The “love motels” of Kowloon Tong

One of the most clichéd (and true) observations about Hong Kong is that it is a collection of contradictions. Go to the right place and you’ll find wildly expensive mansions within spitting distance of government-subsidized housing. Steps from a so-crowded-it’s-claustrophobic street you’ll find a silent garden with a koi pond. A mom-and-pop Cantonese restaurant is right next door to McDonald’s.

Our neighborhood, Kowloon Tong, exhibits pretty much all of the above, and also features its own “whuh?” characteristics.

For reasons that are not yet clear to me, Kowloon Tong features, intermingled with each other, the city’s most dense collection of

  1. expensive international kindergartens and primary schools; and
  2. love hotels.

Note the elegant Gothic ‘P’ at the top center.

We’re told that the burgeoning kindergarten population here is relatively new, and it’s gradually outpacing and displacing the love hotels. But not completely, not yet.

The love—or ‘short-stay’—motels seem to be regarded with far less “ick” than similar establishments in the US. And by ‘similar establishments’ I mean, e.g., the chain of motels along Lincoln Ave. in Chicago (the ‘Sin Strip’) that used to be respectable establishments but are now, as one photo collection so subtly puts it (and as this guy found out), hooker motels.

The sign exudes romance. This is allegedly one of the most famous of the love motels.

The Kowloon Tong love motels are much nicer looking than their Lincoln Avenue counterparts, though there is definitely something about them that makes you think “Hmmmm. This doesn’t look quite like a normal hotel.” It’s hard to describe. But they’re legit enough that Time Out Hong Kong could, seemingly without any irony, offer a feature on the best ones. (Only three of the seven in that list are in Kowloon Tong, but that’s because probably 90% of Time Out’s readership lives on HK Island and would never venture all the way to Kowloon Tong for a naughty tryst when there are perfectly fine ‘short-stays’ in Central and Wan Chai.)

Is that “O Mas” or “Q Mas”? Would it matter either way?

According to Jason Wordie’s very interesting book on Kowloon, these love motels sprung up in the 1960s and 70s to meet the demands of a young (and thus often amorously inclined) population who had little or no privacy. As he puts it:

Most people in Hong Kong still live with their families well into adulthood, which provides little opportunity for some romance with the partner of their choice. The newly opened motels fitted the bill perfectly and were carefully designed to create the desired atmosphere, with mirrored ceilings, jacuzzi baths and other such fittings.

In all these establishments the management policy is strictly ‘bring-your-own companion.’ Curtains or screens are discreetly drawn in front of the carports as soon as a patron and partner drives in, although one cannot really tell whether this is to stave off the ever present Hong Kong paparazzi or to keep private detectives and jealous spouses at bay.

Over the years these ‘love motels’ have been very widely featured in numerous export-orientated films made in Hong Kong wherever Cantonese-language movies are shown. This somewhat sleazy cinematic image all helped make the term ‘Kowloon Tong’ synonymous with a short-time fling in a shady motel. In any small upcountry Malaysian town or public housing estate in Singapore virtually everyone has heard of Kowloon Tong in this context, even if they have never been to Hong Kong in their entire lives.

How about that? We hope to visit Malaysia at some point during our time here, and I am going to tell people we live in Kowloon Tong just to see their reactions.

This place had a wacky neon-lit courtyard, too.

Finally, I offer up this final image, shot during the same photographic walk-about that yielded the images above, with no commentary whatsoever. Maybe just a caption.

Kowloon Tong was an area where the British housed their civil servants, and so many of the streets are named after British locales: Devon Street, Kent Road, Dorset Crescent, Suffolk Road, York Road, etc. Hence this one is especially striking. And that’s the only reason.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “The “love motels” of Kowloon Tong

  1. Jeffrey

    It had been quite a while since a photo quite literally made me laugh out loud. But the end of this piece did.

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