Bringing a River Back to Life

The Kai Tak River near Nga Tsin Wai Village

Wallace Chang still remembers how disgusting the Kai Tak River was when he was a child living near its banks in the 1970s. “The water was in between grey and black and it flowed very slowly, almost stagnant,” he recalls.

That didn’t stop him and his friends from going near. “We didn’t have a playground nearby so we played on the pipes that ran across the river and tried not to fall in. It was a challenge.”

It wasn’t always that way. Originally, the Kai Tak River, which runs from the Kowloon Hills to Victoria Harbour, by way of the old Kai Tak Airport, was a country stream known as the Long Jin River. During World War II, however, the Japanese Army converted it into a 2.4-kilometre drainage canal. As fields gave way to factories and squatter villages in the 1960s and 70s, the river became an open-air sewer as waste was illegally dumped into its water.

By the 1980s, the river was so polluted that passengers arriving at the airport often remarked on the foul smell. According to an old story, the comedian Bob Hope once arrived, stepped off the plane and asked what the horrible stench was. A friend informed him it was sewage. “Yes I know, but what have they done to it?” Hope replied.

Chang never did fall in the river’s foul water. He grew up to become an associate professor of architecture at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The river changed, too. After the factories along its banks closed in the 1990s and the government cracked down on illegal dumping, the water became significantly cleaner. Fish returned and so did the birds that eat them.

But complaints about the river’s smell in the 1980s had already kick-started the machinery of Hong Kong’s government bureaucracy. In the late 1990s, plans were made to cover the river. Conservationists lobbied the government to save the river, drawing support from neighbourhood residents. They eventually convinced the government to keep most of it uncovered.

Now the question is: what next?

“The Kai Tak River is a rare heritage,” says Peter Li, policy director of the Conservancy Association, which fought to keep the river uncovered. Not only is it one of the few pieces of Japanese-built infrastructure in Hong Kong, it links the old airport — now the site of a vast redevelopment project — with historic villages, temples, parks and neighbourhoods further inland.

Using the river to knit them together is key to successfully restoring the river, says Chang. “People still think of it as the backside of the neighbourhood. We need to get them to face the river.”

The government seems to be on the same page. “Our vision is to build Kai Tak River as an attractive green river corridor through urban areas, which will provide space for leisure and public activities serving the community while meeting the need for flood protection,” says a spokesman for the Civil Engineering and Drainage Department, which manages the river.

But how exactly that will be done has yet to be determined. In the meantime, artists, architects and neighbourhood groups are using the river as a conduit for new ideas on urban heritage, community and redevelopment.

“The river was nothing for the community, just a muddy sewer that was very polluted,” says Alessandro Carboni, an Italian artist who came to Hong Kong to study the the river. “Now it has started this whole process of change, a change in mentality in this area of Kowloon. you change something and people react to it. People have started to fish again.”

With that in mind, Carboni staged a performance last year, in collaboration with the arts group 1a space, in which he spread sea salt from Nga Tsin Wai, an 800-year-old walled village on the banks of the river, to various spots around the river. For centuries, salt panning was the main industry in Nga Tsin Wai, which is now slated for redevelopment.

“What’s very important is to keep things visible, to keep things alive,” he says. “The city is a place where we can rebuild and discuss how our actions can change the quality of a space. Changing the space means improving quality of life and the possibility to interact.”

Carboni’s performance was just one of a series of artistic interventions that have taken place over the past few years. For another project, people living near the river were invited to create windmills made with recycled material, which were then strung between the river’s concrete banks. Secondary school students also participated in Chinese painting workshops along the river, creating gritty, urban images with a medium normally dedicated to bucolic natural scenes.

“When we threw this idea of green arts to the public, the reaction was surprisingly positive,” says Chang. “It stimulated a lot of imagination. Contemporary art is so abstract, so elitist, but this opened another door for people to participate in the future of the river.”

Chang sees the river as a way to seamlessly blend nature with the human landscape of Hong Kong’s streets. Last year, he published a book with one of his master’s students, Marta Bohlmark, that called for the river’s banks to be transformed into a boardwalk-cum-marketplace, where the surrounding area’s many hawkers, including street barbers, calligraphers and cobblers, could be given a unique space in which to work.

Their plan also envisions a seamless green link between a Qing Dynasty pier discovered at the site of the old Kai Tak Airport, Nga Tsin Wai Village, the Wong Tai Sin Temple, the Chu Lin Nunnery and the site of a large squatters’ village, Tai Hom, that was cleared in 2001 but still contains several historic buildings. Public amphitheatres and art spaces would dot the green space, taking advantage of the growing community of performing artists, visual artists and musicians that have opened studios in San Po Kong, an industrial area next to the river.

For the time being, though, the plan is just a dream. Even the green spaces that already exist next to the river, like Morse Park, are separated from it by fences. And though the river has done a remarkable job of cleaning itself — E. coli levels have declined by 80 percent since the 1980s — its water is still highly polluted.

In the long term, says Chang, the river’s success will hinge on how it is treated by the government. He says he is optimistic. “The government always says no in the beginning, but you can convince them with good examples. It’s a long process, but now they’re less stubborn.”

While the government initially resisted any change in its plan to cover the river, it began to soften its stance around 2007, which is also around the time it stopped referring to the waterway as a nullah — a word commonly used to describe drainage canals — and started calling it a river.

It can also be seen in the plans for redeveloping the old Kai Tak Airport, through which the river runs. Whereas it was once excluded from the plans entirely, the river is now the focal point of the future development’s town centre — “a unique urban and landscape axis linking and integrating the old urban districts with the new development areas,” in the words of a Development Bureau spokesman.

Eventually, Chang hopes the river will serve as a lesson: “You can abandon nature, but it will always come back to us.”

The Kai Tak River as a focal point in the redevelopment of Kai Tak Airport

This story was first published in China Daily on January 14, 2011.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Saturday January 15 2011at 12:01 am , filed under Asia Pacific, Environment, Heritage and Preservation, History, Public Space and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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