South China Morning Post,
Hong Kong SAR, People's Republic of China
Monday July 6 1998: Fond
Farewell To an Old Friend
by KEVIN SINCLAIR
Coming in from Saigon last week, the Cathay Pacific jumbo dipped its wing,
wrenched around on
its axis, steadied at the last second and sank for a routine landing at Kai Tak.
Suddenly, without warning, my eyes filled with tears. No more, I told myself.
Never again. This
will be my last landing on the ridiculous stretch of tarmac poking so incongruously 3,390 metres into
A landing which has allowed me, as the aircraft made its final right-hand
bank, to see past Mrs
Wong's flapping washing, so that I could almost glimpse into her kitchen and tell what's for dinner.
Instead of rushing home, I took time to stroll through the crowded arrivals
hall looking at the
expectant faces waiting for an aunt from Hefei, or a son home from college in Ohio, or a husband back
from a business trip to Frankfurt. Here you see a good slice of Hong Kong life. It's chaotic,
crowded, unpleasant, seemingly disorganised - yet, miraculously, somehow it works.
I struggled upstairs with my camera bag and suitcase. About 5,000 Filipinas
farewell to another 5,000 Filipinas around mountains of blue and pink containers of clothes
and gifts that surely could not fit into one aircraft.
Charges at the duty free shops were as outrageous as ever and in the departure
level bar the prices
for a glass of beer were almost as high as the volume of the Canto-pop booming from the
coin-operated music machine.
Here was Kai Tak in all its grubby glory.
For years, I had complained, moaned, whinged and protested about the airport.
It was too small and it
was inefficient. Pilots were concerned about the aerial approach and passengers lamented the road
transport access. The food was diabolical, the booze outrageously expensive, the facilities totally
inadequate, the toilets dirty, the roads crammed, the parking costly, the pick-up arrangements
medieval and the shopping a disgrace. The only good thing about Kai Tak was that it was right in the
centre of the city and . . . it worked.
A loyal Hong Konger would land in Singapore and almost rage with envy about
its glorious, spaciously
cool, high ceilinged cathedral to aviation. You would land back at Kai Tak, probably perched on
the tarmac half-way to Kwun Tong and a long bus ride to the terminal, where half the time the
elevators were not working, and you would huff and hump your carry-on bags along to immigration,
No more of that. Today, we've got a citadel to flying that can rival Changi.
And I don't like it one
bit. I've gone into mourning for the old Kai Tak which has for 30 years driven me to frustration and
Coming back from Saigon, I tried to work out how many landings I had made
at Kai Tak. During my
first couple of years, in the 1960s, there were few trips. In the 1970s, work and pleasure both took
me away frequently. In the 1980s, I was going to China two, three or four times a month, and almost
as often to Southeast Asian destinations. For the past 10 years, I have averaged at least three flights
I worked out I had made a minimum of 450 landings at Kai Tak. It's based
on 13 flights a year,
which is very conservative.
I've possibly made more touchdowns than some Cathay pilots. The most memorable
was in about
1976, coming back on Singapore Airlines from the Lion City. A typhoon was about to hit Hong Kong.
The big bird was rocking 'n' rolling as we came down through the murk, juddering, falling, bouncing
all over the sky.
I was not scared. Terrified, yes. Petrified, absolutely. Horrified, definitely.
with astonishing smoothness. We were down! Alive! The entire cabin joined in rousing clapping,
applause and whistles for the crew. Never did Kai Tak Immigration staff look more welcoming. They
don't smile? Who the hell cares?
For the past year (and checking my passport I find I have made 17 trips
since unification) Kai Tak
seems to have improved. The ban against smoking was a big help. In a back-handed way, so was the
reduction of traffic; being hit hard by the collapse of tourism meant fewer people crushing into the
limited space in the departure area. But there are still 3,100 flights a week taking off from that slim
stretch of tarmac to 100 global destinations.
Before that, you frequently had to play jump-the-bodies of travellers sitting
in clusters in the
middle of the floor because there were insufficient seats.
Since last July, arriving back was simple. Not being British, I was never
able to get a full ID card. Now,
armed with my Hong Kong Permanent Resident card, I am through Immigration like a whippet.
Then you get to wait for your bag; why is mine invariably last?
That gives me time to call my wife, office, friends and anyone else from
the courtesy phones, one of
the truly useful features of the airport and something I hope will be present at Chek Lap Kok. We've
got it down pat.
Through immigration, I call home. My wife gets in the car in Sha Tin, whizzes
through Tate's Cairn
Tunnel and takes about 17 minutes to get to the second floor waiting area in the Kai Tak car park,
an area ruled zealously by two deceptively kindly looking grandmothers. If you stop your car for a
second, apart from picking up a passenger, they descend on you with the same sort of attention that
Genghis Khan lavished on people he disliked.
Meanwhile, I would have found my bag, gone through customs, and walked
straight across to the
exit for hotel guest arrivals. Smartly turning right, I get the lift to the Regal Airport Hotel. Out at the
second floor and I am right in the car park pick-up zone.
In some ways, Kai Tak may have been a nightmare, but this was a system
that worked like a
dream. I've timed it carefully and my record from wheels touching down to opening a beer at home is
a remarkable 31 minutes. Goodbye to all that . . . the journey to Chek Lap Kok will take at least
triple the time.
Farewell to Kai Tak; it's like a death in the family, the last departure
of a cranky, irascible but
Editorial: 7 July 1998:
Farewell to Kai Tak
There can be no doubt: the closure of Kai Tak airport is the end of an
era for Hong Kong. From
the emotion aroused last night, it seemed close to rivalling the events of a year ago. Viewed with cool,
objective logic, this may appear strange. The lure of Kai Tak was not immediately evident to first-time
visitors to Hong Kong even after they had got over the nervous tension of coming in to land over the
roofs of Kowloon. It was a hot and humid place that dated from another age of air travel while the
people living on the ground below the flight path had to put up with noise levels that would have
caused a mass exodus in another city. When Kai Tak opened in 1924, a letter to the editor declared
that "Hong Kong with its surrounding hills is not suitable for flying" - 64 years later, a pilots' blacklist
labels the hair-raising approach and single, sea-girt runway as "critically deficient". That may hardly
seem the kind of history calculated to bring out families in their thousands to take a last look at the
underbelly of a huge jet swinging in to land over the tenement blocks.
Yet no airport in the world has inspired nostalgia as Kai Tak did last
night. The opening and closing of
airports in Europe or the United States are matter-of-fact by-products of progress. Other
airports have particular reputations - Athens for chaos, Singapore's Changi for order. But only Kai
Tak can claim such a particular affection even from those who had to live with its roar and block out
thoughts of what could happen if a plane crashed in one of the most densely populated areas in the
world. The extraordinary - and reassuring - thing is that, with aircraft movements every two minutes,
the airport's safety record over the decade was so good. The sheer audacity and improbability of the
place so perfectly captured the spirit of the city that Hong Kong will seem lost without it. Framed by the
black outline of Lion Rock, lapped by the sea, Kai Tak will live on in the memory of everyone who
ever used it or lived beside it. Chek Lap Kok is a modernistic marvel, but flying in and out of Hong
Kong will never be the same again.
Do you have any writings or memories you would like to share about Kai Tak? Either email me directly, or send your writings as a plain-text file attachment. Thanks in advance!
Farewell Kai Tak webmaster