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The Kowloon Walled City: A Historical and Visual Exploration of an Urban Anomaly

Kowloon Walled City was one of the most unique and densely populated places on Earth. Located in Hong Kong, it was a place of mystery and intrigue, with a history that spanned centuries. Its story is one of conflict, survival, and eventual demolition.

Early History

Kowloon Walled City’s history dates back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279) when it was a military outpost. Its primary purpose was to defend against pirates and foreign invaders. In 1842, after the First Opium War, the Treaty of Nanking ceded Hong Kong Island to Britain, but the Walled City remained under Chinese control. This situation created a complex political situation.

In 1898, the British acquired the New Territories under a 99-year lease. However, the treaty excluded the Walled City, which remained a Chinese enclave within British Hong Kong. This unique status led to years of confusion and neglect, which set the stage for the city’s future development..

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Growth and Development

During World War II, Japan occupied Hong Kong, and the Walled City fell into neglect. After the war, squatters moved into the abandoned buildings. By the 1950s, the population had surged, and the Walled City began to grow both upwards and outwards. Buildings were constructed without any planning or regulations, resulting in a dense, maze-like structure.

The Walled City eventually became a 6.4-acre labyrinth of interconnected buildings, some as high as 14 stories. This chaotic development created a space where nearly 50,000 people lived in very close quarters. The lack of government oversight led to the establishment of a self-regulated community, which was both a haven and a den of vice.

Life Inside the Walled City

Life in Kowloon Walled City was challenging but vibrant. The residents had to navigate narrow, dark corridors and staircases. The buildings were so tightly packed that sunlight barely reached the lower levels. Despite the physical constraints, the community developed a unique way of life.

Many families lived in tiny apartments, often only a few square meters in size. These small spaces served as homes, workplaces, and shops. The residents made use of every inch of available space, creating a vertical city that was bustling with activity.

Economy and Work

Kowloon Walled City had a thriving economy, driven by small businesses and cottage industries. There were countless shops, food stalls, and workshops within its walls. Many residents worked as dentists, doctors, and barbers without formal qualifications, providing affordable services to the community.

Factories produced a variety of goods, from textiles to noodles. The lack of regulation meant that businesses could operate freely, albeit often in cramped and unsafe conditions. The entrepreneurial spirit was strong, and the community was largely self-sufficient.

Crime and Law

The Walled City’s lawless reputation stemmed from the absence of formal government oversight. In the early years, it was known for its high crime rates, including drug trafficking, gambling, and prostitution. Triad gangs controlled much of the illegal activity.

Despite this, many residents lived peaceful lives. Over time, community leaders and social organizations helped maintain order. The residents developed their own systems of governance, relying on mutual aid and cooperation to address everyday issues.

Infrastructure and Services

Infrastructure in Kowloon Walled City was makeshift at best. The buildings were constructed haphazardly, with no regard for safety or building codes. Plumbing and electricity were often jury-rigged, creating a tangled web of pipes and wires. Water was supplied by makeshift wells and rooftop tanks, while waste disposal was a constant challenge.

Despite these hardships, residents found ways to create a sense of normalcy. Schools, temples, and recreational facilities emerged within the chaos. People adapted to the environment, forming tight-knit communities that thrived on resilience and ingenuity.

The End of the Walled City

By the 1980s, Kowloon Walled City had become a source of embarrassment for both the British and Chinese governments. Its lawlessness and poor living conditions made it a target for redevelopment. In 1984, Britain and China signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration, agreeing that Hong Kong would return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. As part of this agreement, the two governments decided to demolish the Walled City.

In 1987, the eviction process began. The residents were offered compensation and rehousing options. By 1992, the clearance was complete, and demolition began shortly after. The process was complex, as the densely packed buildings required careful dismantling.

In 1993, the demolition of Kowloon Walled City was completed, and the area was transformed into a public park. The Kowloon Walled City Park opened in 1995, preserving some historical artifacts and commemorating the unique community that once thrived there.

#2 People working in a restaurant on the Kowloon Walled City.

#3 An aerial shot of Kowloon Walled City, a dense metropolis packed into 6.4 acres.

#4 Kowloon Walled City, pictured shortly before its ultimate destruction.

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

#9 A structure at the center of Kowloon Walled City, where the Chinese administrative office once sat.

#13 Women making food in Kowloon Walled City. The city was known for its food production, as well as its plastics and textile manufacturing.

#14 A woman and a girl make their way through Kowloon Walled City.

#15 Numerous dental clinics at an edge of the walled city in 1991.

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

#18 A balcony in Kowloon Walled City. (Photo by Forgemind ArchiMedia).

#21 Model of Kowloon Walled City located at the entrance of Kowloon Walled City Park.

#29 Stacked housing blocks meant virtually no sunlight could pierce through.

#30 The one place of respite from the dampness was on the roof

#31 In-house manufacturing was a huge part of the Walled City’s infrastructure.

#32 Hui Tuy Choy opened his noodle factory in 1965, free to ignore codes about health, fire, and labor.

#33 Sanitation was of minimal importance, Girard said — “it was an intensely difficult place to function, with no laws governing health or safety.”

#34 One law that was consistently enforced was that the Walled City could be no higher than 14 stories.

#35 Despite its seedy reputation, the Walled City offered a sense of togetherness to thousands of people who had no community

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Written by Matthew Green

Andrew's writing is grounded in research and provides unique insights into the cultural and historical contexts of vintage pieces. Through his work, he aims to foster a greater appreciation for the value and beauty of vintage items.

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