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What is/was Kowloon Walled City?

The first reference of Kowloon Walled City dates from the Sung Dynasty of 960-1297. At first, it used to be a small fort to house the imperial soldiers who controlled the salt trade. During the 19th century, the Chinese were facing a British invasion so they transformed Kowloon City into a full garrison town containing soldiers and other officials. Kowloon was the only part of the New Territories that China didn’t lease to the British so it was not long before it became a surreal city that was virtually a Chinese enclave surrounded by the British territory of Hong Kong.

history of kowloon walled city
The evolution of Kowloon Walled City

Why was Kowloon Walled City so lawless?

In the 19th century, Britain had a huge appetite for Chinese tea. They used their gold and silver reserve because the Chinese were not interested in anything that the British produced. At some point in time, they considered that this was not economically viable for them so they started to import Opium from India to China that would later be exchanged for tea. Of course the Chinese were not too happy about drugs being smuggled in their country by a foreign power. In 1839, China destroyed 20,000 bales of opium. Great Britain declared war in order to protect its drug-smuggling activity.

In 1842 the Qing dynasty of China and the United Kingdom signed the peace treaty named Treaty of Nanking. In the eminent attack of Nanking by the British warships, the Qing Empires negotiated on board of HMS Cornwallis 13 articles that were ratified by Queen Victoria and the Daoguang Emperor nine months later.

In 1898 Great Britain and China signed the Second Convention of Peking, which included a 99-year lease agreement for the “New Territories” – including Kowloon.

The Kowloon Walled City was excepted and remained under control by Qing China. The British agreed that China Walled City to remain under Chinese jurisdiction until the colonial administration for the area was established.
But China never dropped its claim of the sovereignty fight remained unresolved.
In December 1899, after unsuccessful attempts of clearing the city, the British announced their jurisdiction was to be extended to include KWC and the Chinese officials left.

In the end, neither the Chinese nor the British took full control of this territory making it virtually lawless. No one officially enforced criminal law, housing codes, or any business regulations.

Why was Kowloon walled city so crowded?

During the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during WWII, the population increased dramatically as more and more people headed to Kowloon for safety. More than 33,000 people were squeezed in a tiny lot that used to be a Qing dynasty fortress. The density is supposed to be 119 times as dense as present-day New York City.


Check out the following infographic about Kowloon Walled City providing a stunning transversal cross-section of the city along with some interesting facts.



How was Kowloon Walled City built? Who built it?

The only urban planning law that was obeyed in the city was that no building could be higher than 13 or 14 stories in order for low-flying airplanes to safely land on the nearby runway. The KWC residents themselves took care of the planning, vertically expanding the city and even laying water pipes.

In the 1950s, most of the buildings consisted of wooden and stone low-rises. In the ’60s the buildings were made of concrete and they were no taller than four or five stories. In the 70’s most of the buildings consisted of 10 stories concrete blocks.

The construction in the city was unregulated and the 14 story blocks were built without any plans just centimeters apart. There was constant water leaking from pipes everywhere. On the upper floors, there was a network of crumbling stairways that allowed inhabitants to travel all across the city without ever touching the ground. People from outside the city would come here for cheap, unlicensed doctors and dentists. The city didn’t have water until the 1960’s and even then it was diverted to the gangs that ran the city. Most regular inhabitants never got to it. The city also produced some of the largest quantities of opium in the world.

People from outside the city would come here for cheap, unlicensed doctors and dentists. The city didn’t have water until the 1960’s and even then it was diverted to the gangs that ran the city. Most regular inhabitants never got to it. The city also produced some of the largest quantities of opium in the world.


Why was Kowloon Walled City known as the City of Darkness?

Kowloon was a ungoverned pugnacious environment that was ruled by triad gangs such as the 14K and Sun Yee ON. The police turned a blind eye because they were politically hamstrung, bribed and it was also too dangerous to enter the city. In the ’70’s the triads became weaker. Large anti-corruption campaigns removed croocked elements in the authorities and they were no longer protected.

Criminals from Hong Kong would hide into the Walled City as they knew the police would not enter Kowloon. KWC was well known for its prostitution. The Walled City was famous for criminal activity because most inhabitants were not involved in any crime and lived regular lives.

The buildings being were so tall and so close to each other that it was dark all the time in the narrow alleys of the city. Few of the streets were illuminated by neons.

Kowloon Walled City: Documentary

The local television station, RTHK made a short documentary after the clearance was announced but the only serious video footage of that time is the documentary embed above.
It was filmed by an Austrian television company in 1989 and although it is grainy and dark it is the best record of how the city was like in it’s primetime.



Life inside the Kowloon Walled City

Due to lack of taxes and licenses, small businesses and factories thrived inside. Some even say that at night schools and salons were transformed into strip and gambling clubs.

Eating dogs and cats was illegal in Hong Kong but Kowloon was full of dog-meat butchers, noodle makers and other entrepreneurs that enjoyed zero oversight by authorities in KWC. Sanitation was of no importance to locals.

In Kowloon, people could still enjoy their favorite dish: the 6 moths Chow puppy meat stew.  In Hong Kong it was banned by the British. Most of Hong Kong’s working class came in Kowloon for medical and dental care because it was cheaper.

Because of the smell, darkness and humidity in the Walled City, most inhabitants would reach to the roofs of the city to hang out, do laundry or homework. It was like an urban garden. The city was always hot and humid on the lower levels because of the massive amount of tubing, wires and leaking water pipes. Due to lack of space, the city resembled a village where most inhabitants lived with their parents and in-laws.

Kowloon Walled City’s crime story in numbers:

  • 27 gambling halls
  • 19 opium dens
  • 17 heroin dens
  • 4 strip joints
  • 30 brothels
  • 5 pornographic cinemas
  • 4 loan-shark companies
  • 20 dog-meat stands
  • 3 stolen goods companies
  • 3 wine smuggler companies

Kowloon Walled City: Pictures/ Rare Insights

Canadian photographer Greg Girard along with long-time collaborator Ian Lambot managed to take hundreds of photos of the city before being demolished. In 1993 they managed to publish most of them in their book named “City of Darkness: Life in Kowloon Walled City“. The book remained in print for almost 20 years until they decided to bring it up to date. “City of Darkness Revisited” was published in September 2014.

Most of the above pictures are extracted from Greg Girard’s books. You can view and download as scanned pdf the 1993 edition from here. You can buy the 2016 edition from the link at the end of the article.

Why/When was Kowloon Walled City demolished?

Due to the unsafe and unsanitary conditions Britain and China mutually agreed to demolish the city. KWC’s fate was decided in January 1987 when the plan to demolish it was announced by the government.

The eviction process lasted 1997 days. It started on January 14, 1987 and it ended onJuly 2, 1992. The demolition began in March 1993 and was completed in April 1994.

You can read the complete story about the last days of the Walled City here.

Where did residents of Kowloon Walled City go?

On January 14, 1987, 360 staff from the Clearance and Squatter Control sections of the Housing Department entered Kowloon Walled City with the sole purpose of gathering statistics from within the city that was formerly measureless to man.  In the end, the staff registered 28,200 occupants in 8,800 structures.

These occupants were given HK$210 million compensations to relocate as they wished. Many of the landlords received huge compensations. Chang Kat-kong was paid HK$34.6 million as compensation 100 flats he owned in a block.

What does Kowloon Walled City look like now?

On the premises of the KWC now lays a 330,000-square-foot park that was completed in 1995. The alleys inside the park are named after the streets and buildings of the vanished Walled City.

Very few elements of the old city still exist in the park: the entrance plaques and the city’s south gate. Instead of the dark alleys with leaking water, there are floral walks, gardens and ponds.

How to get to the Kowloon Walled City Memorial Park?

The park can be reached by subway. Just head to the  Lok Fu MTR station (green line) and exit the station through Exit B. Walk down Junction Road towards the park. It is a 10 minutes journey on foot. You can also choose the easy option and just take a cab to Tung Tau Tsuen Road.