Echoes of Kowloon’s Walled City
Centuries before the British took control of Hong Kong, a small outpost was built on the shores of its deepwater harbour to manage the local salt trade. Eventually this evolved into a coastal fort on Kowloon, the peninsula of “Nine Dragons”. Then, in the mid-19th century, came the disastrous First Opium War. Hong Kong Island was ceded to the British in perpetuity, and China’s Qing Dynasty authorities responded by rolling out a set of improvements at their Kowloon fort, with a defensive wall to keep the foreigners at bay.
For the next 50 years the Qing garrison watched silently as the nascent colony grew across the harbour. In 1898 China agreed to give Britain a 99-year lease on the New Territories, expanding Hong Kong’s land area by almost ten times, but in a strange turn of events the fortress – known as Kowloon Walled City – was excluded from the treaty.
Although it remained a Chinese enclave, British troops arrived the following year to claim ownership of the settlement. Few changes were made until 1933, when plans were announced to demolish its decaying buildings and rehouse the 400-odd squatters who lived there. In World War II the wall itself was dismantled by the occupying Japanese to extend the runway at nearby Kai Tak Airport.
After the war, the Walled City experienced a population surge as refugees flooded in from mainland China. In the place of the old stone wall a stack of squatters’ homes began to mushroom, dictated only by the 14-storey height restriction imposed to allow aircraft a clear landing at Kai Tak. Neither the British colonial government nor the Chinese administration claimed sovereignty over the enclave, leaving the Walled City as a virtual no man’s land.
Because of its unresolved legal status policemen stayed well away for a time, and soon enough, drug lords and organised crime syndicates moved in. Between the 1950s and 1970s, Kowloon Walled City was home to a network of brothels, gambling parlours and opium dens, all controlled by the triads. Such was the settlement’s reputation for lawlessness that fearful outsiders even termed it Hak Nam, the “City of Darkness”.
For the permanent residents the name had less to do with these vices – instead it was a telling description of the Walled City’s physical attributes. Sunlight hardly ever reached the ground; the narrow, chasm-like streets were lit by fluorescent lamps some 24 hours a day. Eight municipal pipes supplied the entire enclave with running water, and the government also provided electricity and mail delivery, but everything else was unregulated. Secret mini-factories operated here, as did a slew of unlicensed doctors and dentists. Here too, was a distinct lack of sanitation – rubbish was simply tossed out of windows, or left to accumulate in heaps on rooftops and in the gaps between buildings.
At its peak in the 1980s, the Walled City housed some 33,000 residents inside an area of just 6.5 acres. Its maze of alleyways and interconnected buildings was crowned by a forest of antennae, the peace constantly shattered by the jumbo jets screaming just overhead, barely 500 metres from the now heavily-congested international airport.
As the handover of Hong Kong loomed over the horizon, the British and Chinese governments came to an agreement on the status of the tiny enclave. The Walled City was soon torn down, its residents resettled in government housing estates, and the land swept clean of rubble. Since 1995 Hong Kong’s most notorious neighbourhood has been replaced with a beautiful park, dotted with remnants of a colourful past. The sole survivor of the demolition is a renovated Yamen building, the original military office that was converted into an almshouse and then a social centre for the city’s burgeoning population.
James, again a very nice article! Visited Hong Kong so many times and stayed in Kowloon area but didn’t know much about the history of Kowloon. Thanks.
You’re very welcome! I’ve been wanting to post this for some time now – it’s a fascinating tidbit of local history.
Very interesting! I had heard about the Walled City, but I didn’t know the full story. Thank you!
And thanks in turn for reading, Kina!
Hey James, this post is so interesting!! Thank you!! I love how the area looks now 🙂
You’re welcome Sophie! It is such a lovely park – definitely one of my favourites here in Hong Kong. 🙂
Really enjoyed your post James and the pictures are great! Keep it up!
Glad to hear it – thank you for the comment!
Thanks for introducing this piece of past history about Kowloon. I don’t even know it existed!
I think it’s the most historical park we’ve got here in Hong Kong. I make it a point to bring my overseas friends here whenever they visit!
I like it. 🙂
It’s even better around sunset. 🙂
Hi James, what an interesting historical piece! I can vividly imagine the grittiness of the old walled city through your words and I’m amazed to see in your photos how it beautifully it transformed. I’d love to visit that park next time I’m in HK.
It’s very strange to think that the walled city was only torn down in the 90’s – the park looks as though it’s been there for far longer! It’s an easy 10-15 minute walk from the MTR station at Lok Fu.
Thanks for a very detaled and informative post James. Had no idea the Yamen building is the original military office! Which museum is the scale model displayed in? We barely had time for ant museums on both our flying visits 🙂
If you look closely at the scale model you’ll see a gaping cavity right in the middle of it all – that’s where the Yamen building stood amid all the squalor! The model is right in the middle of the park, directly in front of the Yamen building. There’s even a hand drawn cross-section posted on the wall behind it, filled with outlines of people and everyday objects. Together with the model it gives you a real sense of what it was like to live there.
Sounds like a must do on our next visit 🙂 Thanks James.