Last days of jumbos in Hong Kong

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The Independent Online
HORDES OF Hong Kong people are crowding around Kai Tak airport, the last remaining major airport in the world situated in the heart of a city. Because of its intimate proximity to everyday lives, the airport, which moves to a new site on 6 July, is a place which inspires considerable affection, even a sense of wonder.

For those who pass it, there is nothing like the thrill of travelling down a road with a jumbo jet coasting to land seemingly inches above your head. Of course they are not that close, but they appear to be.

Pilots cannot land their aircraft at Kai Tak without special training. They have to master one of the tightest landing turns in the world in order to take their machines at a sharp 47-degree angle onto the final descent path, which starts just beyond a housing estate and ends off a strip of reclaimed land jutting out into the harbour.

The pilots like to joke that the planes help to dry the washing strung out on the lines poking out of the housing estates because the turbulence from the planes causes the clothes to sway gently in the breeze.

As for the passengers and the hordes of friends and relatives who flock to the airport to greet and send off passengers, they enjoy the convenience of Kai Tak's central location.

Unlike most airports, users are not held hostage to the high prices for refreshments. They just cross the road and visit the warrens full of restaurants and small cafes and which offer much more lively fare than the average airport.

Kai Tak was named - appropriately in property-obsessed Hong Kong - after the two property developers. Starting life as an airfield for daredevil aviation enthusiasts and as a base for occasional RAF flights, it slowly grew into one of the world's biggest international airports.

The runway steadily extended further into the sea and the crowds cramming the airport were so large that by 1985 the complex had reached its capacity.

But stuck in the middle of town, as it was, room for expansion was limited. So the decision was taken to create a new site on the tip of a remote island which would be extended by a massive land-fill project. That project is now complete and it will no doubt create a more efficient, state-of- the-art airport.

But it will also mean the end of an era not just for those taking planes but for the many Hong Kong people who used to climb to the top of the crumbling tenements in Kowloon City, where the airport is situated, to get a fantastic view of the planes at close range.

Some shops in the area offered visits to the rooftops as one of the main shopping attractions, gambling on the hope that plane spotters would buy something on the way down.

A great many other Hong Kong people have another strong reason to feel nostalgic about the loss of the airport. Until a decade ago the departure hall was filled with school students diligently doing their homework. No one had invited them there, but the good lighting and air conditioning lured these students from poor families, living in cramped and noisy flats. The airport was far from ideal as a study centre but infinitely preferable to their homes.

Finally the authorities decided the children had to go. They were worried that they were giving Hong Kong a bad image.

Strangely, the bureaucrats could not see that the determination and application of these children was giving Hong Kong the best possible image. They demonstrated the will to succeed despite poor circumstances and showed the sense of initiative and opportunism which has made the place flourish.

The people of Hong Kong will have to trek to the island of Chek Lap Kok, north of Lantau, to reach their new airport. Designed by British architects Foster and Partners, it will be the world's largest airport, handling about 35 million passengers a year. It will become operational on 6 July.

The crowds packing into Kai Tak for a last look are expected to peak this weekend. Thanks to the spirit of entrepreneurship which permeates Hong Kong there will be plenty of souvenir offers and special events at nearby eating places to ensure that the last buck is made out of Kai Tak.