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Oct 16, 2017

A trip to Kowloon’s Walled City

 

Only a yamen (or the official administrative office) remains of what was once the most densely populated spot on earth. The walled city of Kowloon, it’s said, was 119 times denser than New York City. Let’s trace our steps back through the crowded streets of the history of this ‘city’… with a geographic spread of barely more than 2.8 hectares!

HISTORY

The Song Dynasty                  

The traces of the walled city are spread across history as far back as the Song Dynasty (960-1279) where it acted as a simple military signpost. It took hundreds of years for the next major development, when in 1810 a small fort was established at the site. 

The Qing Dynasty

Under the reign of the King Daoguang, Hong Kong was ceded to the British in the year 1842. The need for the Chinese authorities to maintain stricter check and control over the area arose. Therefore, from 1842 to 1847, the fort underwent renovations and improvements which included a formidable outer wall encompassing the entire space.

The remains of the Taiping Rebellion of 1854 still exist on the location in the form of ‘Dapeng Association House.’

When more territories were handed over to Britain under the convention of 1898, the Walled City was excluded. At that time, the population of the place was around 700. A great deal of tension arose between the British administration and the Hong Kong rulers till the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1912 when the city fell under British administration.

British Rule

Although the British took over the administration of the Walled City in 1912, they did not do much to maintain it. A Protestant Church undertook a few acts of development, in the form of an old people’s house, an almshouse and a school.

Second World War

The impact of the Second World War was felt even inside the defensive walls of this Walled City. What little administration the city had crumbled as well, around the time of World War II, leaving the city in limbo. The clash between the British, Japanese and Chinese to claim control over Kowloon led to chaos. Population and crime both increased in the city at a fast pace.

Population continued to swell at a dramatic pace even after the surrender of Japan in the year 1945, largely owing to refugees fleeing from mainland China’s Civil War to take refuge in the walled city of Kowloon.

THE LABYRINTH

Architecture

Although the Japanese troops demolished the wall during World War II, the place continued to develop in the same fashion as if it was surrounded by a wall! There was no physical wall, but since it was a Chinese territory within a British-governed city, it continued to develop as a city-within-a-city, or an enclave.

Around the 1950s, the city reached its peak population of around 33,000 people, who continued to live there for the next few decades. The city was a massive block of as many as 300 interconnected buildings, many of which were illegal constructions built one atop the other to accommodate the swelling population.

The only construction that was controlled in the Walled City was the height of these buildings. Due to its close proximity to the Kai Tak Airport, maximum permitted building height was 12 to 14 stories. It is said that the buildings were so densely connected by staircases and walkways that it was possible to walk from one end of the conclave to the other without having to touch the ground!

Due to the tightly packed and heavily populated nature of the development, the place was said to have a climate of its own. The lower levels were hot and humid and people often accumulated on the higher levels and rooftops in the evening after a long day’s work.

 

Mafia, Drugs and Prostitution

Because the city was independent from Hong Kong island, it became a hub for illegal activity. The city was controlled by Triads, the Chinese Mafia, for two decades from the 1950s to the 1970s. The place was littered with brothels, opium dens and gambling parlours. Although the situation improved after the ’70s as the city ‘normalized’, the reputation for crime remains to some degree even to this day.

Trade

The city was also a thriving centre for trade and services. Since rent was low and the city did not require approvals or clearances from departments like health and safety, unlike the outside areas, it attracted a variety of professionals.

Many of the refugees that fled the mainland could not practice their trade anywhere other than the city, including doctors and dentists, as their qualifications were not recognized in Hong Kong. The city therefore became a hub for cheap medical services.

 

Apart from dentists, the place was also known for its variety of cheap food. Fish rolls made in the city made a name for themselves.

DEMOLITION

After several attempts, the British and Chinese government together were able to pass an order to demolish the city in the year 1987. After several years of distributing money, forced eviction in some cases, and years of planning, the government was able to start the demolition process in the year 1993. The demolition in itself took a year and was completed in the year 1994.

Gardens

The place where the city once stood was later converted into a park. Everything except for the yamen (official administrative office) has now been converted into a patch of greenery to mark where the city once stood.

Memoirs

Some of the past dwellers of the city have maintained their memory of the incredible city in the form of memoirs and books. Crack in the Wall by Jackie Pullinger and Gweilo by Martin Booth give first-hand accounts of experiences in the Walled City of Kowloon.

 

Specifics

On Saturday, October 21, 2017, Mozaic Club, in association with Hong Kong historian, Jason Wordie, will be hosting a tour of the Kowloon Walled City, followed by lunch at a local Thai restaurant.

If you are interested in participating, do contact us using this Website or Facebook page.

 

 

#KowloonWalledCity #Kowloon #History #HK

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