter villages continued to grow after the British regained control of Hong Kong in 1945. Fires and floods were common, and they could sweep through villages with horrifying swiftness. In January 1951, a fire in Po Lo Village took just one hour to destroy 300 homes, displacing 2,000 people. Although a cat was killed, all of its human residents escaped.

The residents of Tung Tau Village were not as lucky in October 1959:a fire killed two young children and two adults, and 3,490 people were made homeless. It was one of just eight fires to strike Hong Kong’s squatter villages that day.

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The Lo Fu Ngam resettlement estate was one response to those disasters. When it opened in 1957, it offered a choice of flats, ranging from 86 sq ft for HK$10 per month to 240 sq ft with a private balcony for HK$28. A number of premium 370 sq ft flats with private kitchen, shower and toilet were available for HK$65 per month. These may have been too expensive for many families: by the summer of 1958, lawmakers in the Urban Council were demanding to know why so many of the higher-priced flats remained vacant.

Hong Kong at the time was a place of enormous inequality – even more so than today. In the 1970s, writer Xu Xi was living on Broadcast Drive, an upper middle-class area just up the hill from Lok Fu. In her story The Yellow Line, which was broadcast on the BBC in 1980, a young man living in the public housing estate takes the newly opened MTR one stop from Lok Fu to Kowloon Tong.

“They were two entirely different worlds,” says the author, who now splits her time between Hong Kong and the US. “In a way, it marks that moment when the city became much smaller because of the MTR.”

In some ways, Broadcast Drive is an unremarkable neighbourhood of apartment blocks, but many Hongkongers will remember it as Ng Toi Shan – Five Station Hill – because of television and radio facilities that occupied its summit. Only RTHK remains today, but in its glory days, Broadcast Drive was a place where you could catch a glimpse of the city’s biggest television stars. The hill has been immortalised in at least two Canto-pop songs: Prudence Liew’s The Legend of Broadcast Drive, a 1988 ode to making it in the entertainment business, and Broadcast Drive Fans, a 1993 hip-hop track by Softhard (the rap duo formed by DJs Eric Kot and Jan Lamb) describing young admirers who camped out along the road.

As a recently divorced young woman in the mid-1970s, Xu Xi recalls being an oddity, occupying a 700 sq ft studio flat in a residential block surrounded by families and married couples.

“Next door there was a family living in an apartment not much larger than mine and they had five girls,” she says. “These girls would lean out of their balcony and call out to me. I used to play the piano and they liked me, they’d talk to me. I was definitely unusual.”

What united residents of Lok Fu, rich and poor, was the incessant noise of planes landing at Kai Tak. “You could always hear aircraft,” says Xu Xi. Less than 10 minutes’ walk from Lok Fu MTR is the faded remnant of Checkerboard Hill, which indicated when pilots had to execute a “totally bonkers” 47-degree right turn at a height of less than 300 metres and skim over densely packed Kowloon City tenement buildings before making a landing on the notoriously windy runway.

This hair-raising landing path is the reason why Kowloon City had no high-rises until after Kai Tak was decommissioned in 1998. In fact, the airport’s expansion in the late 1950s required the demolition of three newly built skyscrapers housing HSBC staff, which were located southwest of Checkerboard Hill. By contrast, Lok Fu Estate was located just beyond the flight path, and so its housing blocks soared without peer for nearly three decades.

They overlook an integral part of Lo Fu Ngam’s transformation into modern Lok Fu: Morse Park, a sprawling green space that opened in 1967. It was the largest urban park in Hong Kong at the time and the pride of the colony. “The Queen appeared to be impressed by what she saw at the Morse Park swimming complex during her visit last month,” the SCMP reported in June 1975.

The park wasn’t always peaceful. Newspaper reports describe a “near-riot” when film star Josephine Siao Fong-fong performed in the park in 1968. In August 1973, students staged a rainy protest against police corruption – surely a reminder that Hong Kong’s roiling politics are not purely a product of the post-handover era. The tigers may have vanished from Lok Fu, but their spirit remains.

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