To most adventurous travellers, wandering in the largely non-touristy Kowloon City is a bit of a romantic idea. You’ll not only see above your head fluttery laundry of the grassroots in the breeze, but also a perfect mix impossibilities: bean curd shops, Shanghai groceries, Thai restaurants, love motels, wreath florists, scattered skyscrapers and Kowloon’s next commercial hub a few streets away.
Literally meaning “nine dragons” in Cantonese (representing the nine peaks surrounding it), Kowloon City is named after the infamous, vice-ridden Kowloon Walled City, the former no-go area where some 30,000 people crammed into a few blocks, leaving it an ungoverned hotbed of brothels, casinos and triad activity. It wasn’t until 1994 that the site once thought to be the most densely populated place on Earth was torn down and turned into a park.
Residents love their vibrant hometown for its familial spirit and hyper-local vibe. Dubbed Hong Kong’s gastronomic heaven and little Thailand, it’s a popular spot for late-night munchies and Chinese desserts at cheap prices. It’s also a culturally and ethnically diverse community that accounts for almost 10 percent of the district’s population, compared to Hong Kong’s overall six percent.
Though Kowloon City is well served by a convenient fleet of buses and minibuses to and from other parts of the city, it remained a sleeping giant until about ten years ago.
With the height restrictions lifted after the city’s airport was relocated to Lantau’s Chek Lap Kok in 1998, the old town has begun to take off. Acquisition activities are soaring. Popping up in the neighbourhood are high-rise luxury apartments with price tags hovering around HK$9,000 according to Midland Realty, replacing the post-war four-storey historical shop houses on narrow streets.
Needless to say, the government’s recent plan to build an entirely new central business district at the old Kai Tak has galvanised the old town’s red-hot property market. The Kai Tak development project was highlighted by former chief executive Donald Tsang’s swansong Policy Address last October — with the ambitious aim to “energise Kowloon East” and boost the supply of the city’s much needed grade-A office space by 7 million square feet.
The 320-hectare airport site, in the heart of Kowloon East, is set to be transformed into a commercial hub comprising a new cruise terminal, offices, hotels, a sports hub, parks and housing sufficient for 86,000 residents by 2021. Plans were in place for a HK$12 billion eco-friendly monorail to link Kai Tak with the emerging East Kowloon hubs at Kowloon Bay and Kwun Tong, as well as the future Shatin to Central Link.
However, as property analysts reason, Kowloon City is still a few steps away from being the city’s next generation business hub. “To achieve this, we need to see appropriate commercial real estate clustering across Kowloon East and extensive gentrification works to complete its metamorphosis from an industrial district to a commercial centre,” theorises Gavin Morgan, deputy managing director and head of leasing with Jones Lang LaSalle.
“The district is pretty old,” says Cherry, Tsoi, a 16-year resident from To Kwa Wan, part of Kowloon City. “[Some of the old buildings] are not being well-taken care of and have become desolate. It’s kind of a waste of [land] resources.”
“New developments would help to revitalise the district and improve living standards for residents,” she adds.
Kowloon City has more than 1,000 buildings aged 50 years or above — the highest number of the city’s dilapidated housing total. Three months ago, three areas spanning 30 streets in Kowloon City have been identified as priority redevelopment sites.
The old town is awakening. Today, it’s not only a home to the city’s notorious partitioned flats and cage homes, but also an emerging hub for new luxury development.
Situated just off the old airport, The Latitude, a 40-storey residential project by Sun Hung Kai Properties, dwarfs all the tenement buildings near it. A few streets away is a wall of skyscrapers such as Grand Waterfront and Sky Tower.
Not to be left behind, the Chinachem Group released 39 units of its brand new 67-unit residential project Billionaire Avant in October. Prices there are expected to be in the neighbourhood of HK$7 million, or about HK$11,000 per square foot. Similarly, a government redevelopment project that involves 118 properties on Kowloon City Road and Sheung Heung Road could set a new record of HK$10,232 per square foot — the highest acquisition cost per square foot since 2008.
The area near the Kowloon City ferry pier has seen an influx of Chinese tourists, where luxury shops (and pharmacies mostly selling baby formula and diapers) have mushroomed lately, and could eventually draw investors to the revitalised area. “There [are] more coaches, chocolate and watch shops,” Tsoi says. Nevertheless, the long-time resident has a reason for loving colourful Kowloon City. “The district is not as polluted, hustling and congested as some of the other older districts like Sham Shui Po,” Tsoi says. “This allows for a more peaceful life.” At least for now.