In its day, one of the more inter­est­ing places on earth was the Kowloon walled city. Just out­side of Hong Kong prop­er, on a dis­puted part of the Kowloon penin­su­la, Kowloon walled city was not so much a city as it was a neigh­bor­hood. And, it was­n’t so much a neigh­bor­hood as it was the clos­est thing to a nest that human beings have every built or inhab­it­ed. Actu­al­ly, even ‘nest’ is the wrong word, ‘hive’ would be bet­ter. Only 0.01 sq mi in area,1 at its peek, the Kowloon Walled City housed an esti­mated 33,000 peo­ple, mak­ing it the most densely pop­u­lated place on earth.

An aer­ial view of the Kowloon Walled City

The Walled City was ini­tially just that… a small Chi­nese fort with walls around it and a local pop­u­la­tion of maybe a few hun­dred peo­ple. After the Sec­ond World War, the city fell into an ambigu­ous juris­dic­tion between China and British Hong Kong. Because of the resul­tant lack of law enforce­ment, it became a tar­get for thou­sands of squat­ters who built build­ing after build­ing within the area where the walls used to stand. By the fifties the Walled City was gov­erned by the Tri­ads who used it as a base of oper­a­tions for all sorts of crim­i­nal activ­i­ty. In the Sev­en­ties the British gov­ern­ment nego­ti­ated police juris­dic­tion within the city and suc­cess­fully drove out the Tri­ads through a series of thou­sands of raids over the course of a few months. The city con­tin­ued to grow and develop until the late Eight­ies when the both the British and Chi­nese gov­ern­ments decided to demol­ish the damn place sim­ply because of the squalor and san­i­ta­tion issues it pre­sent­ed. After about six years of evac­u­at­ing and trans­plant­ing the locals, the Kowloon Walled City was finally demol­ished in 1993 and replaced with a park which remains there to this day.

Kowloon Walled City Park

The Walled City was, per­haps, one of the most unique places on the plan­et. It presents a sin­gu­lar place in archi­tec­ture for exam­ple. Hun­dreds of build­ings built wall to wall on just six acres of land made up what amounted to a sin­gle com­plex. The city was so dense that owing to a net­work patch­work cause­ways, stair­ways, planks and lad­ders, one could travel from one end of the city to the other with­out ever set­ting foot on the ground or see­ing the sky. Build­ing in the city was entirely ungoverned and full organic with res­i­dents mak­ing con­stant makeshift mod­i­fi­ca­tions, dig­ging wells, adding plumb­ing, adding walls, remov­ing walls, build­ing bridges and exten­sions till the city was less a city and more a mas­sive com­plex in which tens of thou­sands of peo­ple lived and worked.

People Liv­ing and Work­ing in the City

Other things about the Walled City are equally fas­ci­nat­ing, such as how while the city was largely ungoverned, peo­ple liv­ing there still man­aged to lead mostly nor­mal lives. The city had apart­ments where peo­ple lived, shops, small fac­to­ries, restau­rants, butcheries, social cen­ters, com­mu­nity orga­ni­za­tions… basi­cally every­thing you’d expect to see in a nor­mal com­mu­nity you saw in the Walled City, but spon­ta­neous, ungoverned and densely packed and pop­u­lat­ed. More fas­ci­nat­ing than its ungoverned sta­tus though was its ungovernable sta­tus. For a long while, police weren’t allowed in and the Tri­ads ran the place, but even after that changed, the Walled City was still largely exempt from the laws that gov­erned the rest of Hong Kong. Even ignor­ing the lack of build­ing code, a proper cen­sus was impos­si­ble and law enforce­ment in the tiny roofed alley­ways and hall­ways which were the clos­est things to streets which the city had was dan­ger­ous and imprac­ti­cal. It was too easy for out­siders to get lost while inside and any­one inside would be sur­rounded on all sides by dozens of peo­ple at any one moment. The dense­ness itself led to an amaz­ing sit­u­a­tion where priests wold give ser­mons, chil­dren would play, drug addicts would do drugs and dozens of other peo­ple would go about their busi­ness all within an area of a few square meters.2

A Cross Section

Of course, after the Walled City was destroyed, it was replaced with a park. There really was a full inves­ti­ga­tion of the soci­ety within the city and its gone now and with it an oppor­tu­nity for an impres­sive cul­tural study. The city devel­oped a mys­tic and sep­a­rate­ness from the rest of Hong Kong. It had a lurid rep­u­ta­tion which led to its demo­li­tion, but it will prob­a­bly live for­ever by rep­u­ta­tion.

  1. 6.5 acres 
  2. Roughly 1,255,000 people per square kilometer or 1.2 people per square meter! 

Last update: 09/10/2011

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