Remembering the legacy of Kowloon Walled City

Written by: Prim Phoolsombat.

Before its demolition in 1994, Kowloon Walled City occupied only six-and-a-half acres in Kowloon Province, Hong Kong and had the world’s highest population density ratio. With a chaotic reputation for opium dens, brothels, and crime syndicates, it’s complex history as a political no-man’s-land between Chinese and British authorities throughout the twentieth century has rendered it a famed, almost fantastical site of cultural memory. It is highly romanticised as a stand-alone phenomenon of anarchy, despite the city’s tight-knit community being very much integrated with British Hong Kong.

In fact, the dark, modern perception of Kowloon residents are based on stereotypes encouraged by British colonial authorities who wanted the city destroyed. Even though colonial conflicts caused the city’s poor conditions, and crime rates went down, the city’s reputation is still thought to be the fault of its residents’ choices. Seen by some as an extreme example of what is to come in cities globally (from overpopulation, late capitalism and/or organically developing “anarchies”), enclaves like the Walled City teach us the consequences of colonialism and demonizing communities for political power.

The humble beginnings of Kowloon Walled City can be traced back to the Song Dynasty (860-1279) with a customs station. Then, during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) in 1841, the British occupied Hong Kong and the Treaty of Nanking was signed in 1843. The first construction of a recognizable Walled City came in 1846, when the Qing fundraised to construct a small fort with walls and canons. The city became valuable to the Qing as a good site to shore up on coastal defense technology. In 1898, Hong Kong’s New Territories were leased to the British, putting the city in British territory.

From then onwards, a back and forth ensued for the next fifty years; China wanting to retain control over Kowloon City, and the British wanting to destroy it. After strong resistance from both parties, the city entered a state of political purgatory where neither authority controlled it. After World War II, British authorities banned opium dens, brothels, and other vices in Hong Kong. These businesses moved swiftly into Kowloon Walled City, as it was seldom patrolled, sparsely populated, and under ambiguous jurisdiction.

The city’s reputation, population, and physical prowess formed rapidly between the 1950s and 1980s, especially as refugees from the Cultural Revolution fled to Hong Kong. Unregulated construction led to compact, topsy-turvy high-rises. However, buildings were limited to thirteen or fourteen stories so airplanes could land at nearby Kai Tak International Airport, which was partly built with Kowloon’s stone walls. Rent was cheap without taxes and buildings were connected by dark, narrow alleys. Within them lay a maze of schools, illegal factories, charities, illegal food and butcher shops, family homes, and criminal headquarters.

From an ivory tower, the city seemed to be a blemish on British Hong Kong’s modernising, Western excellence. However, the unfavourable coverage ignored the necessary dependence of the city on Hong Kong’s demands to sustain its businesses. The customers who sought Kowloon’s prostitutes, the drug suppliers who perpetuated Kowloon’s opium dens, the punters who played in the gambling dens — they came from Hong Kong. There were no consequences for the taxi companies openly advertising these vices to transport Hong Kongers to and from the city. The residents were also the victims of police brutality and corruption. A landmark case in 1959 by a Hong Kong judge declared that criminals captured in Kowloon city were subject to Hong Kong law. Police activity increased and officers would blackmail residents with demands under threat of arrest.

Additionally, the city’s lack of hygienic infrastructure became associated with the residents as further proof of inherent “dirtiness” — more justification for its eradication from the British. Because the city did not belong to Hong Kong, it was not connected to water. Kaifong (街坊) associations (local councils formed by residents) formed as more residents and refugees came, and along with charity groups, they routed water into the city. However, the city was constantly dripping. Indeed, the city was described as having a micro-climate, where visitors and factory workers entering the hot and humid bottom floors always used umbrellas to shield from the leaky, makeshift pipes above. The precious roof-top spaces became cool gathering places at night, as well as play areas for children, trash dumps, and was a place for pigeons to be raised.

In 1984, reunification was set for 1997. Despite evidence by the 1980s that crime rates in Kowloon Walled City were no higher than in other areas of Hong Kong, it was declared in 1987 that the city was to be destroyed. It had to be destroyed before the turnover — one government official working on the project explained that if it was not then the Chinese government’s media could easily portray Kowloon Walled City as being a “nice” result of British colonialism.

The quirks and darker aspects of the city drew swaths of curious tourists before demolition. Already, the city was turning into cultural memorabilia for outsiders while residents scrambled to ensure compensation before eviction, especially in the face of Hong Kong’s soaring property value. After demolition, a park was built on top with Qing architecture and drainage systems, revising the space to represent clean, pre-colonial Chinese cultural greatness and ignoring the reality of the residents. The park was praised by British and Chinese authorities, avoiding the recognition Kowloon Walled City deserved as being the result of their conflicts.

Today, the memory of Kowloon is artificially reconstructed in themed casinos, arcades, video games, manga, cyberpunk fantasies, and more. Those seeking an authentic experience of an anarchy or a hedonistic community will find only exaggerated features of the Kowloon that was subject to power struggles outside of residents’ control. The ugly truth of the Walled City is not simply it’s criminal spaces and lack of infrastructure, but the transfer of responsibility for those features from colonial governments to the people who called Kowloon home.

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