Once dubbed the most densely populated place on Earth, the 2.7-hectare Kowloon Walled City was home to some 50,000 people at its height in 1990. Demolished in 1993, what sits in its place now is a sprawling, well-manicured green space with artifacts and exhibits illustrating the city’s storied past. While most would remember it as a lawless enclave notorious for its triads, sex work, and drug activities, others have offered an insight into its warmer side. Some of the former residents fondly remembered the vibrant, bustling neighborhood as a tight-knit community amid constructed chaos. What was life really like in this extremely densely populated place, and how has it contributed to the social history of Hong Kong?
The Beginnings of the Kowloon Walled City
The story of the Kowloon Walled City began in the aftermath of the First Opium War (1839–1842). China, having lost the war, had to cede a portion of Hong Kong to the British Empire by the Treaty of Nanking. Despite this, to better keep watch on the newly established British colony, the Qing government decided to construct a walled fortress across Kowloon Bay. This small fortress came to be known as the Kowloon Walled City. In less than 15 years, the Second Opium War (1856–1860) broke out with the rising tensions over trade between the Chinese and British governments.
China’s defeat in the war saw it relinquishing its control of Hong Kong to the British via the 1898 Second Convention of Peking. While the terms of the convention granted Britain a 99-year lease of Hong Kong, the Kowloon Walled City was exempt and remained a Chinese territory. Sticking out like a sore thumb in an awkward political position, the Kowloon Walled City would continue to be an anomaly for the rest of its existence.
World War II and the Post-War Fate of the City
With the outbreak of World War II, the Japanese occupiers destroyed the City’s walls to amass materials for the runway of the nearby Kai Tak Airport. As the British regained control of Hong Kong after the Japanese surrender, they were met with another tricky problem. Thousands of refugees escaping the Chinese Civil War had fled to the Kowloon Peninsula and refused to leave despite official warnings. By 1948, the British had adopted a hands-off policy, while recognizing the Chinese government’s jurisdiction—which remained unexercised—over the territory.
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With its awkward and uncertain political status, the Kowloon Walled City was effectively left to its own devices. With an unprecedented construction boom in the 1950s and 1960s, it soon reinvented itself as a squatters’ paradise. Kickstarting what would cement the city’s reputation for being extremely densely populated, locals, and untrained architects, began constructing more and more buildings and dwellings. Some were sandwiched between each other, while others were stacked higher and higher, barely scraping the maximum height limit of 14 stories.
A Real-Life Jenga in Action
As more blocks were increasingly constructed over the next few decades, the Kowloon Walled City became a place where little light could reach the interiors. It soon earned the moniker “Hak Nam” which means “City of Darkness” in Cantonese. A labyrinth of some 350 tightly packed buildings was occupied by over 8,500 premises and 10,700 households. With a mishmash of wirings, cables, metal pipes, cast-iron balconies, brick annexes, and concrete walls, an uneasy, industrial gloom filled the space. A straight-up nightmare for claustrophobics and urban planners alike, it was hard to believe that at its height, some 50,000 residents called this place home.
Where Mice (and Vice) Thrived
Plagued by persistent pollution, unsanitary living conditions, and excessive noise, the Kowloon Walled City became a magnet for vermin, and sometimes questionable activities. Tucked away in its alleyways were hundreds of unlicensed doctors and dentists offering cheap services, much to the elation of those who had set foot in the City of Darkness looking for a bargain. Further down the walkway, one could find an abundance of gambling dens, strip clubs, drug parlors, brothels, and pornographic cinemas. The Kowloon Walled City promised to satisfy every desire. Given the alarming rates of criminal activities, common law clearly did not apply here. In essence, the Kowloon Walled City was a city within a city. It was fully self-governing and self-regulating, away from the privy eyes of the British and Chinese governments.
Of Crammed Factories and Close-Knit Communities
Beneath its bad rap as a hotbed for criminal activity, the Kowloon Walled City was a gigantic factory producing everything from fish balls, and roasted meat to plastic doll parts and golf balls. Some of these items made their way all around Hong Kong and would later be exported to Mainland China and various parts of the world. Numerous street stalls hawked the tastiest treats that could not be found anywhere else. Many from outside the City would even flock here to savor exotic dog and snake meat dishes despite their dubious origins.
Apart from being a food haven, here in the world’s most densely populated settlement was also where vibrant communities thrived. The interconnected labyrinth of streets and buildings made for good catching and hide-and-seek games, while the rooftops hosted exhilarating invite-only pigeon races for the locals. As the population grew, locals dug additional wells and channeled pipes through the entire space. Some also remembered the sense of community and warmth that permeated the City of Darkness as residents supported and looked out for one another. Given the dense population, pumping water to the roof tanks was power-intensive. As such, residents would take turns conserving electricity in their respective households so that the water supply could be shared with everyone.
The Start of the End
For over 40 years, the Kowloon Walled City thrived on official negligence, capitalizing on its awkward political status. However, residents, too, knew that such days were numbered as there would eventually come a time when the government would re-enter the picture. That day came on 14 January 1987. In the morning hours, just as residents were going about their daily routines, news of demolition and redevelopment of the city broke. At the same time, some 400 officials from the Hong Kong Housing Department arrived onsite. They started erecting cordons around the streets and alleyways of the Kowloon Walled City. Following this, they knocked on the doors of each and every household to survey the residents.
Against the backdrop of a joint Sino-British declaration signed two years earlier to transfer the sovereignty of Hong Kong back to China on 1 July 1997, there was no resistance from the Chinese government. This allowed the Hong Kong government to carry out its plans of demolishing and redeveloping the Kowloon Walled City in peace. All they had to deal with was the residents’ response regarding compensation and eviction. As official plans were kept secret, the Hong Kong government devised the terms of compensation, careful not to draw the attention of opportunistic individuals who might move to the city just to get compensated. Over the course of six months, Kowloon was under close surveillance for officials to obtain more accurate details of the population census.
The End of an Era
As negotiations continued for the next couple of years, the Hong Kong government worked out a $2.76 billion compensation package for those affected. For each individual flat, residents received approximately $380,000 and with that, some 33,000 satisfied residents moved out by November 1991. For those who refused to budge, the Hong Kong government resorted to sending riot police to evict them in July 1992. Thereafter, a tall wire fence was erected to surround the eerily unpopulated site, one that had finally seen the end of an era.
About nine months later, a ceremony to kickstart the official demolition was held in the Kowloon Walled City in the presence of VIPs and dignitaries. An eight-story tower block was symbolically smashed by a wrecker’s ball, inviting spirited cheers from the guests and screams of protest by begrudging former residents. By April 1994, the Kowloon Walled City no longer existed in its physical form. All that was left were dust, rubble, and a cultural legacy that cannot be demolished.
Remembering the Kowloon Walled City
Following the demolition of the Kowloon Walled City, the Hong Kong government put in place plans to redevelop the site into a park. Known as the Kowloon Walled City Park, it was completed in August 1995 and officially opened to the public later in December. Careful consideration too was made to preserve the cultural legacy of the Kowloon Walled City.
Modeled on the Jiangnan gardens of the Qing Dynasty, the 3.1-hectare park featured eight landscape components. Paths and pavilions in the park took the names of former streets in the Kowloon Walled City. Artifacts were put on display in exhibition halls curated to continue telling the fascinating history of the site. The yamen (administrative office) and remnants of the City’s South Gate, too, were restored and declared monuments of Hong Kong.
Apart from a physical recreational park, the legacy of the Kowloon Walled City continues to live and thrive in popular culture today. Not only has its grungy anarchistic vibe inspired bars, exhibitions, and manga, but traces of the dystopian city can also be found in numerous films and video games. Fans of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins would see striking parallels between The Narrows, a walled-in slum in Gotham, and the Kowloon Walled City, which inspired the director and his production designer.
In the world of video games, Call of Duty: Black Ops has also paid homage to it. With a level based on the Kowloon Walled City, the game designers faithfully recreated the city’s iconic caged balconies and wiring nightmare. In Japan, Kawasaki Warehouse, a five-story arcade building, took recreation to the next level. Featuring a life-size diorama of the Kowloon Walled City, the arcade took visitors back in time into another world with its fluorescent signages, claustrophobic alleyways, and mannequin prostitutes.
A real-life dystopia that had captured the world’s imagination, the Kowloon Walled City continues to marvel and inspire works in popular culture today. Despite its controversial history, its legacy persists to this day as the historical anomaly serves to remind many of a bygone time in Hong Kong where lawlessness and community spirit thrived simultaneously in the same space.