Far From the Western Fetish, the Kowloon Walled City Between Extraordinary Space and Normal Lives



Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City crystalizes the Western fetish for appropriated neighborhood. The romanticizing narrative insists on it being a zone where the police would refuse to enter, forgetting that the police in this case is the British police as the neighborhood was completely destroyed in 1993, four years before the end of the colonial regime over Hong Kong. The following text is exceptionally not the transcript of an interview undertaken for The Funambulist podcast, as it is usually the case. Instead, it is a text associated to a conversation between Wellington-based architect Sharon Lam and her dad whose childhood memories allow us to appreciate simultaneously the uniqueness of the Kowloon Walled City’s space, as well as the normality through which it was experienced by its residents. The conversation itself was transcribed and translated from Cantonese by Felicia Yong.

Lam Funambulist
An aerial photo of the Kowloon Walled City taken in 1989. / Photograph by Ian Lambot.

The Kowloon Walled City was born out of unplanned circumstance. Under Chinese rule, the site was first a quiet outpost for the salt trade during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), and then a military fort during the later years of Qing Dynasty (1636-1912). In 1898, following the first Opium War, further Hong Kong land (now known as the New Territories) was leased to the British colonials by China. The Kowloon site however, remained under Qing law, with its several hundred Chinese inhabitants allowed to remain, given the agreement that they didn’t politically interfere with its surrounding British-colonial Hong Kong. When the Qing rule ended, the site was left to British rule, and other than treating it as a place of novelty for tourists and colonists, they did little with it. On maps, the site appeared as a fenced area labelled “Chinese Town.”

Interest in the site picked up again after WWII, which saw the end of the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong. An influx of Chinese refugees contributed to 2,000 inhabitants at the Kowloon site by 1947. At this time, China still claimed their rights to the site, but its separation from the mainland meant little law enforcement, and after unsuccessful attempts at driving out the increasing population, the British colonial administration adopted a “hands-off” policy.

By 1950 the population had grown to 17,000 residents. People moved to the Walled City out of bankruptcy, lack of choice, and to either flee or exploit the lack of law. Construction proliferated alongside population, a truly modern vernacular free from any building regulation or code. Within the darkness of the Walled City, crime, unregulated businesses (everything from opium dens and brothels to plastic bags and spring rolls) and family life went on day after day. The grey legal status of the site was firmly established and the two-something hectares of land grew into the Kowloon Walled City as it is remembered today.

Just how it is remembered differs depending on the source. The site in Hong Kong is now a quiet commemorative garden, a place of little notice to locals, unlikely to be recommended even as a tourist recommendation. I myself had never heard of the Kowloon Walled City until a white friend who was visiting Hong Kong asked me about it, and then again later in architecture school in New Zealand, as an example of a slum during an urban design paper. The way my friend and the lecturer had gone on about it, like an impossibly squalid dystopia of yesteryear, right in the city I was born and that I had never heard of, surprised me. I asked my parents about the Kowloon Walled City, and found that my dad had actually gone to a nearby primary school and walked past it every day, sometimes going inside.

He went on to describe the physical environment of the place, with an energy that I have only otherwise seen during one of his jam-making frenzies. Smiling, he recalled the constant dripping of water leaks everywhere and the surreal disappearance of the sky once you entered.

Sharon: Can you describe how it was then? Can you describe how it actually felt to visit?

Dad: It was just another place, nothing special.

Along with interesting my friend and lecturer, the “nothing special” Kowloon Walled City has gone on to inspire numerous
Western and Japanese video games and movie settings, establishing international fascination as a place of “dystopia” and “anarchy.”

Dad: Since there’s no laws and regulations doctors and dentists did not have to be registered.

Sharon: I know.

Dad: So, many doctors would set up shops there.

Sharon: Right.

Dad: So, we have the most dentists.

Sharon: Right.

Dad: Doctors were not…

Sharon: Certified?

Dad: Certified. They were so many. Do you remember where you used to live, on those buildings, there were levels of signs advertising restaurants? That’s how it was. Dentists would advertise outside of the building. They were all dentists. You’d look up, and they were all dentists. There has yet to be a video game or movie focusing on an illegal dentist take of the Kowloon Walled City, rather it’s the dark corridors and crammed layers of buildings that usually captures outside imagination, as well as its lawlessness.

The Hollywood-gloom-post-apocalyptic inspirations are not unreasonable — a peak population of at least 33,000, the density, dark and wetness of the place are undeniable, as was the lack of state presence, resident Triad members and drug dealers. My dad heard of people mugged in the Walled City and avoided going there after dark, but he also complimented the Triads on their organization within Walled City community. Illegal dentists, housewives looking after children, businesses from food to metal, and gang-affiliated drug dealers, all coexisted together, making it work as much as they could. Without municipal services to rely on, a de facto city council of residents was formed, who resolved civil conflicts between competing businesses and the like, as well as a volunteer fire brigade.

Dad: What else? The space inside is fully maximized.

Sharon: Right.

Dad: You know, illegal constructions were everywhere. There’s a balcony sticking out, window sticking out, a random floor on another. Every usable space is fully utilized. Did I mention about fire?

Sharon: Yes, but you can mention again.

Dad: Fire engines could never get in. Because it was so over-crowded. Residents know about this so — inside, there’s fire prevention stuff, such as a make-shift fire trolley with sand & buckets of water. There were self-organized patrol teams. They knew that British laws do not apply there so there were self-organized teams to take care of fire and such. I guess you could call them fire brigade or firemen, but they were unofficial: “Who’s on duty today?” “So and so are on duty!”

The makeshift fire trolley struck me as a solution only possible from a vernacular design process, common sense for those who lived amongst the skinny corridors daily, installed simply out of necessity, unheeded by bureaucracy. As a homemade tool for rescue, without the help of the colonial government, it was also a demonstration of the residents’ want and need to protect themselves.

Dad: What else? Not much. I was so young I could only remember so much. There were temples. Small temples.

Sharon: Temple?

Dad: Right, for worshipping. They were small temples.

The “Chinese Town” of the early colonialists had turned from a novel safari-esque spot to a solid urban embarrassment that had the government firmly keeping to their “hands-off” approach. At the same time however, the Kowloon Walled City wasn’t the only squatter settlement
in the British-colonial Hong Kong. The unique legality of its limited space of land was why the Walled City had to tower above the others, but it was not a special case of ad-hoc living.

Sharon: That’s OK if that’s all you could remember. How old were you?

Dad: How old? I was in primary school.

Sharon: Primary? OK.

Dad: Primary school so I was eleven or twelve.

Sharon: Then, you moved & never went back?

Dad: Right, I moved during secondary school. My school used to be just across the street.

Sharon: Then, you never went back?

Dad: Only a few times. It was torn down later as you know.

The colonial infrastructure of Hong Kong was simply unsuited to support the large number of new migrants, with the only housing options too expensive for most, forcing people to squat in these self-made urban settlements. There was worry from the government that settlements were decreasing the value of the land they were on, but they were hopeful that once the political situation in China would be settled, many would return. It wasn’t until a huge fire broke out in the Shek Kip Mei squatter
settlement, resulting in 53,000 people becoming homeless overnight, that the government was forced to provide aid and take the first step towards providing public housing.

Away from games and movies, in more factual representations in university, podcasts and articles, the reporting of the Kowloon Walled City retains an ‘other-ist’ angle, removed and gawking: “we can’t really imagine it either,” says the podcast 99% Invisible. There is fascination and fetishizing, always at a chosen distance and focus. The housing situation in colonial Hong Kong is always left out of the discussion, as is an understanding of the topography of Hong Kong, a rugged landscape that today has almost ninety percent of its population living in less than thirty percent of the land.

Sharon: When it was torn down, how was it?

Dad: People did not want to leave. They chained themselves and locked the doors or tied themselves to the doors.

Sharon: How did the residents feel?

Dad: How? If you didn’t live there, you would say, great, they tore it down. Much cleaner. Most people felt that way. But, if you lived there, they were taking away your home. Dentists could no longer be dentists. Illegal doctors were out of work. What they did was against the law in the outside world. People used to eat dog meat there but no longer. Dog meat was illegal in HK, but people knew they could eat there. Nobody could touch you. The police couldn’t touch you. So, what normally was illegal did not apply there. Whatever you could think of, it’s OK there. British law did not apply. Basically, there’s no law. Even the police wouldn’t go in.

Sharon: Were they British police or Hong Kong police?

Dad: Hong Kong police was British police.

Sharon: True.

Since my dad never lived inside the Walled City nor has he ever been a dog meat connoisseur, its demolition didn’t really affect him. A majority of Hong Kong’s population would fall into a similar category, resulting in the locally apathetic treatment today. The Walled City was a thorn in the side of the colonial government, but unremarkable for citizens. Neither romanticized nor fetishized, for most of Hong Kong, the Kowloon Walled City was just another place.