Cityscape of West Kowloon at night.

West Kowloon at night. Photo © Dora Hon, licensed Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivatives.

Officially Kowloon is a mere 47 square kilometers, which may account for why it feels so impossibly crowded. Historically, Kowloon was the area that ran from the Tsim Sha Tsui peninsula, which faces Hong Kong Island across Victoria Harbour, to Boundary Street in the north. Everything up to this point the British gained in perpetuity from the Chinese, while anything north of this line was the New Territories and only ceded for 99 years. Today, the built-up area north of Boundary Street is officially known as New Kowloon, but more normally just Kowloon.

At its northern end Kowloon is bounded by eight hills, known as the nine dragons, which are the source of the area’s name. Legend has it that Kowloon was named when a Song-era Emperor spotted the eight hills and claimed they must be home to eight dragons, before one of his groveling groupies piped up that the Emperor was also a dragon so there were in fact nine dragons. It’s a tear-jerking story.

In more recent times, thanks to being flat as a pancake, Kowloon was the site of Hong Kong’s Kai Tak Airport prior to the opening of the new airport on Lantau. Strict height restrictions on the surrounding land kept Kowloon to medium-rise buildings in the shadow of the skyscrapers across the water. With the airport gone and the restrictions removed, Kowloon is quickly spreading skywards. Tying the whole area together is Nathan Road, a broad avenue that begins at the Star Ferry in the south and unfolds north through most of the area’s key neighborhoods.

Where to Live in Kowloon

West Kowloon

Hong Kong’s fastest developing district, West Kowloon is supposed to be the face of new Kowloon, mirroring the high-end shopping and skyscrapers that have long taunted the peninsula from across the harbor. Free from the airport-building restrictions that once confined the area, West Kowloon is building big and building bold.

At its heart is Union Square, a series of high-end residential complexes reaching 50 floors or more. These are some of the most luxurious apartment buildings in Hong Kong and the properties buck Hong Kong’s taste for tiny, with extravagant floor spaces, as well as clubhouses and a leisure-center list of extras, such as swimming pools and badminton courts. The Sorrento, Hong Kong’s tallest residential building is here, and its ritzy apartments often fetch prices just as handsome as Mid-Levels across the water. The three- and four-bedroom apartments go for HK$30,000–60,000. Prices in nearby developments are similar, even for smaller living spaces.

The anchor piece of Union Square is Hong Kong’s tallest skyscraper, the 118-floor International Commerce Centre which, at its base, rubs shoulders with the acclaimed Elements shopping center and Kowloon Station, where you catch the Airport Express. It’s an undoubtedly impressive project that covers almost 12 million square feet. When they finally hammer in the last skyscraper it’s likely to be one of Hong Kong’s most important neighborhoods, although, given the constant wrangling, redesigns, and arguments, aliens may land first. West Kowloon is also penciled in as the site for the West Kowloon Cultural District, a development designed to be Hong Kong’s prime arts and culture hub. It’s certainly a good place for an investment. As of today, much of the primary residential and commercial building have been completed, although the area stills feels a little cutoff from the natural ebb and flow of Kowloon.

Mongkok, Yau Ma Tei, and Jordan

The guts of Kowloon are made up by the three adjoining neighborhoods of Mongkok, Yau Ma Tei, and Jordan, all of which can be summed up in one word: crowded. Mongkok is the most densely populated piece of real estate on the planet and the neighborhoods of Yau Ma Tei and Jordan, which it blends into, are not much roomier. At the best of times, it feels busy; at the worst of times, the constant noise and movement feels like being thrown around a Six Flags rollercoaster. Add in the humidity to all this humanity and after a few minutes you’ll look like you were drenched on the log ride as well.

What these crowds do bring is an incredible energy and there is nowhere in Hong Kong where street life feels more vibrant. On its cramped streets everything spills onto the sidewalk and you’ll find snake restaurants, the city’s best dim sum joints, trendy teenage fashion stores, and mahjong halls all rubbing shoulders. It is without doubt one of Hong Kong’s most atmospheric districts, but only the more adventurous expat or possibly the hard of hearing would want to live here. The markets and the shops go late, as do the noise and
the crowds, up to midnight.

Most of the tenements here have been banged up and bandaged up and look like they’ve come out the wrong side of a tank siege. Conditions inside are usually no better, with up to three generations packing into single-bedroom flats. The only real attraction is the absolute bottom of the barrel rents. While the grime and gloom is likely to outweigh the very bottom properties, there are more modest apartments on the market that offer bargain rates without the cockroaches. For the rooms that are little more than a wardrobe, you could conceivably pay less than HK$3,000—but then you could also sleep under a bridge for free. More acceptable apartments, with the wonders of plumbing and electricity, start around HK$5,000; a fully furnished, reasonably well-turned-out two-bedroom can cost as little as HK$10,000.

Kowloon Tong and Kadoorie Avenue

A massive neighborhood in northern Kowloon, Kowloon Tong may look a little rough around the edges, but at its heart are some of the plushest streets in the city. On the broad, leafy streets around Oxford Street is where the British government once housed its civil servants in considerable comfort and the low-rise luxury housing now attracts the city’s middle and upper classes, including a couple of Cantopop warblers and kung fu stars.

There are some very grandiose mansions in the area as well as more pragmatic townhouses. Properties have usually been around the block a few times, but are well kept and can boast a lot more square feet for your dollar than on Hong Kong Island. When compared to houses in other locations, the HK$100,000–130,000 asking price for a three-bedroom house here is very honest. Unfortunately, you aren’t the only one who thinks so and relatively few houses actually make it onto the market. Over on Kadoorie Avenue, which is often included in Kowloon Tong, despite being closer to Mongkok East, are some of the most ostentatious houses, bold in both design and space. If the quiet neighborhood is the appeal, rather than the houses, spacious low-rise apartments also provide a good value, with two and three bedrooms costing as low as HK$15,000 and HK$35,000, respectively.

Unlike Mid-Levels, Kowloon Tong has a more enjoyable mix of locals and expats, with enough of the latter to find English is well spoken and supermarkets well stocked. The area is somewhat removed from the rest of Kowloon, an enjoyable oasis from the shop-clogged streets. Nevertheless, you’ll find all the amenities you need nearby at the mammoth Kowloon Tong shopping mall, where you can also catch the MTR. Thanks to its former life as a civil servant retreat, there are also many international schools and clubhouses based here.

Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Living Abroad in Hong Kong.