Have you heard of Kowloon Walled City? It was a very densely populated, largely ungoverned urban slum in Kowloon, Hong Kong. The Walled City was home to approximately 50,000 residents within its 6.5-acre area in 1987, making it one of the densest places in the world. It was infamous for being controlled by Triads and had high rates of drug use, gambling, and prostitution. In January 1987, the Hong Kong government announced plans to demolish the Walled City. After a long and contentious process, demolition started in March 1993 and ended in April 1994. The former Walled City was then transformed into Kowloon Walled City Park which opened in December 1995.
As I shared in a previous article (“A Few Thoughts on Planning in Hong Kong and California“), I am originally from Hong Kong. However, even though I spent the first 15 years of my life there, I knew very little about the Walled City. I only vaguely remember seeing it from the outside and have never set foot within its borders. Quite frankly, it was just not a place that outsiders ventured into. So, why am I talking about it now? Well, recently, a number of friends asked me whether I had been to the Walled City and even shared some fascinating articles about it with me. After reading them, I could not help but become very interested in its history and went on to do some more research about the settlement. I also asked my dad about it thinking that he might have been involved in the process of relocating the residents since he was a senior land officer with the Hong Kong government. His response caught me by surprise: he did not handle the relocation, but he had visited the Walled City with friends when he was young and “did not know any better”! In this article, I would like to share some interesting things I have learned about the Walled City, focusing on its transformation from a slum with appalling living and working conditions to a wonderful park popular with locals and visitors alike.
There is actually a lot of information about Kowloon Walled City on the internet. I found this infographic published by the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong’s English newspaper) very helpful and informative. Specifically, it does a great job illustrating a cross-section of the Walled City and giving the reader an idea of what its physical environment was like. It also shows graphically the growth of the Walled City’s population and its dramatic transformation from a historic fortress to a public park. It is both amazing and scary (from a public safety standpoint) that the settlement consisted of over 300 structures constructed without any plans and permits from the government. While the infographic is amazing, there is nothing quite like photographs that capture what life was like in the Walled City. Canadian photographer Greg Girard in collaboration with Ian Lambot spent five years familiarising themselves with the urban slum before it was demolished. Some of their photographs are available here and offer rare insights into life in the Walled City. In addition, there are numerous video clips on YouTube that are very eye opening and provide viewers a glimpse of the very poor living and working conditions in the Hong Kong slum.
The Walled City has a rich, long history. Given time and space constraints, I will just focus on what happened in the last fifty years. The Walled City underwent massive construction during the 1960s and 1970s. Municipal pipes provided water to the entire slum, although more could have come from wells. A few of the streets were lit by fluorescent lights, as sunlight rarely reached the lower levels and most residents could only get natural light from the rooftops. While the rampant crime of earlier decades diminished in the later years, the Walled City was still perceived by outsiders as unsafe and known for its high number of unlicensed doctors and dentists who could operate there without license and threat of prosecution. Most residents actually felt safe, were not involved in any crime, and lived peacefully and harmoniously within its walls. Numerous small factories (including some one-man shops) thrived inside the Walled City, and supplied goods and services to businesses and establishments outside the Walled City. Some residents formed groups to improve living conditions there. The government attempted to demolish some shacks in a corner of the settlement in 1963, but faced stiff resident resistance and even resulted in the formation of an “anti-demolition committee.” Charities, religious societies, and other welfare groups were gradually introduced to the Walled City. While medical clinics and schools went unregulated, the government did provide some vital services, such as mail delivery and water supply.
Over time, both the British and the Chinese governments found the Walled City to be increasingly intolerable and embarrassing, despite the decreasing crime rate. The quality of life in the Walled City—sanitary conditions in particular—was far below the standard for the rest of Hong Kong. The Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984 laid the groundwork for the settlement’s demolition. The mutual decision to tear down the Walled City was announced in January 1987. The government spent some HK$2.7 billion (US$350 million) in compensation to the residents and businesses in a plan created by a special committee of the Hong Kong Housing Authority. Not surprisingly, some residents had grown very attached or accustomed to life in the Walled City, and were not satisfied with the compensation, but they were ultimately evicted by force between November 1991 and July 1992. After four months of planning, demolition of the Walled City began in March 1993 and concluded in April 1994. Construction on the Kowloon Walled City Park started the following month.
The 7.6-acre Kowloon Walled City Park was built at a total cost of HK$76 million (US$9.8 million). The park’s design is modeled after Jiangnan gardens of the early Qing Dynasty. Recognizing its site’s historic significance, the park’s paths and pavilions are named after streets and buildings in the Walled City. Artifacts from the Walled City, such as five inscribed stones and three old wells, are also on display at the park. The Walled City Park is divided into eight landscape features, with the fully restored Yamen as its centerpiece:
- The Eight Floral Walks, each named after a different plant or flower;
- The Chess Garden, featuring four 9.8 by 16 feet Chinese chessboards;
- The Garden of Chinese zodiac, containing stone statues of the twelve animals of the zodiac;
- The Garden of Four Seasons (named Guangyin Square after the small open area in the Walled City), a 3,200-square foot garden with plants that symbolize the four seasons;
- The Six Arts Terrace, a 6,500-square foot wedding area containing a garden and the Bamboo Pavilion;
- The Kuixing Pavilion, including a moon gate framed by two stone tablets and the towering Guibi Rock, which represents Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997;
- The Mountain View Pavilion, a two-story structure resembling a docked boat that provides a good view of the entire park; and
- The Lung Tsun, Yuk Tong, and Lung Nam Pavilions.
As a park planner, I am impressed by the photos I have seen of the park and look forward to visiting this attraction on my next trip to Hong Kong. Recently, I found out that even though the Walled City has been demolished, one can still get a feel for what it is like to walk through its dark, narrow interiors. Specifically, the Walled City has been re-created as part of a three-level Japanese arcade and theme park just south of Tokyo. According to this article on The Huffington Post, set designer Taishiro Hoshino, the mastermind behind the arcade theme park, strived for full authenticity and paid close attention to details from the actual slum. He and his team examined photographs and videos of the Walled City, retraced Chinese calligraphy on signage, tracked down old Hong Kong mailboxes, balcony bird cages, and reproduced its neon signs.
If you are interested in learning more about Kowloon Walled City, there are two books worth reading. City of Darkness: Life In Kowloon Walled City by Girard and Lambot contains more than 320 photographs, 32 extended interviews, and essays on the Walled City’s history and character. This book is not only informative, but also offers a sensitive and deep portrait of the demolished settlement. The other book is Jackie Pullinger’s Crack In The Wall: Life & Death in Kowloon Walled City which is a photographic account of the author’s work in the Walled City. It also includes interviews which provide an insightful portrait of the drug addicts, prostitutes, Triad gang members and others who lived in the Walled City.
Kowloon Walled City and Kowloon Walled City Park from Wikipedia
City of Darkness book cover from Amazon.com