Published: 10:04, July 6, 2023 | Updated: 14:37, July 6, 2023
Remembering Kai Tak’s last day and Chek Lap Kok’s first
By Madeleine Fitzpatrick in Hong Kong

Photo exhibition evokes fond memories for Hong Kong people of a certain age

Rooftop and Plane, Greg Girard, 1989. (PHOTO COURTESY OF BLUE LOTUS GALLERY)

Many of us of a certain generation have a cherished memory of landing at Kai Tak airport. It may be the way the plane banked so that, if you were sitting on the right side of the aircraft, you could see into Kowloon City residents’ living rooms. The way the sight of the harbor, and humidity, signaled you were home. Or the way the airport was so improbably situated in the middle of the city, just 15 minutes from the downtown area.

While landing at Chek Lap Kok may not be half as dramatic, the current Hong Kong International Airport, which came into operation on this day 25 years ago, is equally breathtaking in its scope and ambition.

It was my privilege, as a teenage intern with Hong Kong’s Airport Authority, to witness the first plane land and first passengers arrive at the brand-new terminal, just after 6:30 am on July 6, 1998.

The state-of-the-art, Norman Foster-designed building is something to be proud of: a cathedral among airports — all gleaming metal and glass, with natural light entering from every side. A world-class airport for a world-class city.

The first commercial flight to land at Chek Lap Kok, Cathay Pacific CX889 from New York touched down at 6:27 am on July 6, 1998. (PHOTO COURTESY OF MADELEINE FITZPATRICK)

Madeleine Fitzpatrick (pink shirt), or Madeleine Bosher as she was then, with Airport Authority colleagues, working the overnight shift ahead of the opening of the new Hong Kong International Airport. (PHOTO COURTESY OF MADELEINE FITZPATRICK)

Kai Tak was poky and low-ceilinged by contrast, with lamentably paltry dining options (my parents, brother and I invariably went for fish-ball noodle soup). Then there was the unusual arrivals hall, where you descended a long ramp into the massed throng — all eyes on you — feeling like a very self-conscious model on a catwalk.

The landing was world-famous for the fact that planes roared right over the residential buildings of Kowloon City — low enough that in many of the photographs in the current Blue Lotus Gallery exhibition, ‘Goodbye Kai Tak and Thank You’, the aircraft look like they’ve been added with Photoshop. Some images resemble stills from a disaster movie.

The exhibition’s title is the farewell utterance of Richard Siegel, then-director of civil aviation, who turned the lights out at Kai Tak at 1:16 am on July 6, 1998.

View of Kowloon Bay with Departing Singapore Airlines 707, Greg Girard, 1975. (PHOTO COURTESY OF BLUE LOTUS GALLERY)

Cathay Pacific 747-300 Passing Kowloon Walled City, Greg Girard, 1989. (PHOTO COURTESY OF BLUE LOTUS GALLERY)

Because of the Kowloon hills, the “Kai Tak Heart Attack” — as the landing maneuver was affectionately known — uniquely involved a 47-degree turn below 500 feet. The airport’s short runway jutted out into the South China Sea, and planes did occasionally end up in the harbor.

Sarah Greene, Blue Lotus’ founder, came to Hong Kong in 2003, and never got to experience landing at Kai Tak. Working in London in the ’90s, she says, “People flying into Hong Kong were talking about how cool the landing was. Everyone who’d been to Hong Kong — that was one of the things they loved to talk about.”

Prime Time of the Dragon City, Birdy Chu, 1998. (PHOTO COURTESY OF BLUE LOTUS GALLERY)

Kai Tak Airport Runway and Kwun Tong Breakwater, Greg Girard, 1988. (PHOTO COURTESY OF BLUE LOTUS GALLERY)

Arriving in 1974 at the age of 18, Canadian photographer Greg Girard has gone on record saying he instantly fell for Hong Kong. Girard documented the nocturnal demimonde of the 1970s and ’80s as well as the since-demolished Kowloon Walled City, in captivating photo essays that would become the books HK:PM (2017) and City of Darkness Revisited (2014).

The photographer actually stumbled on Kowloon Walled City while shooting planes landing at Kai Tak. In comments shared with Blue Lotus, Girard describes the blase attitude of passengers and residents habituated to the singular airport and its dramatic flight path: “I did find its proximity to the city absolutely astonishing, and never got over the thrill of flying in and out. As with so much in Hong Kong back then, in the 1980s at least, it seemed there was a world-weary kind of indifference to what, for an outsider, made the place so extraordinary.”

Kai Tak Airport View from Jat's Incline, Greg Girard, 1992. (PHOTO COURTESY OF BLUE LOTUS GALLERY)

The Last Tribute, Birdy Chu, 1998. (PHOTO COURTESY OF BLUE LOTUS GALLERY)

Girard’s images in the exhibition include 1989 views of a Cathay Pacific aircraft, with its vintage green livery, flying beneath the hill line, and the infamous, giant Marlboro billboard: the first thing arriving passengers would see on the road out of Kai Tak. A gorgeous black-and-white from 1977 captures the romance of air travel in an earlier, much-less-crowded time.

The exhibition’s other contributor is local artist Birdy Chu, whose interest in photographing the area around Kai Tak was sparked when he was assigned by the Hong Kong Commercial Daily to cover the airport’s final day of operation.

Memories of a Dog, Birdy Chu, 1998. (PHOTO COURTESY OF BLUE LOTUS GALLERY)

Inside Kai Tak Airport, Greg Girard, 1977. (PHOTO COURTESY OF BLUE LOTUS GALLERY)

The Last Farewell, Birdy Chu, 1998. (PHOTO COURTESY OF BLUE LOTUS GALLERY)

In an image showing Kowloon City in its 1990s heyday, Chu has captured the decisive moment when a Japan Airlines plane was framed by residential buildings (laundry hanging outside in classic style) and neon signs, under the scorching, summer sun.

One corner of the gallery is dedicated to images by Chu showing how little bothered those living under the flight path were by the noise. In one, six men playing Chinese chess in a park exude nonchalance, a jumbo jet hanging crazily above them. In another, a stray dog sleeps on the ground, insensible to the plane flying past.

Looking at these images a quarter of a century on, it’s startling that any of us took Kai Tak for granted.

If you go

‘Goodbye Kai Tak and Thank You’

Dates: Through July 30

Venue: Blue Lotus Gallery, G/F, 28 Pound Lane, Sheung Wan

bluelotus-gallery.com/new-events

Contact the writer at madeleine@chinadailyhk.com