In Search of the Kowloon Walled City

The Oral Hygienist Cometh • The Real Blade Runner • Confessions of a Suburban Voyeur • In The Yamen • Checkmate – No Mates • Life In The Kowloon Walled City • Another Mall • Getting Philosophical Over A Coffee • Finally Braving The Rain

Children playing on the rooftops of the Kowloon Walled City, Hong Kong (1980s)
photograph by Yd712015, used under a CC BY-SA 4.0 licence with thanks

The Kowloon Walled City was a small settlement in the Kowloon area of Hong Kong that – due to some typically Byzantine colonial shenanigans – continued to be administered by China long after the surrounding area had fallen under the control of the British. This created a bizarre enclave within Hong Kong in which the British couldn’t violate Chinese sovereignty by entering, and the Chinese didn’t particularly want to deal with the hassle of passing through British territory to administer. Essentially, it was ungoverned. 

The Walled City quickly became a refuge for illegal immigrants, drug addicts, unregulated businesses and local mafiosi, all of whom quickly realised they could do what they wanted inside without the local authorities interfering. Thousands of members of the Hong Kong underclass poured into its walls, and the 6.4 acre enclave expanded upwards until it became an enormous cluster of crumbling, leaky tower blocks. It quickly gained a reputation as a den of iniquity, where prostitutes, Triads and – horror of horrors – illegal dentists skulked along its cavernous hallways, plying their wares (and their teeth). It was dank. It was dirty. It was dangerous. It was kinda cool.

Pictures – and even better, documentary footage – of the Walled City have to be seen to be believed. Endless, narrow, cave-like alleyways, pitch-black even during the daytime, concealing back-room factories and family homes. Cluttered, tiny box-like cells, whole families huddled round tiny TVs running off stolen electricity. Children running and skipping between dense forests of aerials on the rooftops, occasionally distracted from their play by the roar of a low-flying jumbo jet as it passes seemingly inches over their heads on its way to the old Kai Tak Airport. 

The Kowloon Walled City at night.
photograph by Ian Lambot, used under a CC BY-SA 4.0 licence with thanks

Pretty much every dystopian vision of a future urban hell you’ve enjoyed in fiction – Blade Runner, Dredd, Ghost In The Shell, William Gibson’s novels – took a great deal of inspiration from the Walled City. In fact, the Walled City’s influence on the aesthetics of urban decay has been so far-reaching that it’s kind of hard now, looking back, to comprehend that it actually existed. It’s like finding out that not only was there actually a Captain Blackbeard, but that he also hobbled around on a wooden leg with an eyepatch and a parrot on his shoulder calling people ‘landlubbers’ in a thick Cornish accent. There really was a Blade Runner.

I’ve been fascinated by the Walled City for a while. Ian Lambot’s excellent City of Darkness: Life in Kowloon Walled City has pride of place on my bookshelf. As does Jean-Clade Van Damme’s great cinematic classic Bloodsport. So while visiting Hong Kong, I felt I had an obligation to go check this place out myself.

Now, there was one big flaw with this plan – the Walled City had been demolished in 1994. In its place the Hong Kong government had put, um, a park. Still, it was said that there were a few ruins and the Walled City’s original yamen (almshouse) and some interesting historical exhibits, so I wasn’t too upset about this. And deep down, despite the reputation I no doubt have as a fearless traveller plunging headlong into danger in pursuit of a story, I’d much rather have a pleasant stroll through some bucolic lawns than risk a potential mugging (or worse).

A taxi drives past a church near Lok Fu Station, Kowloon, Hong Kong
Lok Fu Copyright 2018 Tornwarat Khobuanarn

The Kowloon Walled City Park is located in the Lok Fu neighbourhood of Kowloon City. It’s a bit of a trek from the harbour area where the bulk of Hong Kong’s tourist areas are located. I emerged from the Lok Fu subway station into a quiet, leafy suburb. A few pensioners ambled round the shops that fronted on to the station. Women pushed prams and chatted on their phones as a steady stream of slow-moving cars leisurely rolled down the slope of Junction Road. It felt very restrained – almost like a suburb in a British town. It felt hard to imagine that this had once been the area of a sprawling Dredd-style tower block of vice and iniquity. 

It’s weird, but I always feel a little voyeuristic when I end up in places like this in foreign countries. I keep expecting some stunned local to accuse me of trespassing. If you live in a touristy area, you expect to see bemused-looking foreigners wandering round with cameras, but it must be odd to see one in the place where you feel comfortable walking to the shop for a pint of milk in your pyjamas. Anyway, I made my way down Junction Road and soon arrived at the park.

Like many parks in Asia, it was clean, well-kept and rigorously organised. A small playground occupied the entrance, where children clambered over climbing frames and down slides instead of between TV aerials on a slum rooftop. I followed a winding path through neatly-trimmed lawns, eventually finding the old yamen building. A traditional Chinese-style structure, it had stood here since the Qing dynasty in the 19th century. Pictures of the building in the days of the Walled City show its sloped tile roof smeared with grime and littered with dead leaves, but here it stood boldly in the afternoon sun. 

The 19th century yamen (almshouse) building in Kowloon Walled City Park, Kowloon, Hong Kong
The yamen Copyright 2018 Tornwarat Khobuanarn

I had a brief look around inside. A glossy exhibition showcased photos and other odds and ends from the Walled City’s colourful past. I spent a long time perusing them, even though I’d seen most of them before. It was bizarre to think that 30,000 people had once lived in appalling conditions, literally piled on top of each other, in this now quiet, bucolic space. My only companions in the spacious pavilion were a newlywed couple getting their wedding photos done, the click-click of the photographer’s shutter the only sound. I wondered what one of the kids in the photos, clambering over those crumbling rooftops, would have made of the place 30 years later. 

I had a brief stroll around the Chinese Zodiac garden (a display of twelve white marble effigies of the animals of the Chinese zodiac – you know, the Monkey, the Dragon and so on) and the Floral Walks. I stopped by the Chess Garden, where Visit Our China assures me ‘people can (use) their own bodies as chessmen to play with each other, which adds more fun when visiting in Kowloon Walled City Park.’ Alas, as I’d failed to bring 31 of my friends along and didn’t quite fancy dealing with the unfortunate implications of dividing them into ‘black’ and ‘white’ – have we learned nothing from Micheal Jackson? – I merely gave it a respectful look and continued on my way. 

Copyright 2018 Tornwarat Khobuanarn

Finally I arrived at the remains of the South Gate. There really wasn’t much to it – a few piles of rubble, some broken-down pillars. However, a couple of items at a nearby exhibit really caught my eye. One was a bronze diorama of the Kowloon Walled City at its peak, with the nearby roads helpfully labelled to give a sense of where it had once stood. You could really tell how dense this place was. The tower-blocks were crammed up right against each other, almost forming a single, thirteen-storey solid mass. It looked rather like a pile of Lego bricks. 

The other was a large, immensely-detailed diagram illustrating a cross-section of the Walled City. Make no mistake – this really was a city. There were people getting haircuts, being checked by doctors, arguing, fighting and lounging around. There were factories and butchers and convenience stores and karaoke bars. Couples bathed their children in tin bathtubs while men talked business round a table downstairs and people lounged on deckchairs on the rooftops above them. All that life, all that noise – and now it was gone.

Exhibits at the Kowloon Walled City Park, Kowloon City, Hong Kong
Copyright 2018 Tornwarat Khobuanarn

I could have looked at it for longer, but I was quickly becoming aware that the colour had drained out the sky and some awfully threatening clouds were looming. Not really knowing where else to go, I ducked out into the shelter of the nearby Kowloon City Plaza mall just minutes before a torrential downpour hit the streets. Without an umbrella, I was pretty much stuck for the duration. I found a Starbucks, ordered a coffee and sat down.

The Kowloon City Plaza was a fairly generic local’s mall – the kind of place you can find in just about every town in East and South-East Asia. Like the Kowloon Walled City, its interior was mostly windowless, but unlike the Walled City it was bright and airy and spacious and clean. I wondered if any of the people I saw wandering contentedly round the mall had once been residents of the Walled City – had perhaps even featured in some of the pictures. And I wondered what they made of it all.

A colourful row of vending machines in the Kowloon City Plaza, Kowloon City, Hong Kong
Copyright 2018 Tornwarat Khobuanarn

After all, it barely needs pointing out here, but the people of Hong Kong were – on the whole – not all that happy with the Kowloon Walled City. Not only was it a haven for drug users, prostitutes and other ‘colourful characters’, but it was an enormous eyesore which leeched power and water illegally from the surrounding neighbourhoods. It had its benefits, certainly – you knew where to go for a cheap root canal, for one, or some rock-bottom priced noodles (in the amazing Life in the Kowloon Walled City documentary linked to above, the narrator points out that some of the best restaurants in Hong Kong bought their noodles from semi-legal vendors in the Walled City). But ultimately few parents want their children to grow up on the edge of a giant slum full of criminals and drug-addicts and prostitutes, and it had to go.

The Kowloon Walled City ultimately died with a whimper. By the time photographer Greg Girard was able to explore the city to take many of his iconic photos in 1987, it had mellowed out a lot. It was no longer lethally dangerous to walk its cavernous alleyways. There was even something of a community inside. But the British and Chinese were both keen to get rid of the place, and the process of relocating residents began soon after. By the time the demolition got under way in the early 90s it had been all but abandoned.

A busy street in Kowloon, Hong Kong
Copyright 2018 Tornwarat Khobuanarn

It’s weird, really – back in the 1980s, writers like William Gibson and directors like Ridley Scott saw the Kowloon Walled City as the inevitable future for humanity. Crammed spaces, people piled on top of each other in grime and filth. But the future didn’t really turn out that way for most of us, even in overcrowded Hong Kong. Instead the future was light, airy, well-lit places like the Kowloon City Plaza, selling the same things you could buy anywhere else on the planet. I guess it was progress, but of what kind? 

You no longer had the grime and the filth and the arduous working conditions, but one thing that really comes through in books like City of Darkness and the photos in the Park is the sense of community in the Walled City. The local postman, cap donned to protect his head from the endlessly dripping ceilings, greeting his daily customers. The Gospel Centre in the old yamen, providing care and companionship to the city’s elderly residents. The hairdresser, once proud of his own business, now reduced to working as an assistant as he could no longer afford the rents outside the Walled City.

It was too big of a question, really, and too complicated. I finished up my coffee and waited out the rest of the rain outside the mall, watching the traffic roll by, before I made my way back to Lok Fu.

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