Kowloon Walled City

Have you seen the movie Blade Runner? Or Batman Begins? Or really any movie where it is dark all the time in the streets of a dripping city? Well, that zeitgeist is based off of a real place, a walled city outiside of Hong Kong that dates back to the 10th century. It no longer exists, it was knocked down in 1993. It occupied 31,000 square yards and, at the time they decided to tear it down, had roughtly 50,000 occupants, giving the city one of the highest population densities in history. This enclave was created by the inabilities of both the British and Chinese governments to effectively negotiate.

A rare rootop view of the "Ghettopolis"

A rare rootop view of the "Ghettopolis"

The Kowloon Walled City started off as an outpost for the Song Dynasty to look for pirates and to manage the booming salt trade. There are no specific dates as to when it was first constructed, but we do know that it was tured into a fort in the mid-1800’s. In 1842, the nearby Hong Kong island was given to the British, so the Chinese used this fort as a means to check up on their British neighbors. 47 years later, the area that became Hong Kong was given to England. However, the Walled City was excluded, despite being well withing this territory, and still belonged to the Chinese. China was allowed to keep troops there, as long as they didn’t interfere with Britains rule. Britain was supposed to keep out, but a year later, in 1899, they attacked, but found a deserted city. The British abandoned the fort, and in so doing left ownership of the city to be a legal grey area. Until WWII, the city was a tourism hot spot, as the architecture was the same as in “Old China”. The population at that point was estimated to be roughtly 700, with most living in tents. In WWII, the Japanese demolished the surrounding wall to be used in the construction of a nearby airfield. It was after the Japanese departure, at the end of the war, that the modern iteration of Kowloon City begand to emerge.

Squatters moved in, and the area quickly became a criminal hotspot. Despite the terms of various treaties, Britain tried several times in 1948 to drive people out. This proved a distinctly poor choice, as any attempts at incursion were met with riots. Mainland China was having its own problems, as this was a particularly tumultuous time for the country. In fact, with the success of the People’s Revolution, thousands of refugees came to the city because of the hands off attitude of the enclave. In 1959 there was a murder in the city, and both governments responded by trying to prove that the other government was in charge. The crime was eventually forgotten.

 The city slowly came under the control of The Triad, a gang based out of Hong Kong. Despite their presence, the better part of the population was not involved in criminal activities. In fact, the Triad had little impact on the day to day lives of the residents. Many people came to the city because there were no taxes or licenses. For example, many dentists operated there because they did not want to have to deal with Hong Kong’s expensive and complicated licensing system. Many factories sprung up in the cities, and by the late ’60’s there was even a kindergarten. There was a food court (no joke, but it served dog meat) and even a temple in the heart of the city. In many ways it was a self-sufficient colony. In between 1971 and 72 the Hong Kong police launched over 3,000 raids against the Triad. Over 2,500 people were arrested, and the organized criminal element was elminiated. The city still was a center for the opium trade, and was well known for its brothels and gambling.

The KWC, circa 1980, with approx. 40k residents.

The KWC, circa 1980, with approx. 40k residents.

With the Triad out of the picture, the population exploded. Electicity was flagrantly stolen from Hong Kong’s main lines. Water was taken from a series of deep wells, and was pumped to tanks on the top of the city. The water made its way down the city through makeshift pluming. Because of this, it was always dripping, and an umbrella was almost always necessary to bring along. The citizens built their own strutures one on top of the other. No engineers or architects were present, and the city quickly became one giant superstructure. The only rules for its construction were that buildings could not exceed 14 stories, as there was an airport nearby, and electricity had to be pumped in. One of the biggest hazards of day to day life in the city was fire. Many humianitarian organizations donated flourescent bulbs to the city to keep it from burning up. Despite this organization, there was a general lack of sanitation. There was no system for getting rid of refuse. One of the reasons that there was so much upward growth was due to fact that refuse was just thrown out of the windows, and streets were made on top of previous piles of trash. Sewage flowed out of the city in canals. In fact, the common knowledge had it that if you were an ousider and you dared enter the Walled City, you would most likely exit face down in one of those canals.

Despite the rampant anarchy, by all counts the crime rate was lower in the Walled City than in either Hong Kong or the average for urban China at the time. However, the city was always in the news, and the coverage was overwhelmingly negative. In 1984, the Chinese and British governments came together to evacuate and demolish the city. Residents were offered due compensation, and in 1992, demolition was completed. Some Japanese explorers took a week to go through the city and document its interior. This seems interesting, but I can’t look at their website for more than ten seconds without getting dizzy:

Expedition Story

There is a City Park on the site now, which gives reverence to the history of the 7 acre plot of land. You can still even find pieces from the original wall, dating back to the Song Dynasty. As I mentioned earlier, the Walled City plays a very important role in our modern culture. Jackie Chan even filmed there at one point while the City was being knocked down. The film Bloodsport took place in the actual city, checkit:

Bloodsport

Here’s another film of the city, it definitely captures how its just a wall of buildings in the middle of Hong Kong:

Kowloon Walled City

You can definitely tell where we got the mood of Blade Runner and Batman Begins. Part of me wishes it was still around today, and the other half of me is glad that it is only a memory.

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Published in: on July 20, 2009 at 5:32 pm  Leave a Comment  
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