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.


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.

Dim Sum Dialogues: Planes, Trams, & Automatic Doors

This is a continuation of yesterday’s column on the transportation of Hong Kong.

After seeing various Youtube videos of the infamous landing at Hong Kong’s now defunct Kai Tak Airport, I’m disappointed that I never had the chance to experience a 747 roaring over a narrow Kowloon street. But the beauty and convenience of Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok Airport make up for that disappointment, and have even earned it the first & second spots on international airport surveys for the past seven years.

For those of you that just can’t wait to throw your savings away at the Happy Valley Racecources, or blow it all in the numerous shopping malls of Hong Kong – the fastest and easiest way (but most costly – $13 USD) to get to the heart of the city is on the MTR’s Airport Express. Covering 35km in just 24 minutes, the trains depart every 12 minutes to the remote airport and convention center. If “investing” your money at the roulette tables of Macau is more to your liking, you don’t even have to officially enter the territory – a direct ferry terminal is situated before immigration in the airport for arriving passengers. The transit system was designed to be tourist-friendly, so there are plenty of accessible options.
Once you get settled inside the city, the MTR remains the most efficient way to get from end to end, or to cross under Victoria Harbor between Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon side. But as any well-traveled soul will tell you, the scenic route is often the best – and the Star Ferry offers some of the most enjoyable views of the city at the right price. For roughly USD 25¢, you can ride between Central and Tsim Sha Tsui – a service that has been operating since the 1870’s. The Star Ferry has become a major icon in Hong Kong, so much so that people often rent out ferries for a day to host private events, weddings, and dances on. For USD $500 to $700 for the day, it might not be the most luxurious cruise that you can take on the harbor – so I’d recommend sticking to the regular fare.

However, if the idea of hosting a party on public transport still appeals to you, look no further than HK Tramways. The Hong Kong tram system has been serving the city for over 100 years, with narrow double-decker tramcars running on overhead electric cables through the busiest areas of Hong Kong Island. When the expansion of the MTR threatened to make the tramways redundant, the public concluded to keep the service active because of it’s low fares and frequent stops on popular routes in the city. In my opinion, it is by far the most fun way to travel in Hong Kong. I guarantee that the views from the upper deck combined with the smells and sounds of the markets of Central will keep you entertained for your entire journey. If it doesn’t, I’ll personally mail you the 25¢ you spent on the journey. After you’ve sampled it (and fallen in love with it), get 25 of your HK friends to rent out a tram for USD $150 an hour and party your way through the city. Don’t get too distracted when you pass by Wan Chai though, the private trams run in a full loop that last from 2 hours to 3.5 hours.

Finally, if you refuse to take public transport, or the rain threatens to ruin that new designer item from Lane Crawford, Hong Kong taxis are remarkably cheap and easy to come by. Now I haven’t traveled anywhere in Asia, so this might just be my naivité here – but the taxis in Hong Kong have an amazing feature that I can’t believe doesn’t exist anywhere else (I’m sure it does, so readers help me out) – the back doors open automatically. The driver pulls up to your spot on the sidewalk, pulls a lever and bam – the door is open and ready for you to get in. Genius. Don’t worry about closing it on your way out either, because the driver has that covered too. On average, USD $15 will easily get you from one end of the major urban area to the other – with average city center cab rides being $5. Another reason I don’t particularly miss Los Angeles.

There you have it – the major travel methods in Hong Kong. Now that you (roughly) know how to get around, I’ll be taking you deeper into the destinations and traditions of this eclectic city. If you have specific questions about how to get around, or want to know more about the methods covered here – feel free to leave comments below.