Much has been said about Hong Kong’s “development”. Favorite landmarks like Queen’s Pier, the Repulse Bay Hotel, and many others are gone forever. In his new book, The Hong Kong I Knew: Scenes and Stories from a Childhood in Kowloon (Blacksmith Books, 2021), Mark Isaac-Williams writes of his childhood years in Tsim Sha Tsui and many of the marvelous customs and landmarks that have been lost to “progress”.
Isaac-Williams was born in Hong Kong in 1939 and spent most of the war year with his mother in Australia, which included a stint in Manila en route. His father stayed back in Hong Kong and was a prisoner of war at Stanley Prison. The family reunited in Australia after the war and ended up back in Hong Kong in 1947, spending several years living at the Peninsula Hotel.
He writes about his school years at what became King George V School, or KGV. After four years at the Peninsula, his family moved to a flat on Kimberley Street, not to be confused with the larger Kimberley Road. Isaac-Williams went to boarding school in the UK in 1952 and returned to Hong Kong at the end of the decade. His parents moved to other homes higher up on the Kowloon Peninsula, on Waterloo Road and Boundary Street, respectively.
Some of my favorite parts of his book include the vignettes in the second half that are accompanied by lovely illustrations from Lucy Parris. One such vignette tells the early history of Kowloon Motor Bus at a time when all buses in Hong Kong were wiped out in the war. Another tells of the way the people at the observatory tower would physically hoist signals to indicate the severity of storms. And of course there’s Kai Tak, now gone 24 years. Did you know cars used to be able to drive across the runway and traffic would be halted to let airplanes have the right of way?
Yet there are some parts of the book that show Hong Kong still has some remaining traditions. Dai pai dongs are not gone, albeit many fewer than before, and the Star Ferry still runs, even as the harbour shrinks due to land reclamation. Stinky tofu and doufu fa are still staples of Hong Kong cuisine and rattan shops haven’t completely disappeared.
Still a resident of Hong Kong, Isaac-Williams writes with authority of a city that many may have never known. Thanks to his book, we have these memories.
What are your favorite memories of Kowloon?