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Old Posted Sep 24, 2004, 9:08 PM
MolsonExport MolsonExport is online now
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The Walled City of Kowloon

The most dense human habitation in world history.


Kowloon Walled City

Hak Nam, City of Darkness, the old Walled City of Kowloon was finally demolished ten years ago, in 1993, and to the end it retained its seedy magnificence. Rearing up abruptly in the heart of urban Hong Kong, 10, 12 and in some places as many as 14 storeys high, there was no mistaking it: an area 200 metres by 100 metres of solid building, home to some 35,000 people, not the largest, perhaps, but certainly one of the densest urban slums in the world. It was also, arguably, the closest thing to a truly self-regulating, self-sufficient, self-determining modern city that has ever been built.

The City in its final form went back barely 20 years. In origin, however, Kowloon City was much the oldest part of Hong Kong, and one of the few areas in the vicinity populated when the British first arrived in 1841 to claim Hong Kong Island and the southern-most tip of the Kowloon Peninsula for their own. It was a proper Chinese town, laid out with painstaking attention to eternal principles. The Chinese believed that a town should face south and overlook water with hills and mountains protecting its rear, and in these terms the City was very happily placed, with the great Lion Rock just to the north of it and Kowloon Bay immediately to the south.

What the geomantic sages could not control were the infringements of the barbarians. When the British sought to expand their hold on Hong Kong in 1898, with a 99-year lease covering the whole of Kowloon Peninsula and all the nearby islands, most of Kowloon City was subsumed under the new jurisdiction. Under the terms of the lease, however, it was agreed that the small, walled magistrates? fort to the north of the town would remain Chinese territory until the new colonial administration had been properly established and all the details of land ownership, held within the fort, had been transferred.

The situation was never resolved, and for the next 90 years of British rule the City remained an anomaly: within British domain, yet outside British control. The Chinese officials left for good in 1899, but whenever the colonial authorities tried to impose their will, the remaining residents threatened to turn the attempt into a diplomatic incident. And so it remained until the Second World War, when the invading Japanese delivered the first body blow, tearing down the huge granite walls and using them to build Kai Tak Airport in the shallows of nearby Kowloon Bay. The former harmony was destroyed: the creation of the airport drove away the Yin spirit provided by the water and the City was abandoned.

The City may have effectively ceased to exist, but the area?s status as a diplomatic black hole was not forgotten, and in the chaos of the War?s aftermath it proved the perfect place of asylum for many of the hundred thousands of refugees pouring south to escape famine, civil war and political persecution as the Communists gained control in China. Surrounded now only by walls of political inhibition, the City became the place where they could get their breath back; where they could live as Chinese among other Chinese, untaxed, uncounted and untormented by governments of any kind.

And so, the Walled City became that rarest of things, a working model of an anarchist society. Inevitably, it bred all the vices. Crime flourished and the Triads made the place their stronghold, operating brothels and opium ?divans? and gambling dens. Undoubtedly, these few (and it always was a small proportion) kept the majority of residents in a state of fear and subjection, which is why for many years outsiders trying to penetrate were given the coldest of shoulders.

But for most, the main priority was survival and their needs were little different from anyone else?s: a life without interference with water, light, food and space. Of these water was the most indispensable and in the early years the only way to get it was to go down. And so that?s what they did, sinking some 70 wells in and around the City, to a depth of some 300 feet. Electric pumps shot the water up to tanks on the rooftops from where it descended via an ad hoc forest of narrow pipes and connections to the homes of subscribers. Only in the last 20 years were Government stand-pipes installed around the City to provide safe drinking water.

To run the pumps and to light up the City?s many alleys required electricity and initially this challenge was tackled in a similarly robust fashion: it was stolen from the mains, often by Hongkong Electric employees who lived within the City boundaries. Only in the late 1970s, after a serious fire (much the most terrifying hazard in the City), were the authorities allowed in with their meters.

Thus was the substructure of urban life roughly but workably banged into shape. And out of all the chaos and apparent lack of real organisation, a sort of society began to flourish. Soon, there were factories of every description, small shops and even schools and kindergartens, some of them run by organisations such as the Salvation Army. Medical and dental care were no problem, as many of the residents were doctors and dentists with Chinese qualifications and years of experience, but lacking the expensive licences required to practice in the rest of the Colony. They set up their clinics on the edges of the City and charged their patients a fraction of what they would pay elsewhere.

For the moments of relief from toil, there were many restaurants on the City?s fringes and embedded deep in its heart were a temple and a ?yamen?, relics of the City?s distant past. And so life went on. Every afternoon the alleys were alive with the throb of hidden machinery and the clacking of mahjong tiles, while up on the roof, in cages not much smaller than some of the City?s homes, cooed hundreds of racing pigeons, joined there by children playing after school.

And here, in this richness and diversity, lies what was truly fascinating about the City. For all its physical shortcomings, and there were many, its residents had succeeded in creating a true community - and, ironically, one that was to flourish in the City?s final years, after the authorities had moved in to arrange the clearance and the Triads had been forced to move out. Photographed by Greg Girard and Ian Lambot during the City?s last years, this exhibition offers a glimpse of that unique community and of the extraordinary architecture that had evolved over the years to support it.

For more information about Kowloon Walled City, look out for Greg and Ian?s book, City of Darkness, available from specialist architectural bookshops or via our website at watermarkpublications. com.

Aerial photo (c. 1973):

Demolition of the Walled City begins in 1993:

A "Street" inside the Walled City:

Family-run Noodle factory in the Walled City:

Cookin' Heroin in the Walled City:


The rooftop playground:

In the Peking Convention of 1898, which leased Hong Kong to Britain for 99 years, the Walled City was excluded, the Chinese governing the area on condition they would not interfere with troops stationed to defend Hong Kong. Britain quickly rescinded the unofficial agreement, announcing in December 1899 that KWC would become "part and parcel of Her Majesty's Colony of Hong Kong". After Britain attacked the Walled City the same year, only to find it deserted, they failed to demonstrate control over the city, leaving it pretty much alone, their inaction adding to confusion over the city's rule.

China, likewise, never recognized Britain's claim to the Walled City, though for the years between the turn of the century and World War II the city was more of a tourist attraction than a residential settlement. Two events led to a resurgence of people back into KWC: Japan surrendering in WWII (previously having demolished most of the city to lay airport runways during their brief occupation), and the formation of the Republic of China in 1949. The refugee influx, due mostly to the latter, was steady, reaching about 10,000 residents in 1970. In this time the British government attempted to evacuate the squatters after an unsuccessful proposal to turn the jurisdiction of KWC into a "Garden of Remembrance of Anglo-Chinese trusteeship" (which the Chinese flatly rejected). The evacuations lead to riots as the expelled tried to return to the city, causing the British to drop the evictions to prevent further deterioration of Anglo-Chinese relations. From this moment on (ca. 1949) the British Government adopted a "hands-off" policy towards the Walled City.

What happened in the following years gave KWC its reputation as "a cesspool of iniquity, with heroin divans, brothels and everything unsavory." The blossoming of the city under no apparent rule continued with occasional, unsuccessful raids and evacuations over the years. A murder trial in 1959 illustrates the confusion over governing the city: a British court ruled that since the murder had been committed within the Walled City it was out of their jurisdiction, but looking at the Peking Convention they realized the city under Chinese jurisdiction was temporary. Fifty years later and still nobody is certain who's rule KWC falls under!

In the "bad" years of the 1950s and '60s much of the power lay in the hands of the Triads: a republican secret society against Imperial Manchu rule, when formed in the late 19th century, turning to more "dubious activities as a way of raising funds" (drugs, prostitution and gambling). Much of their control dissipated when police made over 3,000 raids and 2,500 arrests in the 1973 and '74, another turning point.

The 1970s saw improved Anglo-Chinese relations and a continuation of the "high-rise" boom of the previous decade. This decade, and the following, also saw KWC at its peak: the population increasing up to 350,000 in 1983, with less crime than the rest of Hong Kong. With the improved relations between Britain and China the announcement, in 1987, of the Walled City's demise is not surprising. Neither government saw it as an asset or as something they wanted to take responsibility for, but both agreed that it had to come down. The city existed outside the realm of the understandable or the comprehendible; a grotesque, dense mass that exhibited a certain beauty at the same time. It depended on the political tension of two countries to exist, yet, ironically, was an un-political entity. By cleaning the slate both governments wanted to start afresh, but hopefully material, like this web page and the resources mentioned in the bibliography, will keep the city alive.

Last edited by MolsonExport; Jul 19, 2012 at 1:12 PM.
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