Kowloon Walled City was a prison and a sanctuary. Its labyrinthine passages and windowless apartments protected both the innocent and the guilty. Its factories and workshops produced foods and materials impossible to source anywhere else in the British colony of Hong Kong. While police patrolled metres from its outer walls, an anarchic rabbit warren of 65,000 people was left to run its own affairs within an area of little more than 7 acres.

The Walled City began life as a fort back in the glory days of the British Empire, when we were fighting China for the right to supply opium to Chinese addicts. In the mid 19th century, concerned by an addiction pandemic, China clamped down on the opium trade, resulting in a hit to British profits from selling the intoxicant. In response, Britain fought and won a war to improve trading conditions for its merchants. China was forced to open up the opium trade and cede Hong Kong to the British. They were permitted to maintain the fort there; the only part of Hong Kong not subject to British rule.

The fort in 1898

In 1912 the Chinese gave it up and left it to the British, who did nothing with it. Then, in 1941, Japan occupied Hong Kong, defeating the British in a 2-week battle. After their victory, the Japanese tore down the walls of the fort and used the stones to expand the nearby airport.

When the war ended with the British back in control, refugees from the Chinese Civil War fled to Hong Kong and occupied the derelict fort. With the administration’s priorities lying elsewhere, they were left to their own devices. The community rapidly grew to such a size that it would have been impossible to control anyway. With no space to grow outwards, it grew upwards instead, packing more and more into its heavily confined limits. The walls of the fort were now the walls of rudimentary, ramshackle apartment buildings reaching up into the sky, fighting for fresh air.

From the old fort grew a claustrophobic cluster of improvised tower blocks housing 65,000 people

As the British had never declared jurisdiction over the area, Kowloon Walled City existed in a legal vacuum. It gained a reputation as a place one could go to evade the eyes of the authorities. A place where no questions were asked. Drugs and prostitution thrived, run by triad gangs, as well as a trade in traditional Chinese products and services banned in the rest of Hong Kong. Restaurants on the ground floors served dog and cat meat; chemists sold traditional Chinese medicine; self-taught dentists worked for cut prices without accreditation.
Free from Hong Kong laws, its factories and workshops were also free from Hong Kong workplace safety standards. For people who had snuck into Hong Kong to escape Communist China, it was one of the only places one could find work and accommodation without an ID card. This meant bosses could treat workers however they wished, knowing their employees didn’t have much in the way of alternatives.
Unburdened by regulations, businesses such as food manufacturers could offer products at unbeatably low prices. Filthy, dank noodle factories would supply restaurants all over Hong Kong, their products even finding their way into top of the range hotels. Weaving mills using ancient, dangerous machinery would provide expensive tailors with fabric for suits. On the roof, amid a tangle of aerials, racing pigeons were bred. Richer residents of Hong Kong could bet on which would reach Shanghai first; anywhere else in Hong Kong this kind of betting was illegal.

A resident in his windowless apartment. Copyright Greg Girard, 1989

At its height, Kowloon Walled City was the most densely populated place in the world. It grew in a haphazard fashion; groups of residents building a bunch of flats above older ones like the rings of a tree, complete with improvised sewage systems and unreliable access to the water supply, which was provided to 65,000 people by only eight municipal pipes. Almost no-one knew all its ins and outs. Those who lived there knew to keep to the passages and stairwells they recognised. A drug dealer operating outside the walls could easily lose any policeman by disappearing into its alleys. For most policemen, Kowloon Walled City was deemed too dangerous to enter.

With space at such a premium, most of the apartments and workshops were windowless. For days at a time, the only light residents would see was electric light. Many of the alleys were pitch black; too far down between buildings for sunlight to reach. If one was to keep a pet bird, it would have to be a nightingale. Any other bird living in such conditions would forget how to sing.

A typical street in the walled city . Greg Girard 1989

Most residents of the walled city were not criminals, and over time the crime rate declined. In later years, the government began providing some services, such as a postal service. The regular postal worker became one of the only people to know their way around the totality of the city.

Along with unlicensed dentists, drug dealers, illegal immigrants and runaways, the city attracted artists, photographers and filmmakers. The Salvation Army, who had a presence in the city, produced a propaganda film set in the city to showcase its work. An Austrian documentary team filmed in detail inside the city for a fascinating 1988 documentary. Greg Girard, a Canadian photographer, shot a striking set of images of the city, published in his book City of Darkness – Life in Kowloon City.

An Austrian documentary about Kowloon Walled City. English subtitles available on YouTube.

Despite the fact that Kowloon Walled City kept to itself, it was an outrageous phenomenon and, in an ever more modern Hong Kong, a dirty blot on a clean landscape. How did it even stand up? The 300-odd interconnected apartment buildings comprising the city were built without the help of a single professional architect. It looked like a terrible accident waiting to happen.

By 1987, the authorities had had enough. Open sewers, regulation-free factories and precarious, unsafe apartments were no longer acceptable. Hong Kong announced that Kowloon Walled City would be torn down and turned into a park. $350 million was doled out in compensation to the residents and businesses who would lose their homes and livelihoods in the demolition. Those not satisfied with the compensation were turfed out. Kowloon Walled City was gone by 1994.

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