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

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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.