Lai Chi Kok Rediscovered

By now, we have moved to Mei Foo for over ten years. I had said in my first memoir that friends – some friends anyway – were saying that we were moving to the Dark Side and were betting on when we would move back to the Island. Too bad, nobody put down any real money.

Last week, we took a group of friends to Mei Foo or the Lai Chi Kok neighbourhood for an outing and I did some research beforehand which ended up with a visit programme involving visits to the Jao Tsung-I Academy, the Lai Chi Kok Park and the Ling Nan Garden ending with a lunch at a restaurant at Manhattan Hall attended by 45 people. I am glad that everyone had a good time. It was a sunny day with great weather and they all enjoyed Lai Chi Kok and the walking. Lest I forget, I am putting here some materials I discovered in the course of my research. I was assisted by a pamphlet on Jao-Tsung-I Academy I picked up from a visit shortly after we moved here, and by a video on the history of Lai Chi Kok Amusement Park sent me on YouTube by a friend around the time.

To start with, Lai Chi Kok is a neighbourhood in Kowloon, east of Kwai Chung and west of Cheung Sha Wan. Mei Foo Sun Chuen, which was first developed in 1968, is the largest housing estate in the area and is also the largest in Hong Kong, with 99 blocks. In 1887, the Qing Government set up a customs station in Lai Chi Kok to collect customs duties after ceding Hong Kong Island and Kowloon Peninsula to the British. At the time of the 1911 Census – carried out by the United Kingdom – the population of Lai Chi Kok was 173, compared with 456,739 for the entire Hong Kong.

The 1887 Customs Station had since been transformed as quarters for Chinese workers from 1904 to 1906, a disease control station in 1910, the Lai Chi Kok Prison in the 1920s, the Lai Chi Kok Hospital for transmissible diseases from 1938, the Lai Chi Kok Hospital from 1948, a reception centre for mental patients from 2000 to 2004, and was finally designated by the HKSAR Government in 2009 as the Jao Tsung-I Academy, Phase One of which was officially opened in 2012.

The Academy compound now comprised heritage buildings that went back over 120 years and the gallery is open to the public. Its permanent exhibits include calligraphy and water colour paintings by the famous artist and Chinese cultural scholar Jao Tsing-I who passed away at the age of 100 in Hong Kong. Other facilities include a coffee shop, a restaurant, a hotel and exhibition space and open sitting-out areas for quiet enjoyment.

Turning to the Lai Chi Kok Amusement Park which had made the area famous from the late 1940s, the Park was first established by a philanthropist Shak Chung Shan who was the retired Principal of Sacred Heart School. He opened the Park in May 1948 primarily as a centre for sports and recreation, and education. He built three swimming pools and other facilities for physical sports such as roller-skating and had meant to attract people of all ages, particularly children, to have regular exercises there. Admission was 50 cents for adults and 30 cents for children. Mr Shak also built some residential blocks under his name in the area and was remembered also by a Catholic Primary School in Tsuen Wan named after him which was opened in 1997.  In 1950, however, he sold the Park to a Mr Cheung who put in open air cinemas and other performance venues and later turned part of the park into a zoo with the addition of exotic animals some of which were left behind from a travelling circus which went broke. It was alleged that Bruce Lee had performed there in 1956. The place came into the ownership of Mr Deacon Chiu in 1961.  The Park thrived under the new management and had gone through many changes, featuring an expanded zoo with more exotic animals, a full-scale cinema, theatres with live operatic performances and game stalls. It claimed a statistic of 3 million visits in 1963 at a time when Hong Kong’s population was only about 3.5 million. Business was threatened however in 1965 when the Kai Tak Amusement Park came in and the Park brought in artificial snow and an ice-skating rink in the 1970s to counteract. Furthermore, the Park suffered bad press after a tiger ran loose and reports of ill treatments to other animals. The opening of Ocean Park in 1972 dealt the Park a further blow which tried to counteract in 1979 by building a wax museum and other gimmicks. Finally, the Park closed in March 1997 in the face of competition and changes in people’s interests. The area had since given way to housing infrastructural projects and residential complexes.

As late as the Nineties, Lai Chi Kok was regarded as part of the New Territories, so that telephone numbers in the area had “12” as prefix. Today, it is part of the Sham Shui Po District administratively, and is very much a transport hub, but the principal MTR station is Mei Foo at the heart of Mei Foo Sun Chuen, and not the Lai Chi Kok MTR station.

In 1993, following the completion of the Railway Development Study, the Government embarked on the construction of a Western Corridor which became the West Rail. By agreement, the Kowloon Canton Railway Corporation (KCRC) provided all recreational and sports facilities in the Lai Chi Kok Park affected by the West Rail Project. The Park is now operated by the Leisure and Cultural Department and covers a total area of 17.65 hectares, providing a wide range of recreational and sports facilities and nearby complementary facilities include Lai Chi Kok Swimming Pool, sports centre and library.  Specifically, facilities in the Park include fitness stations, an elderly fitness corner, tennis courts, hard-surfaced soccer pitch, basketball cum volleyball courts, children’s playground, gateball court, roller skating rink, jogging trails, Lingnam Garden, Amphitheatre, Community Garden, toilets and changing rooms.

Specifically, Lingnam Garden has plenty of winding paths that divide the courtyard and features ten scenic spots that naturally flow into each other. Together with the Lai Chi Kok Garden, they feature pavilions with ancient Chinese wooden and stone furniture, observation decks, lily ponds, bridges, koi ponds, garden walls and hundreds of well-maintained trees, shrubs and flowering plants. The gardens are often frequented by Indonesian domestic workers dressed in elaborate and splendid national wedding costumes, attracting many photographers, particularly on weekends.

The Amphitheatre within the Park features a spectator stand with 200 seats with nearby toilets and changing facilities and is an ideal site as a meeting point. Turning to Mei Foo Sun Chuen, which was developed in eight phases over ten years from 1968, now comprises 99 blocks with 13,115 residential units with a population of 37,303 from the 2016 by-census.

There are plenty of eateries with household names and reputation, including Door Door Bakery with its signature egg tarts and nugget sweets; Ocean Roast which holds a license to roast pigs onsite, with its signature roast suckling pigs; Lok Yuen Chiuchow Eateries with its famous fish ball and beef noodles & Chiuchow street food; wine shops featuring decent French wine and Japanese sake; coffee shops such as Starbucks and Pacific Coffee;  super markets;  fruit and vegetable shops; Chinese dry food and herbal medicine shops; Shanghainese grocery shop New San Young; fresh seafood and poultry shops.

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