The changing face of Hong Kong as it races full speed ahead
But bigger skyscrapers, more MTR stations, new centres of population and growing regional integration have come at a price, namely the city’s heritage
Take a quick glance at Hong Kong’s famous skyline and you’d be forgiven for thinking that little has changed over the past two decades.
But the city’s landscape has morphed in a number of ways: skyscrapers have shot up, new developments have stretched out and historic buildings have been pulled down.
In short, Hong Kong has been working to push through its landmark developments, the projects that symbolise the city’s move from colonial outpost to gateway to China.
At the time of the handover, the city’s distinctive skyline was already taking shape, with many buildings already towering over Victoria Harbour. But many of the most impressive fixtures of the cityscape had not yet been built.
In total, 18 of Hong Kong’s 20 tallest buildings were completed after the handover, including the International Commerce Centre, Cheung Kong Center and One Island East.
The average building age is 16 years, meaning most were built after Hong Kong changed hands, according to international group the Skyscraper Centre. Almost three-quarters are used for housing.
The city now has more than 300 high-rises towering at least 150 metres high, putting it first in the world for the number of buildings over that height.
With a population of 7.3 million living in an area of 77 sq km, it is maybe not surprising that Hong Kong has continued to build upwards. But it is still more residential land than Hongkongers had in 1997, when the 6.5 million-strong population was packed into 58 sq km.
Although Hong Kong’s MTR system has been running for almost 40 years, development has gone full steam ahead for the past two decades. Out of 171 stations, including Light Rail stops, 62 were opened after the handover.
The new transport links have come hand in hand with new developments to house the growing population. Parts of Kwun Tong were once industrial space, but as manufacturing shifted to the cheaper mainland, the once buzzing area took on the feel of a ghost town.
In the past few decades, Kwun Tong has gone through a third iteration. It is now an office area with a burgeoning food and creative scene, which is home to more than 600,000 people.
But the areas that have seen the greatest population increases are further afield in the New Territories, thanks to new development areas such as Tseung Kwan O in Sai Kung district, which is mainly built on reclaimed land, and Tin Shui Wai in Yuen Long district.
In 1996, Yuen Long housed 5.5 per cent of Hong Kong’s population, while Sai Kung was home to 3.2 per cent. Yuen Long now accommodates 8.4 per cent and Sai Kung 6.3 per cent.
Hong Kong’s history stretches back 6,000 years, and remnants of the past are scattered all over the city. But as the city transformed from fishing village to modern financial centre, older buildings were destroyed to make way for new ones.
The approach to historical sites started to change in 2007, when Hongkongers protested against the demolition of the Edinburgh Place ferry pier – the former Star Ferry terminus where the 1966 riots were sparked.
Also gone in the name of redevelopment are Ho Tung Gardens – the first non-European residence on The Peak. Residents of Kowloon’s last walled village, 650-year-old Nga Tsin Wai, have been kicked out – also to make way for redevelopment.
But awareness of the issue has been growing. In 2007, then Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen announced a new urban conservation policy and a revitalisation scheme was set up to conserve historic buildings and adapt them for new uses.
Sadly for history buffs, the transformation has not ended. Conservationists fear for the future of more than 900 historic buildings, many of which are privately owned.
But while there is no way of knowing how many historical sites were destroyed before the conservation policies were introduced, the government is taking steps in the right direction, Hong Kong University associate professor in architectural conservation Dr Lee Ho-yin said.
“The bigger question is if Hong Kong wants to do more conservation, the main question is for what purpose. Conservation for conservation’s sake is not the way to go,” he said. “Conservation has to benefit the community in some tangible way.”
When the city returned to China, it was not just the government that was supposed to change. Hong Kong planned a handful of developments that would become physical emblems of the handover.
One of the most prominent was planned for the site of the former airport at Kai Tak, which featured a dramatic runway jutting into Victoria Harbour, making for a frightening landing experience for pilots and passengers alike.
Kai Tak Airport closed in 1998, the same year the new airport at Chek Lap Kok opened, largely on reclaimed land. But it has taken a long time for the former airport site to be given new life. The most prominent development so far has been the Kai Tak Cruise Terminal, which opened in 2015.
The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge and the Hong Kong section of the express railway link to Guangzhou will also bring about significant changes, in particular for connectivity with the mainland.
Advocates hope the 50km bridge connecting the three Pearl River Delta cities will benefit both Hong Kong and the mainland by improving economic access.
It is part of a broader initiative – known as the Greater Bay Area plan – to integrate Hong Kong and mainland cities and make them as competitive as bay areas around the world. However, construction on the bridge has been plagued by delays, ballooning costs and the death of nine workers.
The HK$84.4 billion high-speed railway to link up with the mainland system at the border is planned to provide fast access between Hong Kong and Guangzhou for 100,000 passengers a day, but it too is over budget and behind schedule.