Posted by: Sam Olsen | February 8, 2012

Unknown Hong Kong: Kowloon’s walled city

There is quite a lot of Hong Kong that the average tourist does not see, I suppose in common with every place. The non-visitor to the walled city of Kowloon could though be forgiven given that it was demolished twenty years ago. That said, it is still an interesting place to spend an afternoon.

A model of the walled city

The site was originally an Imperial fortress, about 6 acres in size, that was left as a Chinese enclave after the New Territories were leased to the British in 1898. The fort slowly changed to a civilian outpost as China became embroiled in civil war, and by the 1987 the area housed over 33,000 people.

Life there was not too pleasant, to put it mildly. Despite industry of every shape and size – from fish ball manufacturers to machine tool makers – there were no official utilities. Water was taken from underground wells that were highly polluted by industrial effluent, forcing the population to go out into the street (i.e. into Hong Kong proper) to fill up jerry cans. They then had to lug these up the stairs of their 12-storey buildings by hand, there being only three lifts in the whole city.

To save on going down to the bottom and walking back up every time they wanted to visit a neighbouring tower block, numerous passageways were knocked through between them. Apart from encouraging the kids to roam, this also had the unfortunate side-effect of making it much easier for criminals and drug-addicts to move around. “By day the children skipped and played on the roof-tops. By night the druggies took their place, hunched in corners, their glowing ends looking like fiery glowworms” sighed an old woman who grew up there.

None of the buildings had foundations, meaning they creaked and strained especially in typhoon season. According to one former resident, “We lived day-to-day not knowing if the building would collapse or not”. And fire was a constant worry, the risk heightened by the limitless industry.

To add to it all, the triads controlled the place. As gambling was outlawed in Hong Kong until 1977, the walled city was where the locals came to bet. As King Cnut would have had an easier time keeping the sea at bay than stopping the Chinese from gambling, the city’s bookmakers made a vast profit – all siphoned in one form or another to the triad gangs.

This organised criminal control was part of the reason that the walled city was so hard to get rid of. The Hong Kong Government spent decades trying to demolish it, but to no avail. Local resistance – inflamed by the triads who would obviously have had much to lose – and staunch opposition from Beijing, which jealously guarded its sovereignty of this corner of the colony, meant that several regeneration schemes were thwarted.

Chinese zodiac sculptures in the walled city park: slightly different to the old days

In fact, it was only the 1984 Sino-British declaration that handed back Hong Kong to China, plus the legalisation of gambling seven years previously, which smoothed the way for removing the den of squalor.

What appears now is a very pretty park, festooned with rebuilt buildings that survived from the city days. Reminiscent of something that would more likely to be found in Mainland China, it is a good place to go to see how the local underground used to be. The smell of opium and pollution has finally dissipated, much to the relief of the neighbouring children’s playground. But the sense of history remains fresh and undiminished. Worth a stop on anyone’s itinerary.

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