The Lasting Legacy of Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City

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It was called “The City of Darkness” — a place so densely constructed that light itself did not penetrate the narrow footpaths between its high rises.

For several decades in the second half of the 20th century, the Kowloon Walled City — an enclave within the sprawling city of Hong Kong — was far and away the most densely populated place in the world. By the late 1980s, at least 30,000 people were living inside, in a space only 6.4 acres in size, or roughly 0.01 of a square mile.

That translates to a population density of over 3,000,000 people per square mile. By comparison, the most densely populated city in the world today is Manila, the capital of the Philippines, which boasts fewer than 120,000 people per square mile.

Both Great Britain and China laid jurisdictional claim to the Kowloon Walled City at various points in its packed history, but neither conducted much in the way of oversight. With its unplanned and unregulated growth (both in physical space and in population), the fort-turned-squatter-settlement brimmed with squalid conditions and all manner of vices, as well as law-abiding families, factories and businesses.

Demolished in the 1990s, the strange, stacked village is now no more. But the Kowloon Walled City leaves a lasting legacy steeped in military history, British colonialism and Chinese resilience.

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The Early Existence of the Kowloon Walled City

The Kowloon Walled City was located in the northeast of the Kowloon Peninsula, on the main landmass of Hong Kong. Its origins trace back to the 1660s, when the locale became home to a minor military fort. The fort stayed small for centuries. But when China ceded a nearby island — Hong Kong Island — to the British at the end of the First Opium War in 1842, Chinese officials decided to expand the fort to discourage any additional British incursions.

Within five years, the Chinese had constructed a giant granite wall around the fort’s military offices and barracks and had armed the 13-foot wall with cannons, officially earning the enclave the ‘Walled City’ moniker. But walls and cannons were not enough to curb the British. When the Second Opium War ended in 1860, the Chinese lost more of their land in the First Convention of Peking, including most of the Kowloon Peninsula.

The Chinese and British clashed over territory for the next few decades. In 1898, China leased the lands of Hong Kong and Hong Kong Island — again including most of the Kowloon Peninsula — to Britain for a period of 99 years. The only part of the peninsula that was not leased was the Walled City. According to the Second Convention of Peking, China could continue to control the fort, as long as they did not disrupt British troops nearby.

But in 1899, British officials began to suspect that Chinese soldiers were being gathered in the Walled City to aid in the mounting resistance against colonial rule. Soon, British troops marched on the fort, only to find it almost completely abandoned of military presence.

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Kowloon Territorial Tug-of-War

After expelling the Chinese magistrates that remained, the British essentially claimed the Walled City as their own. Chinese authorities never recognized the one-sided revision of the 1898 treaty, but they did not take action when British missionaries streamed in to spread Christianity. Meanwhile, the city started to crumble. A lack of administrative authority settled over the area and its remaining residents, turning the city into a slum.

In 1933, the British government in Hong Kong issued plans to evict the residents of the Kowloon Walled City — by then fewer than 500 people — to make way for a public park. The Chinese government protested this idea, stressing that the settlement was still under Chinese control, while the buildings in the city continued to deteriorate.

The control of the city caused tension for many more years. When the Japanese occupied the area during World War II, they tore down the walls and used the battered, broken-down stones as building material for the nearby Kai Tak Airport. After the war ended, Hong Kong saw an influx of refugees settle in the no-longer-walled Walled City.

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The Intriguing, Stacked City in China

By 1947, the Kowloon Walled City housed around 2,000 residents, and the local Hong Kong government was displeased with its increasingly slum-like state. Alexander Grantham, then the governor of Hong Kong, described the place as “a cesspool of iniquity, with heroin divans, brothels and everything unsavory.”

In January 1948, local Hong Kong officials and police officers arrived in the city to throw the squatters out. Within a week, the officials and officers returned to remove any additional tenants. When the police intervened, a riot broke out. In the aftermath of the violence, Chinese authorities insisted on their continued jurisdiction over the city, while Hong Kong authorities adopted an increasingly detached approach to the community’s affairs.

In subsequent decades, the population of the Kowloon Walled City boomed. But so, too, did concerns and conflicts within the community, without most of the rules, regulations, services and infrastructures that maintain the day-to-day activities in the vast majority of cities. In the chaos of Kowloon, there were no taxes and business and sanitation standards, not to mention the lack of licensed healthcare providers and police.

Soon, the traditional “triad” gangs found footholds in Hong Kong’s Walled City, which became the centerpiece of the Hong Kong narcotics trade. Prostitution flourished. And unlicensed doctors and dentists proliferated, as did restaurants and food stalls, shops and family factories.

The city’s water and power supplies were inadequate and unsafe, and in the late 1980s, the community was served by only one postman and two elevators. The latter was problematic considering that the city had grown vertically, stacking tiny living space on top of tiny living space with incredible ingenuity. At its peak, the Walled City contained around 350 buildings, typically between 10 and 14 stories high, and about 10,000 households.

And, while some scholars insist that documents show that there were several attempts at municipal planning to mitigate the city’s chaos, it is clear that most of the plans were never enacted.

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What Happened to the Walled City of Kowloon?

As the conditions inside the Walled City fell further and further behind those in its immediate surroundings, talk of demolition once again arose. In 1963, a new plan to tear the city down was met with swift pushback, but in 1987, a separate, more secretive plan gained ground. Residents and business owners were quietly compensated to leave the Walled City by Hong Kong authorities, to a total tune of $2.76 billion.

This time around, the Chinese authorities were rather responsive to the plans to build a public park in the Kowloon Walled City’s place. With China set to regain control over the rest of Hong Kong in 1997, there was no government pushback against its destruction.

Only a few hundred residents remained by the end of 1991. The following summer, riot police forcibly evicted anyone who refused to leave. A wrecking ball took its first shots at the city on March 23, 1993, with the demolition lasting about a year. On December 22, 1995, the Kowloon Walled City Park opened in its place.

Today, the Kowloon Walled City lives on in the work of artists, authors and photographers who dedicated themselves to documenting the city and its community, as well as fictional filmmakers who have taken inspiration from its crowded chaos. Director Christopher Nolan based a tightly-packed neighborhood in “Batman Begins” on the city’s claustrophobic layout, and an assortment of video games have also paid homage.

But beyond showcasing the anarchic architecture of the city, these records showcase a strange, separate world, whose crime-ridden and resilient community was forgotten by the forces that vied for its control.

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