Dim Sum Dialogues: Kowloon Walled City

Today, it’s one of the most peaceful locations in the city. The gardens are beautifully landscaped and connected by long, low archways that are remnant of the Qing Dynasty’s architecture. There are ponds, waterfalls, dragonflies; everything you might associate with traditional Chinese gardens.

But just less than two decades ago, the same soil was the foundation to a very different environment; a lawless territory that was born out of Hong Kong’s identity crisis and foreign occupation. A 6.5 acre plot of land that was home to nearly 33,000 people and a collection of brothels, opium dens, casinos, cocaine parlors, and secret factories. Kowloon Walled City, or Hak Nam…the City of Darkness.

At the peak of the Walled City’s existence in the 1980′s, the streets were lit by fluorescent bulbs 24 hours a day. The ground level rarely received full sunlight because of the density and height of the buildings that were haphazardly constructed without formal building permits. There were only two guidelines for construction in the city: the height of apartment structures could not exceed 14 stories because of its presence on Kai Tak’s flight path, and apartments had to be wired with electricity, to prevent the use of open flames.

Beyond that, there was no governing body or police force; it was run by drug lords, organized crime syndicates, and unlicensed dentists that held practice in cramped apartment spaces.

The city started as a fort in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), to help defend against pirates and protect locally produced salt. The fort played a minor role in Hong Kong’s existence until additional land in Hong Kong was handed to Britain in 1898. The Chinese excluded the Walled City from the treaty, with the intention to keep troops stationed in the fort.

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However, when the British attacked the fort a year later, they found that the Chinese soldiers had deserted the fort, and thus claimed ownership of the land. The British left the city mostly intact until 1933, when they demolished nearly all of the buildings and compensated the 436 squatters that were evicted by giving them new homes.

With the events of World War II, and Japan’s 3 year and eight month occupation of Hong Kong, Japanese immigrants began to occupy the Walled City. Even after Japan’s surrender, the new residents resisted attempts by Britain to reclaim the city. Because of the 1898 treaty, the Hong Kong Police had no right to enter the grounds, and mainland China denied any responsibility to the area.

With both governments avoiding sovereignty of the area, an organized crime syndicate known as the Triads stepped in to rule the tract. As the Triads were overthrown from the city by a series of 3,000 police raids, the city plunged into lawlessness. It began to grown into a monolithic web of illegal activity, because it could go unregulated and unchecked. Slowly, modifications to the buildings were made by inexperienced construction workers, with no supervision from architects or engineers – further complicating the dense network of dwellings.

The Hong Kong government supplied basic services such as mail delivery and water piping, but applied a “hands off” policy to the rest of the dealings in the city. Oddly enough, the reported crime rate was lower than that of the rest of Hong Kong. However, the sanitary conditions were far inferior and poor living conditions eventually led to the Chinese and British governments agreeing to demolish the city and construct a park in its place.

The government spent 2.7 billion HKD to compensate nearly 33,000 residents and business that were located in the city. Evictions took place from 1991 to 1992, and in 1993, the city was demolished. The construction of the park began soon after, and was opened to the public in 1995.

Today, the center of the park is occupied by a beautiful restoration of the city’s Yamen, where the main bureaucrat would live and work in ancient Chinese towns. There are several interactive pieces about the history of the City, and preservations of the original wall & South Gate.

As I walk the carefully pebbled paths through the gardens, I’m struck by how easily the chaos and lawlessness of the Walled City have been erased from the face of Hong Kong. I can’t help but think of the Chungking Mansions, and its similar reputation for unlawful activity. I fear that a hub of culture and diversity like the Mansions might suffer the same fate as the Walled City in an effort to “clean up” and develop the Tsim Sha Tsui shore.

With that thought, I exit the park and hop on the MTR, destined for the Chungking Mansions to get my weekly fix of vindaloo curry.