Kowloon: Beneath the banyans
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.
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.