Farewell Kai Tak
Writings on Kai Tak From Around the World

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong SAR, People's Republic of China
(copyrighted stories)

Monday  July 6  1998:  Fond Farewell To an Old Friend

                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
                Kowloon Bay.

                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 were bidding
                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,
                cursing wildly.

                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
                a month.

                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. Wheels touched
                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
                much-loved uncle.

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!

Andrew Abshier, DVM
Farewell Kai Tak webmaster