On the Waterfront: Tsim Sha Tsui

Star Ferry

For a city defined by its harbour, Hong Kong has done a remarkable job of blocking people off from it. Highways, private development, cargo yards and storage depots take up more than 60 percent of Victoria Harbour’s shorelines. The rest of the harbourfront is a higgledy-piggledy network of disjointed promenades, some better than others.

Luckily, a new Harbourfront Commission has been tasked with restoring the harbourfront as a public place. In addition to drawing plans for public promenades beneath the East Island Corridor, an elevated highway built on pylons off the eastern shore of Hong Kong Island, and across the harbour at the former Kai Tak Airport, the commission vets ideas on what to do with all the new public space that will be created. Some proposals (a 16-kilometre cycleway) are better than others (a giant Ferris wheel built by the same company as the London Eye). There is now talk about the creation of a Harbourfront Authority that would help implement these ambitious plans by pushing aside the government departments whose narrow interests and love for bureaucracy would stand in the way of any coherent development.

Even with a para-governmental authority in charge of the harbourfront, though, any new development would need to respond to the existing standards and practices of waterfront urban design. Hong Kong has a number of different stretches of publicly-accessible waterfronts, each built at different times and in different circumstances. I think it’s worth looking at some of these to see where they fail and where they succeed: Tsim Sha Tsui, Kwun Tong, Ma On Shan, the Central ferry piers and the Cheung Chau Praya.


View Harbourfront in a larger map

First up, Tsim Sha Tsui. The tip of the Kowloon Peninsula is the most frequent point of contact between the public and the harbour. That’s especially true for tourists. This is where you can take in the classic view of Hong Kong Island’s skyline, which is the subject every evening of a woefully tacky but still somewhat impressive sound-and-light show. (It starts at 8pm and is a good way to keep track of the time.) A continuous promenade runs along the water from the Harbour City shopping mall in the west to the railyard beneath Hung Hom Station in the east, a distance of about 1.5 kilometres.

The promenade is at its best in the west. People are constantly spilling out of the Star Ferry to catch buses at the adjacent terminus, while Harbour City brings in thousands of shoppers every day. There is a good mix of tourists and locals. Nearby, the former Kowloon Station clock tower and the Hong Kong Cultural Centre surround a small plaza filled with banyan and palm trees. Next to it is an elevated platform that provides places to sit and gaze out over the water; the space beneath is well-shaded in the summer. Nearby, a series of steps leading to an upper floor of the Cultural Centre are another venue for watching the harbour. They make for good seats during occasional outdoor concerts, like at the recent jazz festival. It’s not great, but it’s not terrible, either. The Cultural Centre’s windowless façade is overbearing and the viewing platform a bit clunky, but they don’t kill the space.

Clock Tower

The Kowloon Station clock tower and Cultural Centre (right) seen from atop the viewing platform

Reading by the harbour

Reading on the viewing platform

That’s not true further west, unfortunately. Unlike the Cultural Centre, the adjacent Art Museum turns its back on the harbour, facing the promenade with blank walls, emergency exits and noisy air conditioning vents. There’s also a large ventilation tower for the cross-harbour MTR tunnel that blocks the path. Hawkers offering to take your photo for HK$10 line the water. Between the hostile back wall of the museum, the aggressive hawkers and the narrow path, this stretch is not a pleasant place to walk, despite the shade of banyan trees and the spectacular view. Tourists trudge through somewhat reluctantly with a look that suggests they’re wondering what they are doing there.

Until 2003, that’s where the promenade came to an end, running into the back end of the Intercontinental Hotel and New World Centre shopping mall. Then the Avenue of Stars was built. Inspired by the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Avenue of Stars is a procession of star-shaped sidewalk plaques dedicated to Hong Kong and Chinese film stars. Some stars have left their handprints, but most haven’t. The “Avenue” is built slightly offshore, on a kind of boardwalk, and it is privately owned and managed.

It’s a terrible place. Elevator music piped in through tinny speakers floats over crowds of guided tours. Cartoonish, Flintstone-esque kiosks sell souvenir photos and wildly overpriced sticks of roast cuttlefish. The only places to sit are on white metal benches and chairs, like the kind that would have found in the food court of a 1980s shopping mall. There are no trees and therefore no shade during the scorching summer heat. The whole thing is a wasted opportunity, because the view is magnificent and there is usually a good breeze coming off the water. This is not a space for citizens; it’s a space for consumers, and it doesn’t even have the decency to treat them with respect.

Avenue of Stars, Hong Kong

Avenue of Stars. Photo by Wei Wong

Further along, the Avenue of Stars ends, the tourists go back to their tour buses and the promenade continues along an arrow-straight stretch of shoreline next to Tsim Sha Tsui East, a hotel, entertainment and office district built on reclaimed land in the 1980s. It is generally quiet here, with only a handful of joggers, fishermen and the occasional person sitting on a bench. This is not a bad promenade — the paving materials are attractive and there is plenty of greenery — but it’s boring. Part of the problem is that it is cut off from its surroundings by a busy arterial road, so you need to cross a footbridge to reach it. It leaves the whole stretch of walkway feeling a bit lost.

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The beginning of the Tsim Sha Tsui East promenade

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A rare bit of outdoor dining on the Tsim Sha Tsui East promenade

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Thursday November 17 2011at 02:11 am , filed under Architecture, Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Public Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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