Gangsters running around dark alleys, carrying automatic weapons to shoot any raiding policemen they see. Prostitutes standing under neon signboards, in claustrophobic settlements where the sun hardly penetrates. Meanwhile, residents doing their daily activities, indifferent to the madness around them, carry on with their business in a dingy and unsanitary neighborhood – no ordinary neighborhood by any means.
Those infamous scenes were introduced by Hong Kong’s film industry to the world through its myriad gangster movies back in the 1980s. Some of the multinational criminal organizations – known as Triads – in fact ran many illegal businesses from Kowloon’s Walled City, a peculiar residential housing complex amid the otherwise modern city of Hong Kong. From the 1950s to the 1970s Triads contributed to the high rate of prostitution, gambling and drug use associated with the dense neighborhood. Thanks to its long and complicated history, the once sleepy trading outpost transformed itself into a chaotic city within a city over the course of centuries.
It all began when the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 AD) established an outpost on the shores of the Kowloon peninsula to manage the local salt trade. Centuries later little had changed except for the addition of a small coastal fort around the old trading post. However in the mid-19th century the First Opium War broke out between Britain and China, leading to the signing of the Treaty of Nanking by both sides at the end of the war. As a part of the treaty, China agreed to cede Hong Kong in perpetuity to Britain, further strengthening the European hegemon’s presence right in China’s backyard.
In response to this humiliating loss, the Qing Dynasty fortified Kowloon fort in the same grounds where the old salt trading post was set up. In the years that followed, a series of defeats from western powers and Japan further weakened the Chinese government, paving the way for a further scramble for China. In 1898 China agreed to give Britain full jurisdiction of the New Territories for 99 years, adding more than 950 square kilometers to Hong Kong’s land area – almost tenfold of the pre-1898 area. However the fortress – known as Kowloon Walled City – was oddly excluded from the treaty, creating a state of limbo for decades to come.
Officially an enclave of China within British Hong Kong, the Walled City was attacked by the British forces in May 1899 who then claimed ownership of the area. In the following years, however, they did little to the settlement and in 1933 plans were announced to demolish the Walled City altogether. But another, and bigger, war broke out.
Japanese forces occupied Hong Kong in World War II during which they stripped the walls of the Walled City to be used to extend the runway of Kai Tak Airport. After the surrender of Japan at the end of the war, China once again laid claim to the Walled City, driving refugees to flock and settle in the enclave. Years later the British remained clear of the area, but no local government was set up by the Chinese either, creating a virtual no man’s land which lured crime syndicates to start lucrative illegal businesses there.
The Walled City’s population kept growing, but with such limited land the only way to stay in pace with population growth was to build up. In the 1980s it housed a record 33,000 residents in a plot of only 2.6 hectares – around the same density of the entire population of the United States, Indonesia, Brazil and Pakistan living in a place as small as Singapore. It was a big dark labyrinthine settlement with interconnecting buildings; no trash collection service was in place, forcing its residents to dump their garbage out of their windows or on the rooftops.
“There was a place near an airport, Kowloon, where Hong Kong wasn’t China, but there had been a mistake, a long time ago, and that place, very small, many people, it still belonged to China. So there was no law there. An outlaw place. And more and more people crowded in; they built it up higher. No rules, just building, just people living. Police wouldn’t go there. Drugs and whores and gambling. But people living, too. Factories, restaurants. A city. No law.”
– Idoru, William Gibson
In 1984 the Chinese and British governments signed a joint declaration to prepare the handover of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China, in which also stipulated the demolition of the Walled City. Plans were made to resettle its residents in government housing estates, and to build a park over the rubble.
Kowloon Walled City Park was then completed in 1995 and today it serves as a memorial to the old Walled City, dotted with beautiful Chinese pavilions built in the Jiangnan style. The renovated Yamen building – the sole survivor of the demolition – now serves as an interactive space and provides a glimpse of the settlement’s tangled history. Nothing like the Walled City had existed before, and nothing like it would probably ever exist again.
External link: Photos of Kowloon Walled City in the olden days