Kowloon Park, Hong Kong

I am very fortunate to be able to travel as much as I do, but when I am away from home I miss my gardens and daily contact with my plants. I miss them in the same way I miss my family and friends. I like to imagine they notice my absence too, although frequently I think they quite enjoy the temporary lack of interference (that applies to all the of the above!)

Thankfully I can’t name anywhere I’ve travelled where I have not been able to seek out a garden or green space in which to relax, contemplate and reacquaint myself with nature. The plants may sometimes be unfamiliar, but I feel we speak the same language.

The city is never far away
Urban jungle versus nature’s jungle

For the last three weeks I’ve been in Hong Kong and China on business. Hong Kong is not quite the urban jungle that some people imagine, indeed it’s surrounded by forested hills which are rarely far from view. Hong Kong supports extraordinary biodiversity which never fails to surprise and delight me. Yet in the city centre, hemmed in by soaring tower blocks, the natural world can sometimes feel very distant.

The spreading branches of mighty camphor trees (Cinnamomum camphora) on the boundary of Kowloon Park create a canopy over bustling Haiphong Road
The spreading branches of mighty camphor trees (Cinnamomum camphora) along the boundary of Kowloon Park cast an eerie shade on Haiphong Road

Kowloon Park, in the buzzing shopping and hotel district of Tsimshatsui (TST), is a truly urban oasis, doing for Hong Kong what Central Park does for New York and Hyde Park does for London. It’s a green lung, providing clean air and breathing space for a population of millions. At the heart of this cosmopolitan city Kowloon Park must be many things to many people: at any given time you might come across young athletes training or elderly ladies practicing Tai Chi; professors writing books or students studying them; tourists taking selfies or locals taking a nap on a park bench. It’s a great place to sit and watch the world go by; a place where one can get a real flavour of modern-day Hong Kong.

Taking the weight off
Taking the weight off

Despite having stayed at a number of hotels around the perimeter, I had never set foot in Kowloon Park until this week. Being slightly elevated from the surrounding streets and bounded by magnificent camphor and Chinese banyan trees (Ficus microcarpa) it is not a park that naturally invites you in. Yet once inside the scale and quality of the space is more apparent, extending over 33 acres and laid out on varied levels. There is a sculpture garden (28, below), a splendid aviary (19), a traditional Chinese landscape garden (20), a ‘woodland walk’ replete with pines and azaleas (36), bird lake (23) and, horror of horrors, a branch of McDonalds. The swimming pool complex (8) is the most extensive and well used in Hong Kong.

A plan of the park
A plan of the park

Opened to the public in 1970, Kowloon Park was originally the site of the British Army’s Whitfield Barracks. The barrack buildings now house the Hong Kong Heritage Discovery Centre. Between 1987 and 1989 the park was renovated and greatly extended at a cost equivalent to £30M.

The broad steps around the lily pond are very much in the 80's style
The broad steps leading to the lily pond are very much in the 80’s style

The current layout is unashamedly municipal, with some fairly crude hard landscaping details in places. Quite rightly the park is designed to accommodate a lot of visitors and to cope with the ensuing wear and tear. The Leisure and Cultural Services Department have adopted a particularly zealous approach to protecting the public from falling up or down steps. This made me smile as in mainland China very little regard is paid to health and safety. It seems Hong Kong wishes to make very sure it is setting a gold standard.

Steady as you go!
Steady as you go!

These nasty, oddly photogenic details do not detract because the planting is so exuberant. Everywhere you look there is lush greenery, colourful blossom and delicious shade cast by glorious mature trees, including foxglove trees (Paulownia fortunei), Lebbeck (Albizia lebbeck) and Queen’s crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia speciosa). Trees are generally well labelled, but being a public park the rest of the planting is planned with ornament rather than botany in mind. Standards of maintenance are high, which is something I always appreciate.

Colourful foliage tapestries blanket every inch of shade
Colourful foliage tapestries blanket every inch of ground

Of all the spaces in Kowloon Park, the Chinese Garden is perhaps the most tranquil, situated in a gentle depression and enveloped by a quiet cloister. It’s here that I found a few precious moments to sit and compose myself before returning to the hotel to pack my bags. It had been a long trip and I had missed communing with nature. Here, surrounded by sculpted greens and the happy sound of birds singing, I found a home from home on the other side of the world.

The Chinese Garden
The Chinese Garden

Situated in the centre of Tsimshatsui, Kowloon Park is easily accessible by bus or MTR (Hong Kong’s underground mass transit system): Tsim Sha Tsui MTR Station A1 exit or Jordan MTR Station C1 exit. The Park is open from 5am to midnight daily. Bird watchers meet between 7.30am and 9.30am on Fridays near the bird lake.

Flamingos are some of the park's many exotic feathered residents
Flamingos are some of the park’s many exotic feathered residents