Kowloon Walled City, the impossible slum

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Dark, cramped, and lawless, Kowloon Walled City was a place never before seen in human history, a place of such unimaginable human density that it defied all preconceived laws of architecture and urban planning. A place where darkness was king, with people living their lives without ever seeing the sun. A maze of narrow alleys and corridors led you to schools and makeshift medical clinics by day, but transforming into drug dens and brothels by night. Kowloon Walled City was a slum that was built into the sky, a slum of multi-storey high-rise apartment blocks that merged to become a single, multi-layered behemoth. At its peak it was once the most densely populated place on Earth, making it perhaps the most radical urban experiments of all time.

Kowloon Walled City with Squatter Village in front in 1970s.

Kowloon Walled City was the product of a complex and tumultuous relationship between China and the Crown Colony of Hong Kong. After losing two wars to the British, the former Chinese Empire was forced to lease the formerly small port of Hong Kong to the British. However, the transfer of sovereignty was far from a simple, straightforward process, with loopholes and irregularities leaving pockets of Chinese rule within the colony of Hong Kong; one of which being what used to be the small fort village of ‘Kowloon Walled City.’ The Fort, known for its formidable walls, remained under Chinese Sovereignty as an administrative outpost, despite being an enclave and completely surrounded by British Hong Kong.

Kowloon Walled City’s modern history began following World War II; as China descended into civil war between the Nationalists and Communists, thousands of refugees from the mainland flooded into Hong Kong. Most settled in the walled city, which was Chinese territory but was completely surrounded by British land. The former meant that Hong Kong authorities had no right to deport the settlers; the latter meant that they were also protected from violence and political oppression. Apart from occasional raids by the Hong Kong Police, the Walled City was completely ungoverned, which spurred the development of squatter settlements and drug cartels.

It was not until the 60s where the city as we know it began to take form. Rampant overcrowding and destructive fires plagued its slums, paired with additional waves of refugees fleeing the Maoist Famines of the late 50s, caused a sporadic development of high-rise buildings to facilitate the increasing demand for housing and commercial activity.  Over a period of 10 years, Kowloon Walled City experienced a process of vertical expansion, where low-rise slums were demolished to make way for high-rise buildings. Due to its ungoverned, unregulated nature, high-rise buildings were built poorly, with no thought made to the provision of running water, electricity, natural light or waste disposal system: in other words, a slum in the sky. Any area of open or unused space was quickly filled by a high-rises, built side by side, door to door with other high-rises until the entire city agglomerated into an uninterrupted, single urban expanse of continuous high-rise flats. In an area of just 210 meters by 120 meters lived nearly 33,000 people, making it the most densely populated place in human history.

In Kowloon Walled City, the epicentre of Hong Kong’s informal economy, drugs, prostitution, and gambling all flourished among a backdrop of poverty and squalor. Perhaps the most alien and most infamous aspect of the slum was its darkness. As a result of KWC being erected so quickly and unevenly, the bottom levels of the complex had no exposure to natural sunlight – almost like a concrete rainforest. Some residents even lived for years without seeing the sun, only the light of fluorescent lamps. This clock of darkness provided the perfect conditions for sex workers and drug triads to operate 24/7. An aspect of the prostitution industry within the Walled City that was particularly disturbing was the number of elderly sex workers. Poverty was so rampant across the slum, even poor and elderly women were forced into prostitution to serve the men who could not afford the younger prostitutes. This poverty and inequality carries through the illicit drug industry. The richer of the slum dwellers took opium, whereas the poorer took the cheaper and more toxic heroin.

However, it was not all drugs, sex, and violence in the Walled City; it was also a place of hope and commerce. The political refugees that settled KWC were not all drug dealers and prostitutes. Many were doctors, dentists, and merchants who brought their skills and professions into the Walled City. To avoid the extortionate costs of health care in proper Hong Kong, many natives found themselves within Kowloon Walled City to receive, albeit questionable, treatment. Furthermore, with residents living shoulder to shoulder with over 30,000 people, it forced together a strong and tight-knit community. During times of extreme hardship and hunger, it was not uncommon for neighbours to help one another. In addition, communities congregated within the city’s various churches, temples, and shrines. Mothers and children would also venture to the rooftops of the city to play and relax with other families – despite the obvious danger of falling. Some even argued that it was not even a slum, with schools and hospitals, and one clean water pump shared by 33,000 people. 

Kawasaki Warehouse in Tokyo, Japan

By the early 1990s, with the Hong Kong handover looming, the joint Chinese and British governments devised a plan to demolish the city and evict its residents. It was, in a sense, justified. Hong Kong wanted to paint itself as a cosmopolitan city, leading the world in infrastructure, technology, and culture. However, Kowloon Walled City contradicted this image, and it was still considered a blight by the local government. How could Hong Kong call itself modern when there were still tens of thousands living in extreme poverty? The slum had to go – ‘housekeeping’ as Sir David Akers-Jones (the former governor of Hong Kong) referred to it. And so, in 1991 the eviction process began with families being forcibly removed from their homes and displaced into social housing. By 1994, the city had been demolished and transformed into a park.

Despite this, the image of the city still lives on in our culture, through countless books, movies, and TV shows. The city’s dystopian-esque density was one of the main inspirations of the cyber-punk genre, with mangas such as ‘Ghost in the Shell’ being directly influenced by it. In Japan, there is even a theme park called Kawasaki Warehouse, which was modelled on KWC’s aesthetic. For many Hong Kongers, the Walled City is just a distant memory, for some it was urban blight, and for others it was part of the Hong Kong identity, with all its illicit activities. However, it is important to remember that behind this dominating facade of concrete, crime, and poverty, Kowloon Walled City remained one of the world’s most dynamic and intimate communities; and unfortunately, on April 23rd 1994, that community was all but rubble.