Header image courtesy of Ian Lambot (via Wikimedia Commons)
Sealed away from the outside world, the Kowloon Walled City (九龍寨城; gau2 lung4 jaai6 sing4) was a place with an infamous reputation as a bubble of crime, paired with appalling living conditions that coloured how it was seen by the rest of the world. Drug abuse, prostitution, and illegal activities ran rampant. Its winding stairwells and network of dank, narrow alleys were akin to a black hole that would consume unfamiliar trespassers.
It may have been labelled a “City of Darkness,” yet many residents and frequenters who had resided within its walls remember the Kowloon Walled City fondly as a tight-knit neighbourhood, where their lives were closely intertwined with the surrounding concrete labyrinth. Behind this organised chaos lies a brief history of military conquest, forming the backdrop for the misunderstood community that rose from the rubble.
It all began with the lease of Hong Kong Island to the United Kingdom as part of the Treaty of Nanjing to end the First Opium War. In 1842, a garrison and fort were established by the Chinese military in the Kowloon area to defend against the British. Boxing in the 6.4-acre plot of land was a granite wall to signal to the British the resistance of the Qing authorities. As the invasion continued further up the region, the rest of the Kowloon Peninsula was eventually absorbed into the loan by the year 1860—with one exception: the Kowloon Walled City.
Kowloon Walled City held a population of around 700 people at the time, and was to be kept under Chinese rule so long as it did not intervene with the governmental efforts of British Hong Kong. It was in the year 1899 that the British, helmed by Sir Henry Blake, charged into the Kowloon Walled City under the suspicion that the Canton viceroy was secretly plotting resistance in the area, but all they encountered were residents. Once the Qing dynasty ended their governance, it was an unspoken agreement that the neighbourhood would become integrated into colonial Hong Kong’s territory, but that was never formally inscribed into jurisdiction.
In the wake of the Qing government’s withdrawal, missionaries and squatters began to make their way into the coop. In the early twentieth century, residents saw several failed plans to tear down the decaying stone shanties and decrepit hutches, with immense pushback from the inhabitants. It was the beginning of a community that formed by way of the tenants, who firmly planted their foothold and refused to move.
By the time that the Second World War was in full swing, the occupying Japanese troops had torn down the wall that fenced in the neighbourhood, then repurposed its material to engineer the nearby Kai Tak Airport. The last few structures that withstood the invasion included the yamen (衙門; Chinese administrative office building), a school, and an almshouse—the latter two constructed by Protestant church aids.
The post-war period following the defeat of Japan saw a rapid influx of immigrants from mainland China into Hong Kong, many of whom flocked to the Kowloon Walled City as refugees. Along came locals who sought out cheaper living, once they realised that the neighbourhood omitted taxes, legal fees, and rake-offs.
Slowly but surely, the seed had sprouted, and this haphazard campground began to spread its roots to resemble something permanent, something closer to a tiny town. What came as a turning point in the ruling strategies of colonial authorities, however, was the riot of 1948.
Sometime around the summer of 1948, the Public Works Department and local police force banded together to remove the squatters, and also razed over all their makeshift quarters to boot. A week later, the displaced inhabitants returned, intent on rebuilding their homes. When the police arrived, violence broke out, and displeased locals decided to set fire to the British consulate in Canton in retaliation.
Following the incident, there arose a political climate of non-regulation (三不管; saam1 bat1 gun2), where neither the Chinese nor the British colonial government had much regard for overseeing the precinct. The autonomy of the Kowloon Walled City was in a state of limbo and remained in liminal stasis for decades.
Eventually, a system of self-governance, held together by the watchful regulation of triads, was the rule of law that took hold over the Kowloon Walled City. Answering to not one body of authority, everyone played a role in keeping the community in check. There were no taxes, no regulation of businesses or production, a lack of public healthcare, and no centralised planning system. Police presence was rare, making it easy for open habits of drugs, prostitution, and criminal activity. Many convicts on the run found an escape by slithering their way behind the concrete dungeon of the city to avoid the metal bars of jail time.
Kowloon Walled City’s main road, which ran its way through the map, literally translated to “Bright Street” (光明街; gwong1 ming4 gaai1), which proved to be doubly ironic. On one hand, the buildings were so densely clustered that barely any light could leak through from the higher storeys to street level, making it the opposite of bright. Another interpretation plays with the Chinese idiom of “光明正大” (gwong1 ming4 jing3 daai6), which more or less translates to “virtue and rectitude”—things the walled city was known to lack.
At the same time, most of the inhabitants within the Kowloon Walled City were leading perfectly average lives. For every slumped shadowy figure under the staircase was a young schoolchild racing up the corridors to catch the last hours of sunlight under which to finish their homework. Housewives carrying woven bags of vegetables and meat passed by unlicensed doctors and dentists sloshing out their bloodied trash onto the narrow alleys. It was true that an air of debasement clung to all the walls and metal shutters, yet the lawlessness that allowed it seemed more of an indicator of amorality than depravity.
As the rest of Hong Kong got thrown into rapid development, the Kowloon Walled City found its own version of mirrored industrial growth as well. Domestic, family-run manufacturing plants sprung up all around, offering competitive prices and output, especially without the pesky restrictions of business registration and providing common wage. Many medical practitioners—dentists, in particular—flocked there to get the ball rolling on their practice, as they were not required to provide proper certification or proof, either.
After the signing of the joint declaration to hand over the sovereignty of Hong Kong to China, plans of bulldozing over the Kowloon Walled City to build a park had begun to surface. The Housing Department kept a watchful eye over the comings and goings of the population, working to draft up a compensatory plan that returned an average of $380,000 to each displaced citizen for their new lodgings.
By the year 1992, a large portion of the population had already moved out, and the remainder were driven out by riot police and chained off from returning to the life they had known. Starting from 1993, the whole area took around a year’s time to demolish. Only two fragments, including the granite plaques that read “South Gate” and “Kowloon Walled City,” were kept as futile markers of the ecosystem that once stood as the monstrous architectural cryptid of Kowloon.
Archaeological remains from the time the area had served as a military fortress were excavated and dusted off for show, whilst the yamen was preserved to serve as a centrepiece for a Qing-era Jiangnan-style garden. Today, the lot remains as a grassy, themed leisure park and historical exhibition.
At its peak, the Kowloon Walled City was home to about 50,000 individuals. On average, each household was packed into 29-square-metre flats, with most tenants making do with around 10 square metres. Rickety concrete buildings sprouted up to five or six floors in height during the 1950s and 1960s, gradually stacking on additional compartments to reach up to 20 to 30 storeys tall in the 1980s. However, several blocks had to be shaved down or altered to make way for the planes flitting in and out of the Kai Tak Airport runway.
Holed in a shoebox-sized den, many spent most of their waking moments shrouded in mildewed darkness with no windows. Rooftops became one of the few spots to breathe in fresh air, a playground for children who would hopscotch over adjacent towers, weaving in and out of the forest of electric cables and television antennae.
Despite the squalid environment and questionable hygiene fittings, the neighbourhood was able to cover all elements of city life, and even enter the blossoming industrial trade. Referred to by some as a form of “anarchist architecture,” the city was a self-contained, self-organising megastructure.
Entangled wires ran along the walls and ceiling to provide electricity to living quarters and working spaces, bundles of snakelike hoses and shared pipes sustained life by bringing water to everyone, and there were even intricate fixtures installed to make way for mini-factories that produced everything from fish balls to plastics.
It was rumoured that you could make your way from one end of the neighbourhood to another without ever touching the ground, as nimble residents took advantage of the tightly clustered towers to integrate a maze of stairs and bridged alleys between the blocks.
The endless adaptation to suit its residents’ needs showed an organic sense of flexibility. Things were adapted or built to add on to existing edifices and designs to meet changing needs, and it was the people who were living there that determined and built the forms that would take shape.
Even though the Kowloon Walled City no longer stands today, it is still thriving in the cultural imaginings of numerous games, comics, films, and more. A now-defunct multi-storied videogame arcade in Kanagawa, Warehouse Kawasaki, was specifically built to resemble the interior ambience of the walled city.
The persistence of the impression of the Kowloon Walled City as a gritty, lawless turf has been bolstered by its media representation as a backdrop to represent dystopic urbanisation. As a relic of the past, creators are free to reinterpret and exaggerate aspects of city life to mould them into their stories, similar to how its residents had learnt to shape the features of the cities to fit into their lives.
On a more individual level, the continued relevance of the Kowloon Walled City amongst Hong Kong inhabitants who were not even alive back then to see it in person could be attributed to its parallels to our modern housing crisis. Sure, the majority of the city is liveable now, water and electricity are elements most do not consciously think about on a daily basis, yet we are still plagued by a shocking shortage of space.
In Hong Kong’s development, many have detached from forming territory-based social groups and retracted further into the shell of atomisation, existing as apathetic singular entities avoidant of even just uttering a simple greeting in the communal lift. A look to the past of Kowloon Walled City’s flourishing community could be deciphered as a yearning for the sense of collective sentimentality that once was.