I recently visited the Kowloon Walled City Park in Hong Kong. This is what I learned:
Remembering the Kowloon Walled City
On a small television screen built into the wall of the memorial exhibition for the Kowloon Walled City, an old woman explains how she used to walk along the leaning rooftops of the city’s high-rise apartments to collect water. A former resident of what was once the most densely populated city in the world, she recalls the horror of living under these precarious circumstances. There was no running water inside the city, and the underground water was only fit for laundry and bathing. This was owing to the fact that all the factories and industries within the city pumped their chemicals into the underground water reserves.
Brick by brick, the wall came down
Another previous resident remembers how the city eventually lost its wall during the Second World War. Japanese forces occupied Hong Kong and one by one spirited away the bricks surrounding the city. In this way, the wall took on a new shape and served a different purpose; it became material for the expansion of the Kai Tak Airport nearby.
More photographs and archival video footage show how the Kowloon Walled City residents lived in intimate proximity to one another. There were over 300 high-rise apartments in city, of which some were 16 storeys high. An old man shakes his head as he recalls how the high-rise apartments were built without foundations. This caused the buildings to lean towards each other. Experts have estimated that over 33 000 people lived within the 2.8 hectares (or imagine 3.5 soccer fields) of city space in the late seventies and eighties.
Despite these perilous conditions, life went on. Industries like cotton candy factories, fish ball producers and unlicensed dental practitioners flourished. The first old woman says that the dentists were usually western or Asian doctors who couldn’t obtain licenses in China but still maintained a high level of quality.
Salt and opium origins
The Song Dynasty (960-1279) first decided to turn this patch of land into a fortress in order to protect their salt trade. The city itself was built between 1846 and 1847 under orders of the Governor of Guangdong and Guangxi Qi Ying. The First Opium War had just ended, with Hong Kong Island in the hands of the British. The Chinese military built the fortress in order to defend the Kowloon peninsula from British rule.
Lawless Kowloon Walled City
In the 1890s, Britain took control of Hong Kong’s New Territories, but the Kowloon Walled City was not part of the deal. Over the decades, the city became more and more ungovernable by Britain and China alike. It reached a peak in the seventies and eighties, with drugs and unhygienic living conditions at an all-time high.
Eventually, the city was demolished from March 1993 to April 1994. Today, all that remains is the park and within it the memories of the people who once walked along the rooftops to collect water from the government taps outside the city.
Walking through the park on a hot morning in April, I cannot help but wonder what happened to the estimated 33 000 people who once lived here. Were they compensated or forcibly removed? Where are they now? Do they ever come back here and look around at the pristine beauty of this new place? Can they believe that they used to live and work and laugh and make love in the same space that now welcomes selfie-obsessed tourists? Is the old man sitting on the low wall over there part of the memory of the place? Or is he a visitor, like me?
Aren’t we all going to make way for something else one day?
Books on the Kowloon Walled City
Check out the following titles for more about the history of the Kowloon Walled City Park and Hong Kong:
- Kowloon Walled City, 1984 by Nicholas Morine
- Also interesting: Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong by Gordon Mathews