A 4km-long strip of the mainland ceded to Britain in perpetuity in 1860 to add to their offshore island, Kowloon was accordingly developed with gusto and confidence. The skyline here has never matched Hong Kong Island’s, thanks to Kowloon being in the flight path of the old airport at Kai Tak, though things could be changing: 2010 saw the completion of Hong Kong’s tallest building, the 484m-high International Commerce Centre (ICC), atop Union Square and the Airport Express terminal in West Kowloon. With rocketing rents and dwindling space along the North Shore, perhaps ICC marks a shift in venue for Hong Kong’s next wave of cutting-edge, harbourside architecture – though beyond its sheer height, ICC is just a large silver tower.
While Hong Kong Island has mountains and beaches to offset urban claustrophobia, Kowloon has just more shops, more restaurants and more hotels. Initially, it’s hard to see how such an unmitigatedly built-up, commercial and intensely crowded place could possibly appeal to travellers. One reason is the staggering view across the harbour to Hong Kong Island’s skyscrapers and peaks; another is the sheer density of shopping opportunities here – from high-end jewellery to cutting-edge electronic goods and outright tourist tack – especially in the couple of square kilometres at the tip of the peninsula that make up Tsim Sha Tsui. To the north, Yau Ma Tei and Mong Kok are less touristy – though no less crowded – districts teeming with soaring tenements and local markets, some of which sell modern daily necessities, others with a distinctly traditional Chinese twist.
These days, it’s not so clear-cut where Kowloon really ends. The original “border” with the New Territories to the north was Boundary Street, though now Kowloon district runs on for a further 3km or so, as the commercial emphasis shifts towards towering residential estates clustered around shopping plazas, parks and other amenities. A scattering of sights here includes one of Hong Kong’s busiest temples, the Wong Tai Sin, and its prettiest, the Chi Lin Nunnery with its Tang-style architecture and beautiful traditional garden.
The two main ways to reach Kowloon are by the Star Ferry from Central to Tsim Sha Tsui, or along the MTR’s Tsuen Wan Line, which runs from Central under the harbour and up through Kowloon, with stations dotted at regular intervals along Nathan Road.