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Before 1998, the vertiginous landings at Kai Tak Airport brought thrills to a city with economic prosperity and relative freedom. A new exhibit tries to recapture that era

Flying into Hong Kong in the 1980s, Canadian photographer Greg Girard never tired of the thrill of arriving at Kai Tak Airport.

Often described as one of the most dangerous approaches in the world, planes landing on the small runway jutting out into Victoria Harbour first had to fly over the densely packed neighbourhoods of Kowloon, seemingly skimming the tops of high-rise apartment blocks.

Mr. Girard called the airport’s proximity to the city “absolutely astonishing,” all the more so because most Hong Kongers didn’t really seem to think so. “There was a world-weary kind of indifference to what, for an outsider, made the place so extraordinary.”

Kai Tak was closed 25 years ago, on July 6, 1998, almost a year after control of Hong Kong had passed from Britain to China. It was replaced by the far larger Hong Kong International Airport (HKG), built on reclaimed land off the coast of Lantau Island, about 40 kilometres from the old airport, which has since been transformed into a cruise terminal.

HKG would become one of the world’s busiest airports, but older Hong Kongers look back fondly on Kai Tak. It looked more or less like any other airport of its day, but it was slightly less sterile than modern ones. It offered many their first taste of international travel and features in iconic movies such as Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express, which can help obfuscate memories of the occasionally heart-stopping moments they had on approach.

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The Kai Tak runway and Kwun Tong breakwater in 1988. Reaching the runway required a sharp turn just a few hundred feet above Kowloon.Greg Girard

For pilots, landing at Kai Tak is hard to forget. Not only was the airport right next to downtown Kowloon, but a direct route to the runway was cut off by nearby Lion Rock Hill, which meant planes had to carry out a 45-degree turn below 500 feet, “literally flying between the high-rise buildings,” according to retired Cathay Pacific captain Russell Davie.

“It was quite exciting, taking a big jet into an airport like that,” he told The Globe and Mail. “We got to do it quite a lot as a local carrier. You formed technique and learned every time you did it. But for less experienced pilots, it could be quite a challenge.”

Kai Tak started out as an RAF landing strip, built on a vacant lot reclaimed from the waters by a failed business venture. It evolved with the city, becoming a full-fledged commercial airport as Hong Kong was growing in the 1950s and 60s. Gradually, though, the location started to look less and less like a good choice.

Mr. Davie said British Airways colleagues told him they would barely get any rest on flights to Hong Kong, so stressed were they about the final approach. Below a certain point, there was no electronic guidance or navigation, so pilots had to carry out the final turn manually, “looking out the window basically.” This made Kai Tak one of the few airports where pilots had to watch someone else carry out a landing before being allowed to do so themselves.

The images this approach produced were often incredible: huge Boeing 747s passing over Hong Kong streets covered in neon signs or seemingly just above the heads of tourists at Victoria Harbour.

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A group stops for pictures of the planes in 1998. The previous summer, Britain had ceded this former colony to mainland China, which built a new airport 40 kilometres away.Birdy Chu

Greg Girard spent years documenting the airport and Kowloon, where locals saw the planes with a ‘world-weary kind of indifference to what, for an outsider, made the place so extraordinary.’ Greg Girard
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For many in Hong Kong, Kai Tak embodies an era of relative freedom and economic prosperity.Birdy Chu

Mr. Girard said he spent years photographing planes around Kai Tak and exploring the neighbourhoods underneath the flight path. This also brought him to the Kowloon Walled City for the first time, the notorious slum that housed about 50,000 people before it was torn down in 1994 and was the subject of Mr. Girard’s first photobook.

Throughout July, Hong Kong’s Blue Lotus Gallery is exhibiting images of Kai Tak taken by Mr. Girard and Birdy Chu, a Hong Kong photographer. Gallery founder Sarah Greene said she hoped the show could pay tribute “to the airport’s legacy and its impact on Hong Kong’s cultural identity.”

Today, Kai Tak is indelibly tied for many Hong Kongers to its last decade, the boom period of the 1990s, when the city’s economy really took off. Hong Kong in those days was a scruffier, scrappier (and, it must be said, more dangerous) city than it would become, but also perhaps more optimistic, even after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre dampened enthusiasm for rule by Beijing. Many maintained hope the city would continue to thrive with its limited autonomy.

In turn, HKG, Kai Tak’s successor, may be said to symbolize the first two decades of this millennium, when Hong Kong enjoyed great economic success but also began to bristle more at Beijing’s authority. In 2019, during pro-democracy protests, the airport was effectively shut down for several days.

The following year, tough quarantine measures brought in as part of China’s “zero COVID” approach decimated passenger numbers. In 2021, HKG handled about 112,000 passengers a month, down from almost six million in 2019. This April, the airport saw about 3.1 million passengers; by way of comparison, about 4.6 million passed through Singapore’s Changi Airport.

Changi was a major beneficiary of pandemic restrictions, with many airlines shifting their routes to that airport or adopting Singapore as their Asia hub. About a third of the 90 airlines that flew to Hong Kong prior to the pandemic no longer do so, and the International Air Transport Association has estimated it may take until 2027 for HKG to get back to prepandemic passenger levels.

Mr. Davie was bullish about the airport’s potential, however, saying one should “never underestimate Hong Kong. It always bounces back.”

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