Kowloon Walled City was an extremely densely populated and largely ungoverned enclave of China within the boundaries of Kowloon City, British Hong Kong.

Kowloon Walled City
Walled city
An aerial view of Kowloon Walled City in 1989
Kowloon Walled City is located in Hong Kong
Kowloon Walled City
Kowloon Walled City
Coordinates: 22°19′56″N 114°11′25″E / 22.33222°N 114.19028°E / 22.33222; 114.19028
Country / CityChina (de facto, 1898–1912; de jure, 1898–1993)
British Hong Kong (de facto, 1912–1941 and 1945–1993)
Japan (de facto, 1941–1945)
DistrictKowloon City District
AreaKowloon City
Settledc. 1898
 • TypeUngoverned
 • Total2.6 ha (6.4 acres)
 • Total35,000
 • Density1,300,000/km2 (3,500,000/sq mi)
Kowloon Walled City
Traditional Chinese九龍城寨
Simplified Chinese九龙城寨
Alternative Chinese name
Traditional Chinese九龍
Simplified Chinese九龙城寨

Built as an Imperial Chinese military fort, the walled city became a de jure enclave after the New Territories were leased to the United Kingdom in 1898. Its population increased dramatically after the end of the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during World War II, attracting mostly refugees fleeing the renewed Chinese Civil War.

By the late 1980s, the walled city contained roughly 35,000 residents[1] within its territory of 2.6 hectares (6.4 acres; 26,000 m2). There was largely no governing of the city, therefore the city's citizens and businesses had no building codes to adhere to. Businesses that dealt in otherwise banned products, like dog meat, thrived. From the 1950s to the 1970s, it was controlled by local triads and had high rates of prostitution, gambling, and drug abuse.[2]

In January 1987, the British colonial government announced plans to demolish the walled city. After an arduous eviction process, and the transfer of de jure sovereignty of the enclave from China to Britain, demolition began in March 1993 and was completed in April 1994.[3]

Kowloon Walled City Park opened in December 1995 and occupies the area of the former walled city. Some historical artefacts from the walled city, including its yamen building and remnants of its southern gate, have been preserved there.

History edit

Military outpost edit

Lung Tsun Stone Bridge and Lung Tsun Pavilion (Pavilion for Greeting Officials) of Kowloon Walled City in 1898

The history of the walled city can be traced back to the Song dynasty (960–1279), when a military outpost was set up to manage the salt trade in the area. Little took place for hundreds of years afterward, although 30 guards were stationed there in 1668.[4] A small coastal fort was established around 1810 after Chinese forces abandoned Tung Lung Fort.[5] In 1842, during Qing Daoguang Emperor's reign, Hong Kong Island was ceded to Britain by the Treaty of Nanking. As a result, the Qing authorities felt it necessary to improve the fort to rule the area and check further British influence. The improvements, including the formidable defensive wall, were completed in 1847. The walled city was captured by rebels during the Taiping Rebellion in 1854, before being retaken a few weeks later.[4][6] The present walled city's "Dapeng Association House" forms the remnants of what was previously Lai Enjue's garrison.

1915 map of the Hong Kong region with Kowloon Walled City listed as "Chinese Town" at the upper right-hand corner

The Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory of 1898 handed additional parts of Hong Kong (the New Territories) to Britain for 99 years, but excluded the walled city, which at the time had a population of roughly 700. China was allowed to continue to keep officials there as long as they did not interfere with the defence of British Hong Kong. The following year, the governor, Sir Henry Blake, suspected that the viceroy of Canton was using troops to aid resistance to the new arrangements. On 14 April 1899, British forces attacked the walled city, only to find the viceroy's soldiers gone, leaving behind only the mandarin and 150 residents.[4] The Qing dynasty ended its rule in 1912, leaving the walled city to the British.

Though the British claimed ownership of the walled city, they did little with it over the following few decades. The Holy Trinity Church established an old people's home in the old "yamen" (Chinese administrative office) as well as a school and an almshouse in other former offices. Aside from such institutions, however, the walled city became a mere curiosity for British colonials and tourists to visit; it was labelled as "Chinese Town" in a 1915 map. In 1933, the Hong Kong authorities announced plans to demolish most of the decaying walled city's buildings, compensating the 436 squatters that lived there with new homes. That same year, the Nationalist Chinese government protested, claiming jurisdiction over the city.[7][8] The Nationalist Chinese government continued to make claims on its jurisdiction throughout 1935, 1936, and the first half of 1937, until the war between China and Japan started.[9]

By 1940, only the yamen, the school, and one house remained. During the World War II occupation of Hong Kong, the Japanese occupying forces demolished the city's wall and used the stone to expand the nearby Kai Tak Airport.[4]

Urban settlement edit

An aerial view of Kowloon Walled City and the neighbouring Sai Tau Tsuen village in 1972

After Japan's surrender in 1945, China announced its intent to reclaim the walled city. In November 1946, Nationalist Chinese officials created the "Draft Outline Plan for Reinstatement of Administration" of the area, which included an office, schools, police, and other functions.[10] Refugees fleeing the Chinese Civil War post-1945 poured into Hong Kong, and 2,000 squatters occupied the walled city by 1947. After a failed attempt to drive them out in 1948, the British adopted a 'hands-off' policy in most matters concerning the walled city.[4] On 8 January 1948, the Nationalist Chinese government sent a memorandum to the British Ambassador, stating "The Ministry of Foreign Affairs now formally declare to the British Embassy that, in accordance with the provisions of the said Convention, the Chinese Government enjoys jurisdiction over the City of Kowloon and that they have no intention whatsoever of renouncing this jurisdiction."[9] The British Foreign Office, on 4 February 1948, considered a variety of solutions (including turning the site into a Nationalist Chinese Consulate-General), and ultimately recommended that the British "accept the principle of Chinese jurisdiction over Kowloon Walled City but the Chinese agree not to attempt to exercise that jurisdiction in practice."[9] Additionally, the British Foreign Office said that "A public garden controlled by the municipal authorities of Kowloon Leased territory offers such a solution and so would a Chinese consular compound, if the Chinese could first be induced to agree in principle to the appointment of a Consul General."[9]

Here, prostitutes installed themselves on one side of the street while a priest preached and handed out powdered milk to the poor on the other; social workers gave guidance while drug addicts squatted under the stairs getting high; what were children's games centres by day became strip-show venues by night. It was a very complex place, difficult to generalise about, a place that seemed frightening but where most people continued to lead normal lives. A place just like the rest of Hong Kong.

Leung Ping-kwan, City of Darkness, p. 120[11]

The south side of Kowloon Walled City in 1975. The elevation of the buildings begins to reach its maximum height.

In January 1950, a fire broke out that destroyed over 2,500 huts, home to nearly 3,500 families and 17,000 total people.[12] The disaster highlighted the need for proper fire prevention in the largely wooden-built squatter areas, complicated by the lack of political ties with the colonial and Chinese governments.[13] The ruins gave new arrivals to the walled city the opportunity to build anew, causing speculation that the fire may have been intentionally set.[13][14]

With no government enforcement from the Chinese or the British aside from a few raids by the Hong Kong Police, the walled city became a haven for crime and drugs. It was only during a 1959 trial for a murder that occurred within the walled city that the Hong Kong government was ruled to have jurisdiction there. By that time, however, the walled city was virtually ruled by the organised crime syndicates known as triads.[4]

Beginning in the 1950s, triad groups such as the 14K and Sun Yee On gained a stranglehold on the walled city's numerous brothels, gaming parlours, and opium dens. The walled city had become such a haven for criminals that police would venture into it only in large groups.[1] It was not until 1973 and 1974, when a series of more than 3,500 police raids resulted in over 2,500 arrests and over 1,800 kilograms (4,000 lb) of seized drugs, that the triads' power began to wane. With public support, particularly from younger residents, the continued raids gradually eroded drug use and violent crime. In 1983, the district police commander declared the walled city's crime rate to be under control.[4]

One of the outer edges in 1991

The city also underwent massive construction during the 1960s, with developers building new modular structures above older ones. The city became extremely densely populated and "a world unto its own", an enclave,[15] with over 33,000 people[16] in 300 buildings occupying little more than 7 acres (2.8 ha).[16] As a result, the city reached its maximum size by the late 1970s and early 1980s; a height restriction of 13 to 14 storeys had been imposed on the city due to the flight path of planes heading toward Kai Tak Airport.[17] As well as limiting building height, the proximity of the airport subjected residents to serious noise pollution. Eight municipal pipes provided water to the entire structure, although more could have come from wells.[18] A few of the streets were illuminated by fluorescent lights, as sunlight rarely reached the lower levels[16] due to the outstanding disregard to air rights within the city.[4] Although the rampant crime of earlier decades diminished in later years, the walled city was still known for its high number of unlicensed doctors and dentists who could operate there without threat of prosecution.[19][20]

Although the walled city was for many years a hotbed of criminal activity, most residents were not involved in any crime and lived peacefully within its walls. Numerous small factories and businesses thrived inside the walled city, and some residents formed groups to organise and improve daily life there.[21] An attempt by the government in 1963 to demolish some shacks in a corner of the city gave rise to an "anti-demolition committee" that served as the basis for a kaifong association. Charities, religious societies, and other welfare groups were gradually introduced to the city. While medical clinics and schools went unregulated, the Hong Kong government provided some services such as water supply and mail delivery.[4]

Eviction and demolition edit

An alley in the city, 1993.

The quality of life in the city—sanitary conditions in particular—remained far behind the rest of Hong Kong. The Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984 laid the groundwork for the city's demolition.[4] The mutual decision by the two governments to tear down the walled city was announced on 14 January 1987.[22] On 10 March 1987, following the announcement that the walled city would be converted to a park, the Secretary for District Administration formally requested the Urban Council to take over the site following demolition. Owing to the presence of numerous other green spaces in the area, the Urban Services Department doubted the need for "yet another park" from a planning and operations point of view, but the council agreed nonetheless to accept the government's proposal on the condition that the government bear the cost of park construction.[23][24]

The government distributed some HK$2.7 billion (US$350 million) in compensation to the estimated 33,000 residents and businesses in a plan devised by a special committee of the Hong Kong Housing Authority.[25] Some residents were not satisfied with the compensation and were forcibly evicted between November 1991 and July 1992.[26][27] While it was deserted, the empty city was used to film a scene in the 1993 movie Crime Story.[28]

After four months of planning,[29] demolition of the walled city began on 23 March 1993[19] and concluded in April 1994. Construction work on Kowloon Walled City Park started the following month.[30]

Current status as park edit

Aerial view of Kowloon Walled City Park

Design and construction edit

The area where the walled city once stood is now Kowloon Walled City Park, adjacent to Carpenter Road Park.[31] The 31,000 m2 (330,000 sq ft; 7.7 acres) park was completed in August 1995 and handed over to the Urban Council. It was opened officially by Governor Chris Patten a few months later on 22 December.[32] Construction of the park cost a total of HK$76 million.[30]

The park's design is modelled on Jiangnan gardens of the early Qing dynasty. It is divided into eight landscape features,[30] with the fully restored yamen as its centrepiece. The park's paths and pavilions are named after streets and buildings in the walled city.[33] Artefacts from the walled city, such as five inscribed stones and three old wells, are also on display in the park.[31] The park was designed by the Architectural Services Department, which won a "prestigious award" from the Central Society of Horticulture of Germany for the redevelopment.[34]

The remnants of the city's South Gate and its entrance plaques

Components of the park include:

  • The Eight Floral Walks, each named after a different plant or flower[35]
  • The Chess Garden, featuring four 3-by-5-metre (9.8 by 16.4 ft) Chinese chessboards[36]
  • The Garden of Chinese zodiac, containing stone statues of the 12 Chinese zodiac animals[37]
  • The Garden of Four Seasons (named Guangyin Square after the small open area in the walled city), a 300 m2 (3,200 sq ft) garden with plants that symbolise the four seasons[38]
  • The Six Arts Terrace, a 600 m2 (6,500 sq ft) wedding area containing a garden and the Bamboo Pavilion[31]
  • The Kuixing Pavilion, including a moon gate framed by two stone tablets and the towering Guibi Rock, which represents Hong Kong's return to China[39]
  • The Mountain View Pavilion, a two-storey structure resembling a docked boat that provides a good view of the entire park[31][40]
  • The Lung Tsun, Yuk Tong, and Lung Nam Pavilions[41]
  • The yamen and the remains of the South Gate[16] (see below).

Declared monuments edit

The front of the restored yamen building with one of the original cannons
Children of early 20th-century Kowloon Walled City residents playing on the yamen cannons

The Antiquities and Monuments Office conducted archaeological examinations as the walled city was being demolished, and several cultural remains were discovered.[42] Among them were the walled city's yamen and remnants of its South Gate, which were officially designated declared monuments of Hong Kong on 4 October 1996.[43]

The South Gate had originally served as the walled city's main entrance. Along with its foundation, other remains included two stone plaques inscribed with "South Gate" and "Kowloon Walled City" from the South Gate and a flagstone path that had led up to it. The foundations of the city's wall and East Gate were also discovered.[30] The Hong Kong government preserved the South Gate remnants next to a square in front of the yamen.[44]

The yamen building is made up of three halls. Originally the middle hall served the Assistant Magistrate of Kowloon's administrative office, and the rear block was his residence. After the government officials left the area in 1899, it was used for several other purposes, including an old people's home, a refuge for widows and orphans, a school, and a clinic. It was restored in 1996 and is now found near the centre of the park.[45] It contains a photo gallery of the walled city, and two cannons dating back to 1802 sit at the sides of its entrance.[33]

The city before demolition edit

Layout and architecture edit

Model of Kowloon Walled City located at the entrance of Kowloon Walled City Park
Plan of buildings and streets within Kowloon Walled City

The walled city was located in an area of Kowloon that became known as Kowloon City. In spite of its transformation from a fort into an urban enclave, the walled city retained the same basic layout. The original fort was built on a slope[46] and consisted of a 2.6-hectare (6.4-acre) plot measuring about 210 by 120 metres (690 by 390 ft). The stone wall surrounding it had four entrances and measured 4 metres (13 ft) tall and 4.6 metres (15 ft) thick before it was dismantled in 1943.[5][47]

Kowloon Walled City in 1989

Construction surged dramatically during the 1960s and 1970s, until the formerly low-rise city consisted almost entirely of buildings with 10 storeys or more (with the notable exception of the yamen in its centre).[17][22] However, due to Kai Tak Airport's position 800 metres (0.50 mi) south of the city, buildings did not exceed 14 storeys.[48] The two-storey Sai Tau Tsuen settlement bordered the walled city to the south and west until it was cleared in 1985 and replaced with Carpenter Road Park.[49][50]

The city's dozens of alleyways were often only 1–2 m (3.3–6.6 ft) wide, and had poor lighting and drainage.[51] An informal network of staircases and passageways also formed on upper levels, which was so extensive that one could travel north to south through the entire city without ever touching solid ground.[17] Construction in the city went unregulated, and most of the roughly 350 buildings were built with poor foundations and few or no utilities.[52] Because apartments were so small—a typical unit was 23 m2 (250 sq ft)—space was maximised with wider upper floors, caged balconies and rooftop additions.[21][22][53] Roofs in the city were full of television antennas, clothes lines, water tanks, and rubbish, and could be crossed using a series of ladders.[54][55]

Demography edit

A street at the edge of the city at night in 1993

Kowloon Walled City's early population fluctuated between zero and a few hundred, and began growing steadily shortly after World War II.[citation needed] However, there is no accurate population information available for much of the walled city's later existence.[citation needed] Official census numbers estimated the walled city's population at 10,004 in 1971 and 14,617 in 1981,[citation needed] but these figures were commonly considered[by whom?] to be much too low. Informal estimates, on the other hand, often mistakenly included the neighbouring squatter village of Sai Tau Tsuen.[51][56] Population figures of about 50,000 were also reported.[57]

A thorough government survey in 1987 gave a clearer picture: an estimated 33,000 people resided within the walled city. Based on this survey, the walled city had a population density of approximately 1,255,000 inhabitants per square kilometre (3,250,000/sq mi) in 1987,[22] making it the most densely populated spot in the world.[58]

Names in Kowloon Walled City were mostly Cantonese,[59] like the rest of Hong Kong at the time.

Culture edit

Numerous dental clinics at an edge of the walled city in 1991
A playground at the edge of the city

In response to difficult living conditions, residents formed a tightly knit community, helping one another endure various hardships.[60] Within families, wives often did housekeeping, while grandmothers cared for their grandchildren and other children from surrounding households.[61] The city's rooftops were important gathering places, especially for residents who lived on upper floors. Parents used them to relax, and children would play or do homework there after school.[62]

The yamen in the heart of the city was also a major social centre, a place for residents to talk, have tea or watch television, and to take classes such as calligraphy. The Old People's Centre also held religious meetings for Christians and others.[63] Other religious institutions included the Fuk Tak and Tin Hau temples, which were used for a combination of Buddhist, Taoist, and animist practices.[64]

Cultural memory edit

A lack of governance, and separation from Hong Kong, provided a distinct culture in the city.[65] Crime and corruption were common; the police were known to co-operate with the triads operating in the city.[66][67] During the 1970s greater police presence reduced crime and the city became home to those seeking to avoid business regulation and taxes.[21]

While the city was shunned in its early existence, it has since become a source of pride for many Hong Kong residents.[49] The rising publicity around Hong Kong following the 1997 handover sparked a re-emergence in the public interest of Kowloon Walled City and its disappearance. Popular memory tends to sanitise the city, forgetting the crime and corruption.[68] The city has begun to be portrayed with a romantic dystopian identity, and many forms of modern media have borrowed the city's culture in their works.[49]

In popular culture edit

The Walled City of Kowloon has no visible wall around it, but it is as clearly defined as if there were one made of hard, high steel. It is instantly sensed by the congested open market that runs along the street in front of the row of dark run-down flats—shacks haphazardly perched on top of one another giving the impression that at any moment the entire blighted complex will collapse under its own weight, leaving nothing but rubble where elevated rubble had stood.

Robert Ludlum, The Bourne Supremacy, p. 149[69]

Hive of dream. Those mismatched, uncalculated windows. How they seemed to absorb all the frantic activity of Kai Tak airport, sucking in energy like a black hole.

William Gibson, "Disneyland with the Death Penalty"[70]

Many authors, filmmakers, game designers, and visual artists have used the walled city to convey a sense of oppressive urbanisation or unfettered criminality. In literature, Robert Ludlum's novel The Bourne Supremacy uses the walled city as one of its settings.[69] The city appears as a virtual reality environment (described by Steven Poole as an "oasis of political and creative freedom") in William Gibson's Bridge trilogy, and as a contrast with Singapore in his Wired article "Disneyland with the Death Penalty".[71][70] In the manga Crying Freeman, the titular character's wife travels to the walled city to master her swordsmanship and control a cursed sword.[72] The manga Blood+: Kowloon Nights uses the walled city as the setting for a series of murders.[73] The walled city finds an extensive mention in Doctor Robin Cook's 1991 novel Vital Signs. The filth, squalor and the crime-oriented nature of the area is described vividly when the characters Marissa and Tristan Williams pass by the back-lanes. The later part of episode 3 and episode 4 of the anime Street Fighter II V are set in Kowloon Walled City, depicted as a dark and lawless area where Ryu, Ken and Chun-Li have to fight for their lives at every turn, being rescued by the police once they reach the walled city's limits. The manga Kowloon Generic Romance is also set in the walled city.

Films edit

The 1982 Shaw Brothers film Brothers from the Walled City is set in Kowloon Walled City.[74] The 1984 gangster film Long Arm of the Law features the walled city as a refuge for gang members before they are gunned down by police.[75] In the 1988 film Bloodsport, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, the walled city is the setting for a martial arts tournament.[76] The 1992 non-narrative film Baraka features several highly detailed shots of the walled city shortly before its demolition. The 1993 film Crime Story starring Jackie Chan was partly filmed in the deserted walled city, and includes real scenes of building explosions.[28] A walled neighbourhood called the Narrows in the 2005 film Batman Begins was inspired by the walled city.[77] The 2006 Hong Kong horror film Re-cycle features a decrepit, nightmarish version of the walled city, complete with tortured souls from which the protagonist must flee.[78] The 2016 TVB martial arts drama A Fist Within Four Walls takes place in the triad-ridden walled city in the early 1960s.[79]

Memoirs and autobiographies edit

A few of the people who spent time in Kowloon Walled City have written accounts of their experiences. Evangelist Jackie Pullinger wrote a 1989 memoir, Crack in the Wall, about her involvement in treating drug addicts within the walled city.[80] In his 2004 autobiography Gweilo, Martin Booth describes his exploration of the walled city as a child in the 1950s.[75] Gordon Jones, a District Officer of Kowloon City District at the time also published his recollections of the city during his time in office.[81]

Video games edit

Warehouse Kawasaki, a former Japanese game arcade with a Kowloon Walled City theme

Kowloon Walled City is depicted in several games, including Kowloon's Gate[75] and Shenmue II.[82] The game Stranglehold, a sequel to the film Hard Boiled, features a version of the walled city filled with hundreds of Triad members.[82] In the games Fear Effect and Fear Effect 2, photographs of the walled city were used as inspiration "for moods, camera angles and lighting".[83] Concept art for the MMORPG Guild Wars Factions depicts massive, densely packed structures inspired by the walled city.[84] The pen-and-paper RPG Shadowrun and CRPG Shadowrun: Hong Kong include a crime-ridden, rebuilt version of the Walled City set in 2056.[85] The walled city also features in the 2010 game Call of Duty: Black Ops.[86] The 2022 video game Stray's environment is influenced by the walled city as well.[87]

Amusement arcade edit

A partial recreation of Kowloon Walled City existed in the Warehouse Kawasaki, an amusement arcade that operated from 2009 to 2019 in the Japanese suburb of Kawasaki, Kanagawa. The atmosphere of the walled city was reflected in the arcade's narrow corridors, electrical wires, pipes, postboxes, sign boards, neon lights, frayed posters, and various other small touches.[88]

See also edit

References edit

Citations edit

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Sources edit

Further reading edit

Books and research papers edit

Documentary films edit

External links edit

External media
    Media related to Kowloon Walled City at Wikimedia Commons
    Media related to Kowloon Walled City Park at Wikimedia Commons
  "City of Anarchy", Infographic of Kowloon Walled City (SCMP News)
  Video clip of the City (in Japanese)
Unofficial analyses: