|Kowloon Walled City before its demolition in 1994|
When one looks at the pictures of the Kowloon Walled City Park one can hardly imagine what was to be found in this very place less than two decades ago. Until the beginning of the 1990s some 40,000 residents lived within this 6.5-acre (0.026 km2) area, cramped in unhygienic, infested houses, built illegally by all sorts of people who, for whatever reason, chose to take refuge in that “city of darkness”, as it was known in those days.
|View of Kowloon Walled City Park, built after the demolition of the Walled City|
|An alley inside the Walled City. There were
no proper streets separating the buildings
History of Kowloon Walled City
|Kowloon Walled City (with the walls still standing)
in the 1920s
The origin of Kowloon Walled City dates back to 9 June 1898, when Britain and China signed the second Convention of Peking, with which China leased to Britain what was going to be known as the New Territories, an area of 370 square miles comprising the peninsula south of the Shenzhen River and 230 islands (Tsang 2011, pp. 38-39). Britain wanted China to cede the territories in perpetuity, as it had been the case with Hong Kong Island and a small fraction of Kowloon peninsula in the past; but the Chinese, trying to avoid the worst, resisted, and consented only to a 99-year-lease, which the British accepted. Furthermore, the Chinese demanded to retain the administration of their Kowloon military garrison.
|Kowloon Walled City in 1898|
The 1898 Convention said that “the Chinese officials now stationed there shall continue to exercise jurisdiction except so far as may be inconsistent with the military requirements for the defence of Hong Kong” (ibid.). The British first acquiesced to keep the Chinese military garrison in the very middle of their possession. But in 1899 they unilaterally expelled the Chinese and raised the Union Jack over the walls, and the Chinese military personnel abandoned the fortress. The Chinese state never accepted this breach of the Convention, and so, in order to avoid further controversies, the British colonial government refrained from administering it.
A Safe Haven For Crime
|Reconstruction of the Walled City before its demolition|
After the Second World War the Walled City was occupied by an increasing number of illegal settlers. They began to build houses, mostly of between 9 and 10 storeys (Lung 1999, p 38). An old German documentary shows the life inside the Walled City. Tiny, dirty flats; no running water; electricity was illegally bugged from the surrounding buildings. The residents were not jobless. There were small factories, without windows, with old machines, where people worked 12 hours a day 7 days per week, producing extremely cheap goods that were sold to retailers in Hong Kong; even food, like noodles or fish, were processed in small factories, under terrible hygienic conditions – rats and cockroaches were common sight. The Walled City was an economic unit that gave its contribution of cheap labour to the economy of Hong Kong.
|One of the many unlicensed dental clinics
at an edge of the Walled City
Because of the sovereignty dispute between China and Britain, the Walled City was “a haven for those on the fringes of colonial society – poor Chinese immigrant families seeking cheap housing, mainland doctors and dentists who set up practices with no licenses, drug dealers and thieves fleeing the Royal Hong Kong Police” (ibid.).
“Taking opium or heroin was commonplace in the Walled City. Even though drugs potentially made a Triad member unreliable or useless as a fighter, many in the gangs were hooked. They were often dealing in drugs anyway and it was a short step to trying some for themselves […]. Once the drug took hold, it was just a matter of time before the addict lived only for the next fix, reduced to stealing and violence, blackmail and immoral earnings from women” (ibid., p. 29).
“It upset me to see twelve- or thirteen-year-old prostitutes and to learn that these girls were not free, having been sold by parents or boyfriends. It troubled me to meet their minders – the aged mama-sans who sat on orange boxes in the streets luring the Walled City voyeurs with promises of ‘she’s very good, very young, very cheap’ ” (ibid., p. 14).
Demolition and Construction of The Walled City Park
|A modern addition: the Zodiac Garden with statues of the 12 Chinese zodiac signs|
Nothing remains of the infamous Walled City. It is hard to imagine that instead of this nice park once stood one of the most densely populated, unsafe and anomalous places in the world. In the 1980s the Walled City had reached the status of a myth. Today, it is forgotten. Visiting the park today is like visiting an ancient Greek or Roman archaeological site; you must use your imagination to picture how the place might have looked like in the past. In some respect, it is sad to know that one will never be able to visit the Walled City as it was in the 1980s. On the other hand, its sanitary conditions were so critical that it would probably have been impossible for the Hong Kong government to simply keep it as it was, in order that future generations could go there and get a glimpse of how life had been in the ‘city of darkness’.
|A cannon from the time when the Walled City was a military garrison. For almost a century, these cannons stood in the middle of the Walled City; people simply built their houses and alleys around them|
|The so-called ‘Pullinger Rock’, in honour of Jackie Pullinger|
|Map of the Walled City Park|
|Street leading up to the entrance of the Walled City Park. The building opposite the park already existed before 1994, and I guess that some of the residents still remember the Walled City.|
How to get to Kowloon Walled City Park: go to Lok Fu MTR station (green line), then go to Junction Road and down towards the park. It’s only about ten minutes on foot.