Compared to Hong Kong Island, Kowloon is hardcore Hong Kong living. Its 47 square kilometres are crowded (Mong Kok is arguably the most densely populated place in the world) and much more in your face than its neighbour to the south. Yet Tsim Sha Tsui in particular offers a huge range of cultural, culinary and social activities, and Kowloon Tong and New Kowloon to the north (neither technically part of Kowloon, but usually included in discussion) are increasingly popular among expats looking for cheaper housing that still reaches a decent standard.
Kowloon is officially made up of the areas Jordan, Yau Ma Tei and Mongkong, and in fact much of it is distinctly low-rise by Hong Kong standards. This is due to the fact that much of it was on the landing path for the old Kai Tak airport until 1998. The skyscrapers are going up fast though, and Union Square in West Kowloon now has Hong Kong’s tallest building, the International Commerce Centre.
The name Kowloon means ‘nine dragons’ and comes from the eight hills marking its northern border (the ninth dragon being the Emperor observing said hills). As you approach those hills, the housing situation improves. Kowloon proper is pretty cramped. It’s a great place to live for people on a budget who don’t mind a small flat; it’s not really a place to settle a family. West Kowloon, however, offers luxury serviced apartments such as Union Square that are as impressive – and pricey – as anywhere else on the Island.
Across Boundary Street to the north, however, Kowloon Tong becomes the expat promised land. It’s low-rise, crowds magically subside (relatively speaking), streets are leafy and broad, and there’s enough space for both luxury and middle-class houses. Yes, houses, not apartments. Rents are better value out here, too – the problem can be finding somewhere in the first place; they get snapped up fast.
Those who decide to base themselves out here will find everything they need – museums, parks, kids activities, sports facilities, glitzy shopping malls, great restaurants and bars. And if they feel the real action is still to be found on Hong Kong Island, the much-loved Star Ferry will take them across Victoria Harbour for almost nothing.
For Tsim Sha Tsui, the Hong Kong Baptist Hospital on Waterloo Road is an excellent private medical care center, and should be your first choice if your insurance covers it – there are also numerous smaller private clinics and medical centers, and you should pick the one nearest you in most cases. In terms of state hospitals, Queen Elizabeth Hospital on Gascoigne Road is the biggest in Kowloon. In almost every way care will be just as good there as in a private center, though you may have to wait longer to be treated and there will be less privacy and more rushed doctors.
As befits such populated areas, there’s lots of choice for schools in Kowloon – see our international school listings for a complete list of syllabi and qualifications offered. Many of the bigger international schools are in Kowloon Tong, where there’s more space for campuses. The Australian International School, the American international School and Yew Chung International School, take students all the way from pre-school to high school. Think International School and Kingston International School take students up to 12 years old. Kowloon proper has Sear Rogers International School (up to 18) and Kowloon Junior School for primary students.
ESF (state-run English-language schools) include Kowloon Junior and Beacon Hill primary schools and King George V School, one of the city’s oldest, dating from 1894. Dedicated pre-schools include Delia School of Canada, Munsang College, Good Shepherd Church Kindergarten, Christ Church International Kindergarten and Tutor Time International Nursery and Kindergarten.
You’re in one of the most networked places in the world in Kowloon. There are plenty of buses, but you’ll want to dodge traffic and go underground. Five MTR lines zipper up through it, including the red Tsuen Wan line going straight up Nathan Road one way and over to Central the other, and the green Kwun Tong line which connects to Kowloon Tong. The East Rail takes you up to the New Territories and all the way to Shenzhen. If you do plan to go to the Chinese mainland by train, you’ll be going via Hung Hom Station to Guangzhou, Beijing, Shanghai and stops along the way. There are even ferries from the Hong Kong China Ferry Terminal to Macau, as well as Zhuhai and other nearby cities on the mainland.
If you’re heading across to Hong Kong Island, other than the Star Ferry you can drive via the Cross Harbour or Western tunnels, or take the MTR. Heading the other way to the airport, you can simply get on the Airport Express from West Kowloon. Kowloon is easy to get around, and to get out of. Driving is fine in terms of direct routes to wherever you want to go, though traffic can be busy at the best of times and is hard going at rush hour.
Shops and Services
No matter where you are, you’ll never be far from shops. Nathan Road is the place for electronics shops, though you’ll need to keep your wits about you and know what you’re looking for. Tailors tout for business on every street corner, most of them excellent and cheap. Massive malls such as I Square, K11, Union Square in West Kowloon and Kowloon Tong Mall have everything you need from groceries to designer clothes via food courts and gyms. Elements Mall has a 360 organic food store. Really, walk out your door and you’ll find somebody selling something.
Food is everywhere too, with wet markets and fruit and veg stalls everywhere. Tsim Sha Tsui has loads of fantastic small lunch and dinner places where the staff may not speak much English, but the menu does; there’s also the waterfront down here and posh dining hubs like 1 Peking Road and 1881 Heritage. Knutsford Terrace is famous for its bars and restaurants and a great place for outdoor dining. The Chungking Mansions area is a riot of small Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asian restaurants to explore. There’s a fair chance you’re within walking distance of at least a hundred restaurants no matter where you are in Kowloon.
Culturally, the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront is museum central, with the Hong Kong Museum of History, the Hong Kong Museum of Art, the Hong Kong Science Museum and the Hong Kong Space Museum within close proximity to each other. The last two in particular are great places for kids, with the Space Museum housing a fantastic planetarium. The Hong Kong Coliseum is a major concert venue.
Kowloon Park is a nice respite from the busy streets, a raised park which packs a lot in despite not being immense: duck ponds and even flamingos, as well as an aviary; indoor and outdoor swimming pools; morning tai chi areas; Kung Fu Corner, with free Sunday afternoon displays; a games hall; and a sculpture walk. Kowloon Sports Centre on Austin Road is the best public sports hall (though your apartment complex may well already have excellent fitness facilities), including badminton, squash, volleyball and a gym. Higher up the social scale, Kowloon Cricket Club is a longstanding expat fixture, a member’s club with superb sporting facilities and a social hub that has made the transition from colonial elitism to family-friendly club welcome to anyone who can stump up the fees.
Looking ahead a little, the massive West Kowloon Cultural District project is in full swing, and by 2015 the area should feature brand spanking new theaters, concert halls and a modern art museum. The scale is so massive that the whole complex is not expected to be finished until the mid-2020s.