In 1898, the British, who had conquered Hong Kong island some sixty years earlier, signed a 99-year lease with the Chinese that gave them control over the New Territories, an additional strip of land on the mainland. The lease excluded a small military fort called the Kowloon Walled City, a walled military outpost with a small surrounding village. On the terms of the lease, the Chinese were allowed to continue manning the fort, although only so long as their doing so didn’t interfere with the British control over Hong Kong. The Chinese wanted the fort to check the influence of the British Empire, while the British hoped the arrangement would only be short-term, and that they would gain control over the Walled City in the long term. They did so sooner than expected: the year after, in 1899, citing local resistance to the handover of the New Territories, the British captured the fort by force, finding it to be mostly empty, only a small garrison of troops left. One might expect that they’d assert their influence once they’d captured the place – a legal document from April, 1899 declared the Chinese administration of the Walled city to be “inconsistent with the military requirements for defending Hong Kong” and therefore in violation of the lease – but instead, the British took a curiously hands-off approach to the area which would later serve to make the place a kind of legal limbo, outside of effective jurisdiction from both the British and the Chinese sides.
After the occupation in 1899, the Walled City became a small rural village with a population of a few hundred. Buildings fell into disuse and disrepair. In the surrounding hills, squatters ran little farms, and some of them moved into the city. By 1933, the Hong Kong authorities decided to remove this dirt spot from the map once and for all, and evacuated the inhabitants. Then the Japanese rolled in during WWII, occupying Hong Kong and tearing down the Walled City’s wall to extend the nearby Kai Tak airport. After the war, China again showed interest in asserting their rights to the City, and thousands of refugees poured into the no-longer-Walled city, banking on China to keep the British authorities from throwing them out. The British tried to forcibly evacuate the city in 1948, but this time, the inhabitants fought back, and the British decided to back off. Up until the 1960s, the city grew steadily, but the buildings remained three stories or less, even as the Chinese crime syndicates, the Triads, moved in to take advantage of the relatively lawless area.
Then, in the 1960s and 70s, there was a building boom, and Kowloon Walled City turned into the sprawling, cyberpunk arcology that continues to inspire and awe people, even now, seventeen years after its destruction. As buildings grew taller, the street grid became more and more obscured, and as the ever-taller constructions leaned on each other as they raced to the sky, daylight was obstructed, and the city earned its nickname, the City of Darkness. At its peak in the late eighties, the area, which spanned little more than 0.03 square kilometers (0.01 sq mile), was home to 35,000 people. Bridges and stairs affixed to houses allowed you to traverse the city from one end to another without once stepping on the ground. Manufacturers and stores thrived in cramped spaces in dark alleys, often without electric light and with natural light mostly occluded by the superstructure itself, the organically constructed mega-building that filled a volume from the ground upwards to a cap of fifteen stories – one of the few official bans on construction: so as not to disturb the airport, buildings may not exceed that limit – almost completely. Textiles, sweets and toys were among the things manufactured in the Walled City in its heyday. By the time of its destruction, however, some factories had downscaled or closed down because it was cheaper to produce their goods in China. That’s right, Hong Kong a victim of outsourcing to China.
The unique political circumstances surrounding the Walled City created a state of effective lawlessness. Although the city was never completely without incursions by the authorities, it was for many years effectively self-governed. Despite the squalid living conditions, with cramped spaces, dirty water, bad or lacking access to electricity, and a significant presence of the Triads, the City saw a steady influx of people who were looking for cheap rent and nonexistent taxes. Doctors and dentists could practice without getting licenses like they would in Hong Kong proper; manufacturers could likewise set up shop as they pleased. The triads ran drug dens, brothels and gambling houses, and visitors could also enjoy dog meat, which was illegal in Hong Kong. In the early days, there were open sewers, and the sanitation workers tasked with the sorry job of removing the soils of the night would occasionally have to fish out dead addicts floating in the sewage.
The Walled City is interesting as an example of anarchy, or something close to it, in practice. Opponents of anarchism like to point to the 1969 police strike in Montreal, where an entire city descended into rampant crime and chaos with the police gone. See, they might say, human nature is so vile and terrible that even a single day without police is enough for us to revert to our basest level and steal and murder with abandon. The Kowloon Walled City, however, was not a short-term situation. It survived outside the law for many years, and it was growing almost right up until the end. As such, it’s a better example of how an anarchist society might work.
In short, it worked like a crime-infested slum. It was nothing like an anarchist utopia. It’s true that the British took a very hands-off approach to policing the area, and the Chinese did nothing in practice to exercise any rights to Kowloon. It’s also true that the Triads moved in and brought with them drugs, gambling and prostitution, aside from extorting protection money from honest businesses, of course. But the situation could not resolve itself without authority: things changed during 1973-74, when the British decided to do something about the crime and did a series of police raids in the city. The crime rate in Kowloon Walled City was reduced after this, and at one point was reported to be no higher than the surrounding areas, but no thanks to the populace: they were helpless in ridding themselves of criminal gangs, and had to wait until the outside decided it cared enough to apply some force of its own to solve the problem. There was a sort of community council, the Kai Fong, but it mostly served as a united front for the citizenry’s pleas to the outside, which were directed to anyone who might listen: the British, the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan.
Although the city was largely left to fend for itself, it was far from self-sufficient. It depended on the outside for most everything: for the electricity that powered its factories, electricity that, even after they started paying for it, was never paid for in full; for water, for food, for police, which although without much authority nevertheless made occasional forays into the city, and which were instrumental in decreasing the Triads’ hold on Kowloon; for waste collection, and so on. But it was a real city: it had schools, churches, businesses.
Buildings rarely had fresh water or drainage connections, so pipes in various states of corrosion and ad hoc repair were affixed to the outside. To supply water, people dug wells beneath the city, but the water was undrinkable: in some parts of the city, people complained that the well water was murky, heavy and stinky, while in other parts the water had a film of oil on it and contained soot-like particles.
For residents of the upper floors, the roofs of the city served as a kind of sanctuary. Children could play there, and adults could relax, breathe fresh air and enjoy the natural light that escaped the lower levels. You could move through the city from above, jumping from roof to roof or following a series of ladders.
In 1977, China Electric started installing electricity in the city. Before that, only a few places along the perimeter of the Walled City had official access to the electric grid, and the remaining buildings were either without electricity, or they were stealing it from the outside. Until then, the electric company was reluctant to take action towards thieves because of the city’s reputation as a crime nest, and they weren’t interested in providing an official grid because of the many seedy establishments – brothels, gambling parlors and opium dens – throughout the Walled City. By 1977, the crime rate was down, and China Electric started installing real power lines. Besides, a major fire had highlighted the hazards of ad hoc DIY illegal wiring. The city’s tangled topography provided plenty of challenges. An employee who worked on installing cables in the city recalls:
The city was just a mess of pipes and wires all over the place. We were at a loss where to begin! Eventually we decided that we’d just have to make a start from the outside and work in – take the cable and enter inch by inch. But when we were digging we’d often strike rock and stone and and have to stop. After several meetings in the City, we agreed to raise the level of the pavement instead!
We had to invent many new ways of installing cables. We’d try one way first and if that worked we’d use it again. Occasionally there’d be problems, of course. People didn’t like us fixing cables to their walls, for example, and it took some persuasion before such matters were resolved. Sometimes the wiring had to go through someone else’s premises and, of course, some saw this as an invasion. In these cases we just had to let the applicant negotiate with the owner. Actually, in a few instances, we just supplied electricity to the to the power points on a lower floor and let the owner connect it to the floor above. You know what the buildings are like in the Walled City – they’re built one on top of the other, leaning here and there.
It did not last. In 1984 and 1985, eyeing the imminent expiration of Britain’s lease on the New Territories, UK and China signed, then ratified the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which declared that the UK would hand over administration of Hong Kong, including Kowloon and the New Territories, to the People’s Republic of China on July 1, 1997. In 1987, the Hong Kong government announced that the Kowloon Walled City was finally going to go. The population was compensated and moved out without serious resistance, and in 1993, the now-empty urban hive was finally demolished. In its place now stands a park.
There’s something absolutely fascinating about the Kowloon Walled City. There’s its physical structure, of course: a cyberpunk sprawl brought to life centuries before Blade Runner and Neuromancer. An extremely efficient packing of space, building built upon building, truly a city of darkness, with twisted, narrow alleyways that hardly saw any light, with bridges and stairs inside and on the exterior of buildings, making up a net of deteriorating, ad hoc architecture. Urban decay has never looked so ugly, and therefore so beautiful. The imagination runs rampant: the Walled City invites one to imagine secret passageways, underground crime syndicates, maybe martial arts tournaments, as seen in the movie Bloodsport, which has a scene filmed in Kowloon. There’s the society that formed inside it: outside the law, or nearly so, with its own mores, its own do-it-yourself community. The fact is that it was a slum. Living conditions were horrible, although they got steadily better until the end. To the inhabitants, of course, it was also a home, and although there were no violent riots in the early nineties when the city was finally evacuated, nothing like what happened back in 1948 when the British made their last attempt to demolish the city, it must surely have felt like a loss. To all of us who never got to see it, we can probably never recreate the experience walking those streets, living in that space must have been. Although I’m selfishly sad that I will never get to experience this place, I know I should really be happy. The place was an environmental hazard, a slum, a cramped space of sweatshops and lightless alleys, and the inhabitants, who were compensated by the government for moving out, are probably better off elsewhere. I know I should be happy, but I can’t help feeling a little sad.
There’s something interesting about places like the KWC: the physical representations of various utopias and dystopias, of various ideals of living. The KWC fulfills, or at least approximates two different ideals: one, the ideal of packing as much as possible into a small space, the fabled arcology; the other, the lawless society, the anarchic city without official authorities. Other places that approximate ideals: the Brazilian capital, Brasília, which was built according to plan in just a couple of years in the fifties; California City, the planned megacity whose shell can still be seen outside the small city it turned into; Naypyidaw, the new capital of Burma, which that country’s military junta built in a few years and moved its government to over the weekend. If I had the resources, I’d love to go to these places to do the primary research on these places, the physical realizations of idealized cities.
A Kowloon Walled City dentist.
(It’s quite a mouthful, so if I were to write a book about them I’d have to come up with a catchier phrase, but I think the basic idea is really intriguing. What do these places have in common, and what sets them apart? What’s it actually like living in a city that was either planned from the bottom up to satisfy some kind of ideal – such as the ideal of political self-preservation for a military junta – or that somehow, due to historical circumstances, grew into being a representation for an ideal – such as the ideal of hyperdense packing of space, or of a lawless society – and what can regular cities learn from them? Plus these places are endlessly fascinating visually.)
The primary source for this post, including the pictures, is the fantastic book City of Darkness: Life in Kowloon City, by photographer Greg Girard and writer Ian Lambot (all credit to them). It’s available on Amazon for the steep price of $79.50, although it can also, ahem, be found in a different form elsewhere, and I recommend you check it out. It contains Girard’s fantastic pictures, as well as essays and, more importantly, lots of interviews with people who lived and worked in the Walled City, including the one with the China Electric employee that I quoted. If there are factual errors, they’re probably mine; if there are any gems, they’re theirs.