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New Kowloon: A Forgotten Episode of Urban Expansion

Modern-day Hong Kong is divided into three regions: Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and the New Territories. Few people today remember the fact that in the past there was an area called New Kowloon. Andrew Lam reports.

THE BRITISH ADDED Hong Kong to its empire in 1841, and signed the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842. Thanks to its fine natural harbour, Hong Kong gradually became the commercial hub of the region. However, the shortage of flat and developed land on the island hindered the development of the city. Living space was so limited, that life there, especially in the Chinese community in Sheung Wan, was uncomfortably crowded.

The British undertook several reclamation projects on Hong Kong Island over several decades. The project produced land for the parts nowadays known as Queen Road, Des Voeux Road, and Connaught Road, essentially covering the modern-day praya (waterfront) of Hong Kong Island. 


The British had been eyeing the land north of Hong Kong Island, the Kowloon Peninsula. In 1860, the Qing Empire was coerced into the Treaty of Peking, in which the British took away part of Kowloon, south of Boundary Street, together with Stonecutters Island. They started to develop the Yau Tsim Mong district for the convenience of travelling back and forth from Hong Kong Island. In 1898, the British pushed further north beyond the territory of Boundary Street and first introduced the term New Territories. 

The British immediately noticed the potential that “New Kowloon” offered, so they delineated the boundary of “New Kowloon” in 1937. This area was previously considered part of the New Territories. From the east shore of Lei Yue Mun to the west shore of Lai Chi Kok, “New Kowloon” covered the area from the north of Boundary Street to the mountain ranges of Kowloon Peak and Lion Rock.

A huge tract of largely rural land was instantly added to Kowloon — and was bigger than the original Kowloon.

“New Kowloon” provided a large amount of new flat land. As a result, the urban hinterland, Sham Shui Po, which served as the front gate of the Kowloon Peninsula to the New Territories, was swiftly developed. At the same time, the Kowloon-Canton Railway, running from Tsim Sha Tsui to Fanling, connecting urban Kowloon to the rural New Territories and further north to Mainland China, was being developed. 


What have we learnt from the development of the “New Kowloon”?

While the British only reacted to the then pressing issues instead of preventing potential problems in the future, the “New Kowloon” development provided a practical solution to the lack of land for infrastructure, housing and businesses.

Also, the British recognized the fact that the success of Hong Kong lay in the connectivity between Mainland China and Hong Kong, and thus built the Kowloon-Canton Railway. If this city had not served as the gateway and direct avenue to the Mainland, Hong Kong might not have gained the same status as it holds today. 

“New Kowloon” supplied a considerable amount of urban land for development, covering public housing in Shek Kip Mei and Choi Hung, industrial complexes in Kwun Tong and Lai Chi Kok, and an internationally recognized airport in Kai Tak. These nurtured a generation of Hong Kong people, currently housing more than 1.5 million of the population and laid the solid foundation of the success of the city from an entrepot to a manufacturing hub in the mid-20th century.

Needless to say, the British did not provide fair and equal treatment to the indigenous people who inhabited “New Kowloon”. They had wickedly lifted the restrictions on developing rural areas and turned it into an urban area overnight. 


Today, on the brink of many heavyweight developments from Lantau Island to the Northern district, it is time to go beyond conventional development ideas. Thankfully, the Hong Kong government has taken the first step towards considering the adoption of a new system to streamline the process of land resumption. The government should also simplify the administrative process involved. Hong Kong needs to jump out of the box to expedite the production of land, which provides a solution to the burning problem of the housing shortage, and to nurture other economic development. 

Thanks to our solid foundation, Hong Kong remains on the list of world-class cities globally. In past decades, Hong Kong has been haunted by a shortage of land for housing and economic development. With the lesson learnt in the development of the “New Kowloon”, only an unorthodox and innovative approach to the pressing issues will help Hong Kong continue to thrive.

Andrew Lam is a member of the Hong Kong Legislative Council.

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