Comment & Analysis Community & Education

Prophets and losses: A 27 year stalemate at Kai Tak, but a Beijing museum is instantly approved

To the Kai Tak Community Centre on Christmas Day for a spot of dancing. The Kai Tak Community Centre is an odd place, because while there is certainly a centre there is no sign of the community which it might be supposed to serve. Suppose you are driving down Prince Edward Road East between the former Airport Hotel and the place where the Kai Tak Airport terminal used to be.

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Kai Tak Community Hall. Photo: Googlemaps.

A bit further on the road – which is six to eight lanes wide at this point, separates, on the left, an old piece of North Kowloon from, on the right, a desert which used to be part of the old airport. The exception to the desert is a large bureaucratic building called the Trade and Industry Tower. I presume this is the home of the department of the same name. We may not have industry any more but industry is still doing its bit as a source of gainful employment for civil servants. According to the 1880 Civil Service Commission Britain at the time ran the largest empire the world had ever seen and its own affairs with some 3,000 civil servants.

The Trade and Industry Tower looks as if it could accommodate all of them. The Kai Tak Community Centre is built into the bottom of the Trade and Industry Tower. You can stand on the centre’s roof (this is perfectly legal – it’s a sort of sitting out area) and look around. Behind you is the road. Next to you is the tower. Everything else is the desert which was formerly occupied by some of the less exciting parts of the old airport.

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A photo taken on August 13, 2009 shows a derelict building through a security fence on the site of the old Kai Tak airport. Photo: Ed Jones/AFP.

Now some history. A master plan for a replacement airport was first produced in 1983. It was shelved, but revived in 1989, when the Governor announced that the replacement would definitely be in Chek Lap Kok. That means that 27 years ago the relevant government departments knew, or should have known, that at about 1997 (the project suffered the usual delays so it turned out to be 1998) a huge swathe of land, formerly occupied by the airport, would become available for other purposes.

Yet only now – there was an auction the other week – are segments of this huge resource being auctioned off to mainland developers for pleasantly absurd prices. People who were in kindergarten when the lands people knew, or should have known, exactly when the old airport was to close, are now finishing their PhD theses and it has taken our civil service that long to solve a problem of which they had ten years notice.

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People watch a cargo aeroplane land at Hong Kong’s Kai Tak airport on the final day of it’s opening 05 July, 1998. Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP.

This is not an isolated example. In 1986 a company was given the right to run the Eastern Harbour Tunnel for 30 years. The 30 years expired in the year just finished and the tunnel reverted to government control and ownership. Naturally a number of suggestions were made for revising the toll arrangements, with a view to redistributing some of the traffic which clogs the oldest tunnel. Our transport wizards then turned around and said that the government had decided to commission a consultancy study of the matter. This will take two years. So inured have we become to this sort of thing that nobody asked why, if a consultancy study lasting two years was needed, it could not have been ordered two years before the matter came up. Something which has been – one hopes – in the relevant diaries for three decades should not come as a surprise. But it does.

This makes a dramatic contrast with the speed that our leaders can display when they want to. While the tunnel consultants are still pondering, for example, work will begin on the Palace Replica Museum, which was apparently only first thought of a month or two ago. The Palace replica, a sort of Disney castle for history buffs, will be finished before the last bits of the Kai Tak Airport site have been disposed of. Possible hold-ups in the Finance Committee have been avoided by persuading the Jockey Club to cough up.

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Chief Secretary Carrie Lam tours the Palace Museum Learning Centre in Beijing. Photo: GovHK.

This is an interesting innovation. I have always been a bit underwhelmed by the Jockey Club’s charitable activities. If given a monopoly, enforced by the police, of an addictive vice I would give generously to charities too. But at least the club did traditionally give to real charities which were helping the needy.

Earlier this year it was announced that the club would be contributing to the construction of a local branch of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. In this palace of learning, the University will do what Schools of Business do, which is to hawk MBAs and other professional programmes to the great profit of the university and the students who take them. There is nothing charitable about “business education”. It is something which comparatively rich people get involved in to get richer. Now the Jockey Club is proposing to put its hooves in the Replica Palace project, which to many eyes looks less like a public facility than a festering heap of nationalist propaganda. I wonder if the club has considered the PR drawbacks of being seen as the organisation to which the government turns when it wishes to launch a dubious project without undergoing the scrutiny of the legislature. Neigh.

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Prophets and losses: A 27 year stalemate at Kai Tak, but a Beijing museum is instantly approved