HISTORY – A Brief Visual History of Kowloon Walled City
A previous blog post glimpsed life from within the notorious Kowloon Walled City, which was torn down by the colonial government in the 1990s. The collection below focuses more on the exterior with some early photographs and a few rare aerial shots…
During the Sung Dynasty, between 960 and 1279, East Kowloon’s coastline was a series of salt pans. The Walled City was originally an outpost set up to manage the trade, though little else took place in the area until 1668 when 30 guards were stationed there. The intention was to defend Lei Yue Mun, Kowloon Bay, Hung Hom and Tsim Sha Tsui against foreign invaders and pirates.
It was developed into a small coastal fort in 1810 and was improved in 1847 following the arrival of the British. The Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory of 1898 handed the New Territories over to Britain for 99 years, but excluded the Walled City which, by then, had a population of around 700…
China was allowed to keep officials there as long as they did not interfere with the defence of British Hong Kong. The enclosed area measured 6.5 acres and included six watchtowers, four gates, several military offices, gunpowder stores, weapons stores and soldier’s quarters – all surrounded by canons.
Just a year after securing the New Territories, British forces attacked the Walled City after Governor Sir Henry Blake suspected troops were being gathered to aid a resistance. The attack on May 16th 1899 revealed that the Viceroy of Canton’s troops (around 500) had disappeared, leaving only the mandarin and 150 residents.
The British claimed ownership of the Walled City but did little with it over the following decades. A sovereignty row with Beijing continued for decades. The area remained mostly a curiosity for British colonials and tourists to visit…
The Protestant church established an old people’s home in the Yamen, as well as a school and almshouse in other former offices…
By 1933, the Hong Kong authorities announced plans to demolish most of the decaying Walled City’s buildings, compensating the 436 squatters that lived there with new homes.
By 1940 only the Yamen, the school, and one house remained.
During its World War II occupation of Hong Kong, Japan demolished the City’s wall and used the stone to extend the nearby Kai Tak Airport.
After Japan’s surrender, China announced its intent to reclaim its rights to the Walled City. Refugees poured in to take advantage of Chinese protection, and 2,000 squatters occupied the Walled City by 1947. After a failed attempt to drive them out in 1948, the British adopted a ‘hands-off’ policy in most matters concerning the Walled City…
With no government enforcement from the Chinese or the British save for a few police raids, the Walled City became a haven for crime and drugs. It was only during a 1959 trial for a murder that occurred within the Walled City that the HK government was ruled to have jurisdiction there. By this time, however, the Walled City was virtually ruled by the organised crime syndicates known as Triads. Groups such as the 14K and Sun Yee On gained a stranglehold on the Walled City’s countless brothels, gambling parlours, and opium dens…
“Here, prostitutes installed themselves on one side of the street, while a priest preached and handed out powdered milk to the poor on the other; social workers gave guidance, while drug addicts squatted under the stairs getting high; what were children’s games centres by day became strip show venues by night. It was a very complex place, difficult to generalise about, a place that seemed frightening but where most people continued to lead normal lives. A place just like the rest of Hong Kong.” —Leung Ping Kwan, City of Darkness
It was not until 1973–74, when a series of more than 3,500 police raids resulted in over 2,500 arrests and over 4,000 pounds (1,800 kg) of seized drugs, that the Triads’ power began to wane.
Although the Walled City was notorious as a hotbed of criminal activity, most residents were not involved in any crime and lived peacefully within. Numerous small factories and businesses thrived and some residents formed groups to organise and improve daily life there.
Charities, religious societies, and other welfare groups were gradually introduced to the City. While medical clinics and schools went unregulated, the Hong Kong government did provide some services, such as water supply and mail delivery.
With public support, particularly from younger residents, the continued raids gradually eroded drug use and violent crime.
In 1983, the police commander of the Kowloon City District declared the Walled City’s crime rate to be under control.
Around 33,000 people were estimated to live in the Walled City by 1987. With 1,255,000 inhabitants per square kilometre, it was the densely populated area to ever exist.
Electricity was stolen from the mains, postmen assigned numbers to dwellings themselves and inorganic waste was transferred to rooftops. Only two buildings has elevators and the average passageway was only four feet wide.
By 1987 there were 67 functioning wells – only 8 government standpipes existed (with the first being installed in 1963). One of these was actually within the city while the remaining 7 stood at the perimeter – these provided potable water.
“It was also, arguably, the closest thing to a truly self-regulating, self-sufficient, self-determining modern city that has ever been built” – Leung Ping Kwan, City of Darkness
Despite declining crime, the quality of life in the City was far behind the rest of the territory, particularly with regards to sanitation. The Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984 laid the groundwork for the City’s demolition. Its demolition was finally announced in 1987…
The only area in HK comparable to what once stood in Kowloon City is Chungking Mansions in Tsim Sha Tsui.
“What fascinates about the Walled City is that, for all its horrible shortcomings, its builders and residents succeeded in creating what modern architects, with all their resources of money and expertise, have failed to: the city as ‘organic megastructure’, not set rigidly for a lifetime but continually responsive to the changing requirements of its user, fulfilling every need from water supply to religion, yet providing also the warmth and intimacy of a single huge household.” – Leung Ping Kwan, City of Darkness
Some residents, unsatisfied with the compensation, had to be forcibly removed between late 1991 and early 1992. Shots below from Sing Tao…
The government spent some HK$2.7 billion (US$350 million) in compensation to the estimated 33,000 residents and businesses in a plan devised by a special committee of the Hong Kong Housing Authority.
Residents handed in their keys through a private security company…
Demolition commenced on March 23rd, 1993 and concluded in April.
An unmissable German documentary from 1989 (in 4 parts) – some of the only known footage from within the city…
Here is a clip from dodgy 1988 Jean-Claude Van Damme movie of the City…
With the City and Kai Tak gone, and without an MTR link, the area rapidly declined.
However, migrants learnt Cantonese and a Thai community sprang up in what is now known as Kowloon City. Today, the area is reviving with new high-rise flats under construction and an MTR link expected to be completed by 2018. A new cruise ferry terminal opening this year at the nearby Kai Tak site.
In place of the Walled City is a park which includes eight ‘floral walks’, a chess garden, Zodiac garden, wedding area and a 3D mock-up of the City…
The remains of the Yamen and South Gate have been granted hertiage status and protection…
SCMP Infographic (click to enlarge)…
Also on the blog…
Click for more Architecture & Infrastructure posts or history posts. Click for Art Inspired by Kowloon Walled City or for rare shots of Inside the Walled City. And click for a Brief Visual History of nearby Kai Tak Airport.
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