When I returned to Hong Kong in April for a quick visit (my first since I left in 1998), my biggest fear wasn’t that the city would be changed beyond recognition. Or that the pollution would be unbearable.
I was worried about Chek Lap Kok, the new airport. Flying into the old Kai Tak airport was an amazing Hong Kong experience in itself. It was a Hong Kong institution. Would Chek Lap Kok render the city just another Asian metropolis?
One of the reasons I loved Kai Tak was because it seemed like it hadn’t changed in decades. Just look at Kai Tak the year my mom first visited Hong Kong in 1962. I recognize this photo even though I would not set foot in Hong Kong until 28 years after this picture was taken.
This Pan Am ad from 1962 enticed travelers to Hong Kong–and Kai Tak.
And while this flight board is from Phnom Penh in Cambodia, it shows two morning Cathay Pacific flights to Kai Tak on a June day in 1965.
Fast forward to the 1990s, my time in Hong Kong. I love this gorgeous photo by Daryl Chapman. Yes, that’s the control tower in the middle. And yes, we really flew so close to buildings that we could see into people’s apartments. Because Kai Tak was in an urban area, I could easily walk to a friend’s apartment 10 minutes away or take a bus to my home just north of there in the New Territories.
And since Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express is one of my favorite movies and features Kai Tak, I couldn’t help but feel partial the the old airport.
So when I landed at Chep Lap Kok, I didn’t pay much attention to the new airport. We cared more about changing money and buying train tickets to Kowloon. As we zoomed through Tsing Yi Island and on to Kowloon, I felt for just a moment that we were in the freaky futuristic part of another Wong Kar-wai film, 2046.
It wasn’t until a couple days before our flight home that I really appreciated Chek Lap Kok. We were at dinner with a fun group of friends, most of whom had not known one another before that evening. One friend asked us to take a suitcase back to Chicago for her. Another friend suggested we check it into left luggage at the Airport Express station across the street. We could then check the suitcase through to Chicago the following day even though our flight didn’t leave for another day after that.
Airport Express is more than just a station on the line to the airport. It also houses airline check-in counters. So after we checked the suitcase into left luggage, I queued up at the Cathay counter to buy extra legroom. Here I am re-booking my own ticket.
I couldn’t have done that at Kai Tak.
As much as I miss Kai Tak, I quickly grew to appreciate Chep Lap Kok and all its conveniences.