Hong Kong’s famous Kai Tak airport: a fan’s photo gallery

The old airport closed in 1998, but everyone who flew into Kai Tak can remember the thrilling descent through Kowloon’s buildings. Daryl Chapman shares his shots taken from the rooftops and a helicopter

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 August, 2016, 5:32pm
UPDATED : Friday, 19 August, 2016, 9:36am

Pilots and airline passengers greeted the sight of Hong Kong’s old airport with a mix of excitement and wonder as they made the dramatic descent onto the tarmac at Kai Tak. It was also thrilling to watch from the ground, as aircraft made a low approach over the rooftops of Kowloon’s densely packed streets. The technically challenging landing in the heart of the city offered unique photo opportunities.

Kai Tak was a popular hang-out for amateur photographers, including Briton Daryl Chapman, who took “thousands” of images there. The English teacher, who also snaps supercars, used to visit Kai Tak for plane spotting and took his first photos in 1992 after borrowing his father’s camera. He spent most weekends there until the airport closed in 1998.

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A number of viewing points were popular, Chapman recalls, and a favourite was the rooftop of the airport’s multistorey car park, which had a panorama of the entire runway.

“There would always be somebody up there, whether they were plane spotting, randomly passing by, or a tourist,” he says, “but it was only good in the mornings. In the afternoon, the light would be in your face.”

“So there’s a really old public housing estate, Chun Seen Mei Chuen [in To Kwa Wan]. It’s still there today. That was the best place in the afternoon when planes were landing over the city. You’d go up the staircase at the back. It was literally like a viewing deck; you could see the planes just coming round the corner.”

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Kwun Tong ferry pier was a prime location to watch planes coming in to land from the water, while a pier in To Kwa Wan, on the other side of the runway, was a good spot for afternoons.

Among the aircraft he’s snapped over the years, the arrival of Concorde, decommissioned in 2003, was always a welcome sight. “It came in once or twice a year, and it was amazing.”

But whatever the aircraft, it was the approach that made Kai Tak so special for plane photography, and that realisation didn’t sink in until after the airport closed.

“When you talk to other people, they say ‘oh, you’re so lucky you got a chance to be there’.”

Chapman is still a keen aircraft photographer but says Chek Lap Kok airport cannot compete with the thrill of Kai Tak, “because the location is not as interesting. The difference is, the new airport has so many new planes, so many new airlines; there is so much more traffic.

“I’m sure if you asked [spotters] if they would like the old airport open again, most would say ‘yes’, even if you cut the traffic by 90 per cent. I’d rather take photos of 10 per cent of traffic there than the other 90 per cent at the new airport.”

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A particularly iconic shot he captured was of a Cathay Pacific Boeing 747-300 passing the end of a street in Kowloon City. The image has been used in travel and logistics books, and publications by Rolls-Royce and Cathay’s parent company Swire Group, among others. Reproductions are also on sale in various shops across the city.

“That was not something I planned,” he says. “In fact I only went to that spot once to take photographs, and only got three or four planes framed between the buildings. So it was very lucky.

“I often receive e-mails about this photo... even via my car photography page on Facebook. Just last week I helped a friend with a signed copy of it for his friend in Brazil.”

He has also been alerted to unauthorised use of the photo. “It’s been found at various locations, including a shopping mall at Kai Tak. They did ask for the price to use it, then went silent. [Instead of paying] they just recreated the photo and made a big mural on the wall. It has also been found for sale in Stanley Market, a nasty black-and-white, low-resolution version of it.”

Chapman’s photo galleries of planes and supercars can be viewed at flickr.com/photos/darylchapman