"Kowloon Walled City" - Hong Kong, China


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 kin



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.




























Old Photos...

Kowloon Walled City 1991








Cross Section KWC





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