Hong Kong's End to Close-Call Landings

As Britain hands over its colony to China, it leaves behind a new, bigger airport - safely away from the present downtown location

Hong Kong's new state-of-the-art airport, one of the most advanced and expensive in the world, is set to open on schedule in 1998 despite labor unrest and a protracted battle between China and Britain over the financing.

Jets approaching the new Chek Lap Kok airport will glide over the wide expanse of the South China Sea and touch down on the ample runways of the artificial island.

The contrast with Hong Kong's older Kai Tek airport could not be greater. When viewed from a distance, airplanes approaching Kai Tek seem to disappear into the maze of skyscrapers that line the harbor. For those on board, the experience resembles a computer-simulated obstacle course as the pilot navigates between the high-rises and hills that surround a single runway.

Hong Kong's British colonial rulers proposed building the Chek Lap Kok airport only months after the Chinese Army's march on Tiananmen Square in 1989.

"The 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing destroyed confidence in Hong Kong's future under Chinese rule," says an economist here. "The colonial government hoped the massive investment would restore faith in Hong Kong's long-range outlook, but China saw the $9-billion project as an attempt to loot the treasury before Britain's departure in 1997."

Beijing threatened to cancel any airport-related contracts that remained after the July 1, 1997, handover in order to force London to the negotiating table over the price of the project. The two sides reached an agreement only after Britain pledged to maintain a surplus of at least $3 billion in Hong Kong's coffers.

The total cost of the airport, including road, rail, and water links, and other infrastructure projects, is now estimated at about $20 billion, says airport official Esther Wong. She says that by 2040, the new airport will handle 87 million passengers annually, more than triple the number that passed through Kai Tek last year.

Hong Kong is one of the most important transport hubs in economically dynamic Asia, and its planners foresee rapid growth well into the next century. It is China's main gateway to the West for trade. And tourism is one of Hong Kong's largest foreign-exchange earners.

Passengers at the new airport will be ferried on a driverless, indoor railway that runs through the computer-controlled terminal, which is nearly a mile long. A high-speed train ride, taking 23 minutes, will transport people between the airport and downtown. The train line will cross new bridges linking three islands along the southern Chinese coast and go through a tunnel beneath Victoria Harbor.

The blueprint for Chek Lap Kok's main terminal, one of the largest buildings in the world, employs a series of high-tech arches and pillars, along with floor-to-ceiling glass walls. The vaulted ceiling and supports create "a cathedral-like structure and the curved roof glides over the glass walls to form a floating design," says chief architect Nick Reynolds.

Indeed, the design of the building on its artificial island seems to rival the pyramids in terms of technological sophistication.

Wafer-thin screens on skylights throughout the structure will filter the sunlight by day and bounce artificial light back to the ground at night, he says.

And while passengers will have a wide-angle view of aircraft landing and taking off, Mr. Reynolds says, intricate acoustical baffles will make the gigantic terminal virtually soundproof.

The architect adds that the entire building is composed of modular parts, such as the triangular ceiling panels, allowing it to grow for the needs of the future.

"We wanted a building that was constructable by a large number of people over a short period of time," Reynolds says.

Airport officials say that about 20,000 workers are now employed at the site to ensure it will open by April 1998.

Just as the airport's exotic granite flooring, fiber-optic cabling, and computer systems have been imported from every corner of the globe, so has an army of laborers been recruited to complete the project as quickly and cheaply as possible.

Workers from places as far away as Britain, Pakistan, India, Nepal, and the Philippines spend up to 12 hours daily at the 3,000-acre construction site.

For some non-British laborers, building the airport has resembled building Egypt's pyramids - not only in terms of difficulty, but also pay levels.

When 800 Thai workers staged a protest against a subcontractor who failed to pay them, their demands found closed doors within the Hong Kong government. Their calls for mediation or legal action were quickly turned down by Hong Kong's legal aid and labor department, says a spokesman for Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor.

When the Thai workers went public with their complaints, he adds, most were summarily deported by the Immigration Department.

Despite their theoretical right to equal protection under Hong Kong's British-inspired legal system, a group of mainland Chinese workers who dared to strike for back pay suffered the same consequences - quick deportation - a Chinese official says. "Although the Chinese workers attempted to petition Hong Kong's Legislative Council for help, they were sent back to China before their demands could be heard," he says.

For British laborers, who face wide unemployment at home, the airport construction jobs seem like manna from heaven.

"I came here to work because Hong Kong is dynamic, growing, and oriented toward the future," says one Briton who asked not to be identified. "Back in England, everything seems stagnant, and most people can only talk about our glorious past."

"Britain wanted to build the airport as a monument to its colonial rule. But most Chinese now view the project as a symbol of China's rising power as Britain fades from the global stage," says a Chinese scholar in Hong Kong.

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