Hong Kong is a city of almost preternatural expansion; a metropolis hemmed in on all sides by mountains and sea, that is exploding, always and forever upwards. It was with a peculiar sense of displacement then, that on my last visit I would find myself wandering the bare, fire-blackened corridors of a large abandoned structure on the waterfront… a structure that itself rose like a single tree stump from a barren plain.
The glittering towers of Hong Kong’s financial and commercial quarters rose in the distance, fading into blue mist against the purple clouds of mountains far beyond – but here and all about us on the empty tarmac, there was not a soul in sight.
Hong Kong International Airport – its sleek, modern terminal designed by the semi-legendary architect Sir Norman Foster, he of Gherkin and New World Order fame – was opened in 1998 and now serves almost 60 million passengers in a year. Before its inauguration however, Hong Kong was reached solely by a smaller facility 30km over to the east: the old Kai Tak Airport.
Closed in the same year that the new terminals opened, Kai Tak had served the city since 1925. A cruise port now functions from the site of the former runway, which extends into the waters of Victoria Harbour; a design feature that made for difficult landings and earned the facility a ranking of 6th most dangerous airport in the world… at least according to The History Channel’s 2010 program, Most Extreme Airports.
Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak airfield looks all but abandoned now. A chain-link fence marks the perimeter of the former runway, while entry roads are punctuated with traffic barriers and security huts. To reach the fire station on the waterfront, we had needed to cross a wide expanse of tarmac with no hope of cover or concealment.
For all the apparent show of security however, getting past the guards was a breeze… and soon enough I was stood at the dockside with my Hong Kong explorer buddies, Airin, Andrew and Rem, looking out across a corner of Victoria Harbour towards our target.
“A burnt-down fire station,” Airin was saying. “It’s pretty ironic, when you think about it.”
And she was right, of course – it was spectacularly ironic.
The Old Kai Tak Fire Station
The fire station at Kai Tak was once an integral part of Kai Tak Airport; but when the airport relocated to Chek Lap Kok in 1998, this station too was left without a purpose. Ten years later, a fire broke out that gutted the interior and pushed the building beyond any hope for repurposing.
The building was formed from two concrete blocks, sandwiched around an engine hall which opened onto the forecourt at either end. What doors there might once have been had long since disappeared, and we walked unhindered straight into the former vehicle bay.
Here a canopy of metal beams hung low across the opening, drooped and warping, twisted and bent like rubber from some unimaginable heat. For a while we explored the ground floor; through store rooms and corridors blackened by soot, past piles of charred boots, broken telephones and scattered office furniture.
While much of the debris bore the scars of the fire, other items were cleaner and more deliberately placed – the telltale leftovers from photo shoots in this seemingly post-apocalyptic place. Chairs sat looking out across the water; the stubs of used candles set like crooked teeth along a low wall daubed in colourful graffiti.
One of my friends tried climbing onto the low-hanging roof of the central cavern – but the brittle metal had been left to erode for too long, and its panels fractured into rusted splinters. I wondered what was keeping it from falling down on our heads.
We climbed a staircase on the north side, that rose and wound back upon itself into a series of soot-stained chambers. From here a narrow corridor connected one hemisphere to the other, little more than a gantry sheathed in corrugated metal.
As we passed through the tube the distressed metal formed a kind of illusion; the ribbed, rusted iron around us seeming to twist and turn with the changing perspective. On either side, looking out the porthole windows, the collapsed roof fell away beneath us into a churning mess of metal waves.
For all its seeming instability however, the walkway was firm underfoot as we crossed to the south side of the fire station.
It was here that we met company.
Two young girls stalked the hallway dressed in suits of battle armour, their hair tied up in colourful pigtails. Both carried what appeared to be futuristic guns, and for just the briefest moment I felt a bizarre sense of confusion; the distinct otherness of this ruined place – the warped metal, the post-human debris – having already set the stage for a powerful image of temporal displacement. Even the steel forest of downtown Hong Kong, glinting dull in grey and blue across the water, did little to null this atmosphere of future-decay.
The group were shooting photos in what had been the men’s toilets at this point, and barely seemed to notice us. When they moved on, hunting new locations, I took a look at the damage for myself.
There was something almost metaphysical about the decay in this area, the fabric of the building subjected to such incredible heat that even metal pipes had been disfigured, suspended in mid-melt like one of Dalí’s clocks.
No wonder the site proved quite so popular with cosplayers and their attendant photographers. The dilapidation at this place went beyond mere decay – the natural processes of time and nature – but rather suggested a visual challenge to the very physical rules we take for granted. Less the world without us, and more a twisted mirror of our own.
Our party’s eyes were set on the tower though, and soon we’d left the costumiers several floors behind – but we still heard their voices drifting up, shrill against the distant hum of Kowloon, the occasional blast of a ship’s horn out in the harbour. Their childlike giggles were punctuated by the voices of photographers, by the click and flash of images in birth.
We reached the roof by way of a final staircase, but from there the steps up to the watchtower were sealed; instead we climbed the pipes, a series of thick metal tubes attached to the outside of the tower that brought us up and over the edge, into the lookout point itself.
The tower commanded a perfect view out over the runway and the airport grounds; we looked across the bay, the docks, the warehouses and beyond that at a wall of blue and silver, the city nestling in the shadow of the mountains.
Hong Kong is not a place one might associate with ruins, but a city’s growth cannot be charted in contemporary build alone. Instead the new is built upon the old, and metrics by which we might explain a place such as Hong Kong – GDP, population density, land value – determine not the frequency of urban ruins, but rather the period of time for which they might be permitted to rest before rebirth.
This place in which we stood was not a dead zone, but a chrysalis; and by the time you’re reading this it might be gone.
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