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Research & Impact

Prof. LAU Chi-pang
Associate Vice-President (Academic Affairs and External Relations)
Professor, Department of History

Hong Kong’s fascinating flight log


Prof LAU Chi-pang

Prof. LAU Chi-pang

Air travel to and from Hong Kong has come a long way in the last 90-or-so years. Today, Chek Lap Kok is one of the world's busiest airports, serving more than 74 million passengers in 2018 alone.  However, while the current Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) covers 1,255 hectares, its predecessor at Kai Tak consisted of a single runway, on a finger of reclaimed land, jutting out into Victoria Harbour.


The research conducted by Professor Lau Chi-pang of Lingnan's Department of History into the story behind the two airports, and their role in Hong Kong's development, is recorded in his two-volume publication Legend of the Sky – from Kai Tak to Chek Lap Kok.


After the failure of a real estate project planned for the site over 100 years ago, Kai Tak was first used by the British Royal Air Force and then bought by the Hong Kong Government in 1927. Officially opened in 1930, the airport saw its first commercial arrival, from Penang in Malaysia, in 1936.


Landings at Kai Tak were famed as ‘white knuckle rides’ for passengers, with pilots having to bank sharply and come in low over urban Kowloon. To make their job a little easier at Chek Lap Kok, Hong Kong Observatory has devised ground-breaking modifications to the internationally-used systems for tracking wind speed and direction, so these could be monitored on a second-by-second basis.


Though the number of major and minor accidents at Kai Tak was probably lower than may have been expected given the challenges pilots faced, some notable ones did occur. Just after the end of the Second World War, a cargo flight heading for the Philippines crashed into Mount Parker on Hong Kong Island. The rumour spread that the plane was carrying a shipment of gold, and for days afterwards people flocked to the site in search of rich pickings.


But while air travel via Chek Lap Kok is undoubtedly safer and more comfortable, Professor Lau believes some of the excitement and vividness of an arrival in Hong Kong has gone. He recalls how the heat, the smells and the sounds of the city would greet passengers the moment the aircraft door opened and they stepped down onto the tarmac at Kai Tak.


Flying had initially been a luxurious experience reserved for the wealthy, but the photographs Professor Lau includes in his books, capture both the growing democratisation of air travel, and the social and economic development of Hong Kong. By the 1960s, Kai Tak’s role was already developing from that of being simply Hong Kong’s airport, into one of a regional transport hub. And with the city’s economy changing, incomes rising, and air travel becoming more affordable, the airport’s capacity was increasingly stretched.


The first survey of the Chek Lap Kok site took place in the early 1970s, but the Sino-British talks about the handover of Hong Kong delayed the construction of the airport from the1980s into the 1990s.


But already, just over 20 years since it opened, sleek, efficient Chek Lap Kok is also straining to handle the throughput of passengers and cargo, and a third runway is now under construction.


To know more about Professor LAU Chi-pang research projects, please click Lingnan Scholars.