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Kowloon: Beneath the banyans

Urban jungle, Kowloon

Amid the neon signs and rush hour traffic on Nathan Road, stand silent reminders of a time when Hong Kong’s streets echoed to the sound of horse-drawn carriages.

Sir Matthew Nathan is not widely remembered for his tenure (1904-1907) as Governor of the then-British Crown Colony. Armed with a military engineering background, Nathan dedicated much of his time to urban planning, with a penchant for infrastructure projects such as the Kowloon-Canton Railway.

His grandiose plans to widen and extend the main road running down the Kowloon peninsula was derided by critics as ‘Nathan’s Folly’ – from the seafront at its southern tip the tree-lined avenue led to a dead end, petering out in rice paddies barely a mile after it began.

But time would eventually prove Nathan’s detractors wrong. As Hong Kong went through an economic miracle in the postwar years, with Kowloon developing at a breakneck pace, his eponymous road was soon dubbed the ‘Golden Mile’.

Not all the land along it was developed for commercial purposes; a large patch of greenery on higher ground had long been occupied by Whitfield Barracks, first built in the 1890s for the British Indian garrisons. After the military moved elsewhere, the site was redeveloped and opened to the public in 1970 as Kowloon Park. A mosque – Hong Kong’s largest – stands sentinel on the southeast corner, a legacy of soldiers from the British Raj.

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Jostling for space above Haiphong Road

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Banyans on Nathan Road

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Seeking out light

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The kiss

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Shadow play

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Stained glass at St Andrew’s Church

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Forest in the city

In 1982, against the wishes of the park’s creators and the local Muslim community, the government approved a plan to carve into the side of the hill for a row of retail outlets along Nathan Road. The land was sold to a developer the following year, and work began on a 300-metre-long shopping strip now known as ‘Park Lane Shopper’s Boulevard’.

Two decades later the same treatment would be given to the grounds of the Former Marine Police Headquarters, only a few blocks to the south. While the building, a declared monument, was carefully restored and turned into a boutique hotel, the small hill it sat on was completely hollowed out for a den of luxury stores collectively branded ‘1881 Heritage’.

Today the complex is served by a confounding network of escalators, staircases and even an overhead bridge, in an artificial mock Victorian setting. During construction several majestic banyans were preserved, but only by enclosing them in giant concrete pots as excavation continued around and beneath them – leaving the trees suspended in mid-air. Sadly, for a city obsessed with shopping malls and pouring concrete wherever possible, it’s a small improvement.

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Bauhinia blakeana – Hong Kong’s floral symbol

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Offerings

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At the Heritage Discovery Centre, Kowloon Park

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The cast iron ‘Indian Balcony’ at Hullett House

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Once the Marine Police Headquarters, the building is now a boutique hotel

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Pleasure junk on Victoria Harbour

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Boarding the Star Ferry

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Back to the island

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. Sad when you think of how beautiful it could have been. From the perspectives of the like of us at least. For I do not doubt a vast majority of even other Asian visitors love the new development 🙂 Lovely post James. And a fantastic capture of light and shadows.

    December 9, 2013
    • Thank you, Madhu! It seems a miracle that these wondrous banyans still thrive in such a hostile environment. 🙂

      You’re right though, I’m resigned to the fact that the developers will always find an excuse to build more malls (even if we already have a ton) – and not just for the retail therapy of stressed-out locals, but also the throngs of visitors coming in from across the border.

      I personally detest what they did with ‘1881 Heritage’; with all the Christmas baubles and other decorations it was so tacky I had to put my camera down.

      December 9, 2013
  2. James, your photos bring back some nice memories of my visit to Hong Kong almost two years ago. I remember walking under those banyan trees and taking pictures of people while it was drizzling. To my right there stood the infamous Chungking Mansions packed with people from different places around the globe.

    As for ‘1881 Heritage’ I still remember vividly about that lone tree. It’s a good thing they spared its life, but does that reflect what the future might look like for the city? I hope not. Anyway, beautiful photos!

    December 9, 2013
    • I’m glad this reminded you of your trip, Bama. 🙂

      Funny how you brought up Chungking Mansions – even after all these years I still haven’t been inside. And despite its seedy reputation there has been a clean-up of sorts in the past couple of years… the building is said to have Hong Kong’s best curry and an underground food scene.

      I think there might be two or three of those “suspended banyans” at the mall; the rest of the trees on that hill were cut down and cleared.

      December 9, 2013
  3. Love how it’s the work of a Governor who’s not widely remembered who made it possible for a patch of peace amid what’s become such an urban jungle! My mind is still goggling at the poor banyans being turned into floating islands – and even more that they continue to thrive. Just tremendous. On the other hand, I’m saddened and continually amazed there always seems to be enough people to buy things to keep the malls going … surely at some point there will be more shops than can make a living?

    December 10, 2013
    • And only the traffic-choked avenue bears his name – I doubt that most of those who shop in the stores alongside know of its origin! I don’t see what was wrong with leaving the hill as it was… another public park would have been a welcome change. Shopping is akin to a national pastime here, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that we have one of the most materialistic societies in Asia, if not the world!

      December 10, 2013
  4. Great article and nice to read this article. i really enjoyed a lot on reading this article. thanks for sharing

    December 10, 2013
    • You’re welcome – glad you enjoyed it.

      December 10, 2013
  5. Does HK get into Charles Dickens’ like Christmas celebrations? –just thinking of the Victorian era. (Actually not whole of it great because of the Industrial Revolution caused great inequities in social class.)

    Nevertheless, Merry Christmas.

    December 13, 2013
    • I never thought of it that way… but given Hong Kong’s horrific social inequalities (with the highest Gini coefficient in the developed world) your comparison is spot on. Plus we have a worsening smog problem on our hands. With the city choked in a murky haze, it’s a lot like Victorian London.

      Merry Christmas to you too, Jean. 🙂

      December 13, 2013
  6. Hi James, now I know Nathan’s road name origin! i remember strolling down it and actually buying a bag there…The pictures are beautiful as usual 🙂

    December 14, 2013
    • Grazie Sophie! Most if not all of Hong Kong’s roads have interesting stories behind them – I even have a book from a local historian about this. 🙂

      December 15, 2013

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