Friday, August 29, 2008

The Gates of Kai Tak: Hong Kong, China, and the World

HONG KONG — A black flight status switching board used to dominate the only terminal at Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak International Airport. It was a popular spot for family pictures, where relatives tuned out the flipping sounds of the board that radiated throughout the terminal, hoping for one last snapshot before they would be an ocean apart.

Since Kai Tak was the sole airport to serve a city of six million, almost all residents were familiar with that departure board. From the time it opened in 1925 until it was replaced in 1998 by Chep Lap Kok Airport, Kai Tak was the point of goodbye, the physical line between the politically uncertain pre-1997 Hong Kong and some place else.

To follow Kai Tak’s story is to follow an important part of modern Hong Kong’s narrative, as well as the former colony’s complicated relationship with China.

Though I grew up and went to school near the airport, the planes and their noisy engines never bothered me. There was something magical about seeing a 747 fly right past my fifth grade classroom window. It was a nail-biting experience to watch jumbo jets make their last, sharp right turns just before landing. And the planes flew low—some felt dangerously low—at no more than 100 feet above rooftops during the last few moments of flight. Passengers often said they could see television screens flickering or residents playing mahjong from their cabin windows.

Apartment buildings and vibrant communities developed around the airport in its 73-year life span. Kai Tak and everything that came with it—the planes and the noise—were absorbed by the neighborhood. For the residents, Kai Tak even became a kind of hang out. Young men from nearby housing developments climbed up hills to get a better view of planes taking off and landing. Young couples started their dates at neighborhood dessert shops and ended them near the airport fence where they could see 747s revving their engines just feet away.

"I want to study in America and go to Disneyland," says one of the characters in the recently released Hong Kong film Lao Gang Zheng Zhuan. She stands along the fence at Kai Tak with her boyfriend, awed by a jumbo jet that has just flown above them. It is a "feel good" movie that aims to remind people how much Hong Kong has progressed—mostly for the better. While the film is probably not the most objective narration of Hong Kong’s recent history, it does well to capture the local fascination with Kai Tak.

"Think Berlin," James Watson, my former advisor and professor of Chinese culture and society at Harvard University, told me, referring to the city’s Tempelhof Airport where the Berlin airlift took place from 1948 to 1949. "Or the movie Casablanca—there is a certain ‘take me away’ feeling."

Before the 1990s, when extensive urban development in the outlying areas and islands began, Hong Kong suffered from geographical compactness. Though the city’s total size is about 400 square miles, most of its residents lived on only eight percent of the land in the post-war decades. Growing up in the 1980s, I often wished that the planes that flew so low over the crowded streets and alleyways could take me with them.

There was also a political dimension to Kai Tak: the realities of the Cold War. Hong Kong was surrounded by water on three sides, and to the north was revolutionary China. While there was no evidence that mainland authorities ever planned to take back British Hong Kong by force, the horrific tales that locals told each other about China’s political upheavals, the occasional tortured dead bodies that flowed downriver from the mainland, and the violent and communist-inspired anti-colonial riots of 1967 made many residents uneasy about Hong Kong’s geo-political situation.

Kai Tak, then, came to symbolize a place where escape from chaos became possible. When the British and Chinese governments announced in 1984 that Hong Kong would be returned to China in 1997, many middle class families took to the airport. After the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, Hong Kongers’ confidence in the Chinese government plummeted; from 1984 to 1992, more than 100,000 left the colony, many of whom were professionals essential to Hong Kong’s future economic growth.

Hong Kong Chinese settled most often in Australia, Europe, and North America to get "passport insurance policies." (California, following the Chinese migration tradition, became a top destination.) Should Hong Kong fall into political or economic turmoil under Chinese rule, they would always have a safe home overseas as citizens of western countries.

Almost all of these émigrés began their journeys right under Kai Tak’s iconic black flipping board. They, as did my family, took pictures in that limbo between uncertain Hong Kong and some place else.

In 1992, at the height of the exodus, I managed to be among the 60,000 Hong Kongers who left that year alone. At least for me, then, Kai Tak became more than just an imaginative conduit to some place else.

This past week, sixteen years after I left, I booked a room at the Regal Oriental, a once bustling airport hotel, directly across from the Kai Tak grounds. The planes are no where to be seen, the roars of engines just old tales. The taxiing grounds are being detoxified and weeds grow all over the runway, which still points firmly toward the South China Sea.

"It’s not there anymore, you know," one security guard at a nearby apartment building told me as I tried to get to the roof top for a good shot of old Kai Tak. He seemed quite surprised that I even cared about the place. A new airport now sits on an outlying island, so few Hong Kong residents share my fascination with planes these days.

More than that has changed, though. In a geo-political sense, China, freshly minted as an Olympic host, is now a different place: a different world with a different dream. Many of the Hong Kong residents who left years ago have since returned, banking on the new prospects that come with being part of China. But most still hold on to their foreign passports, ready to go some place else again should the cycle of history necessitate another move.

But for those who can remember it, the familiar sound of Kai Tak’s old flipping board runs deep: a local memory that shines light on a small piece of world history.

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