"a fetid conglomeration of 359 tenement buildings...festering on a 7-acre plot."
- U.S. News & World Report
Kowloon Walled City (KWC for the rest of the writeup) was, at its peak, an incredibly dense, self-sufficient mish-mash of building units constructed on top of and around each other on the border between Hong Kong and neighbouring China. It housed one of the most densely-packed populations in the world and is likely the only large-scale example of a functioning anarchy ever to have existed. It was also filthy, unsanitary and dangerous.
It was demolished in 1993. The site is now a commemorative park.
KWC had an inauspicious beginning (if it could be imagined that it ever was anything else) as a Chinese Army fort, itself originally an outpost constructed in 1668. It appears it was maintained and expanded in construction and complement in the years following; when the Chinese signed the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing, handing Hong Kong island to the British, they stipulated that ownership of the fort would remain in Chinese hands. It was just inside what would become British colonial territory but the Chinese wished to keep an eye on British influence and check it if necessary.
The 1898 Peking Convention which leased the Kowloon Peninsula to Britain for 99 years did not mention KWC, leaving its legal ownership something of an ambiguity. An unofficial agreement was reached whereby China would be allowed to keep troops there as long as they didn't interfere with the British administration, but a year after the Convention was signed Britain attacked it. It was empty (the Chinese had vacated during the previous 12 months) and was ultimately left derelict and ungoverned, reinforcing the collective uncertainty as to who owned it. KWC remained this way for some time, becoming something of an historical oddity and tourist attraction. In 1940, during the Japanese occupation of China, much of it was demolished to use for building Kai Tak Airport in Kowloon Bay.
After Japan's surrender in 1945, squatters began to occupy parts of the city. With the Chinese civil war that followed and the victory by communism and the 1949 formation of the PRC, hundreds of refugees from the mainland also squatted in KWC, tacking their own residences onto the existing structure. How this progressed is unclear, as only one source mentions the extent of the demolition and I could not find any documentation of the years in between. By 1947 the population is reported to have been 2000.
In 1948 several attempts were made by the British to remove the squatters, who presumably made up the majority of the population by then. This resulted in several riots and the eventual adoption, both by Britain and China, of a policy of ignorance with regard to the area, which had become a diplomatic and legislative black hole. Neither Chinese nor British security forces had any power there, and without any physical protection or borders the city quickly became a hotbed of criminal activity. Drug dens, gambling areas and brothels all proliferated in the growing city and the lack of control by both governments was highlighted when, after a murder there in 1959, both sides tried frantically to get the other to claim responsibility for the land and legal proceedings.
In the absence of a government the city became a haven for people to escape everyday constraints such as taxes and legislation. Essential facilities were provided by the inhabitants, hashing them together from what could be found. Electricity was stolen, tapping from nearby electrical mains and leeching connections were made to underground water pipes; over seventy wells were also sunk throughout to supplement the fresh water supply. The water was pumped up to rooftop tanks from where it descended through a network of pipes to all of the apartments. Eventually standpipes were installed throughout the city during the 1960s, but the original infrastructure served the residences for over twenty years. The electricity supply was eventually supplanted by a paid feed in 1970, when faulty wiring caused a serious fire in the city.
A repeat of British eviction attempts occurred in 1963, again resulting in rioting which was presumably amplified by the increased population. I would estimate it to have been around 5,000 by that point, growing to 10,000 by 1971. KWC was by then under almost complete control of the Hong Kong Triads, though this was lessened considerably by over 3,000 police raids from 1973 to 1974 that resulted in 2,500 arrests. With a lessened spectre of criminality and threat of raids by security forces the city's growth rate increased. As more people moved in, buildings were joined by more buildings and modifications were made to existing ones, creating a collage of accommodation over the small plot of land. It looked like tower blocks that had been chopped into cubes and stuck, randomly and rather haphazardly, back together.
Nevertheless, and despite universally negative media reporting of the conditions there, the city had grown into a fully functioning community. All of the facilities required were present, the city frequently benefiting from skilled inhabitants, many of whom were responsible for the provision of utility supplies and the building of extensions. There were several schools, medical and dental practices (who charged a fraction of their official counterparts, since they did not need expensive licences to operate), factories, shops and restaurants. There was even a temple in the heart of the city.
As the community aged and matured it garnered some acceptance from local government, which gradually provided some amenities such as the aforementioned water supply, internal street lighting and limited security (almost no natural light penetrated to the majority of the city). Although there was no police force as such and again, neither side had any real jurisdiction there, a patrol unit was established (perhaps with mutual input from both sides, though that detail is not clear) to try to maintain some semblance of order within the walls.
Evidently this unregulated, untaxed and unruly society eventually became too large a thorn in the sides of both British and Chinese authorities, or perhaps too visible a reminder of their past indecisions and political tensions. Despite it having a crime rate lower than the national average on both sides of the border it straddled, it was undoubtedly the centre of various seedy industries and the collective feeling was that it was time for authorities to put their foot down. Part of the 1984 Sino-British joint declaration on the future return of Hong Kong to China included an agreement allowing the British to demolish KWC and resettle the inhabitants, which by then numbered somewhere between 50,000 and 350,000 (sources differ widely, though the former is more likely).
Over the following years, compensation and re-housing agreements were eventually made by the British with all the inhabitants and a mutual decision was made to demolish the city, announced in 1987. Evacuations took place from 1991 to 1992. The 1993 film Crime Story includes footage from inside the deserted KWC, taken just prior to its demolition, some footage of which also appears.
The former site of the city now hosts a heritage park, containing exhibits and landscape features documenting the city's history.
- Various authors; "Kowloon Walled City"; <http://www.fact-index.com/k/ko/kowloon_walled_city.html>
- Lok, Peter; "Kowloon Walled City Park"; <http://www.dragonridge.com/hongkong/kowloon_walled_city.htm>
- (Author not specified); "Kowloon Walled City"; <http://www.twenty4.co.uk/on-line/issue001/project02/KWC/>
- Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (author not specified); "Kowloon Walled City";