City of Darkness

The Walled City of Kowloon from the air: photo by Ian Lambot, from 'City of Darkness' 1993
The Walled City of Kowloon from the air: photo by Ian Lambot, from 'City of Darkness' 1993

What would happen if a city was built without any of the benefits of planning, architectural design, or building control? The experiment was tried, in Hong Kong, from the 1950s to the late 1980s. In 1898 the British took over the New Territories on the opposite side of the harbour from Hong Kong Island. The Chinese however ensured that the Walled City of Kowloon, an ancient fortress within the Territories covering 2.6 hectares of land (about four football pitches), remained in their hands. It thus became a kind of no-man’s land. By the end of World War II most of the buildings of the fort, and the walls themselves, had been demolished. In the 1940s refugees came from mainland China and squatted on the site. The British authorities at first tried to remove them, but in time adopted a policy of wary neglect. The Walled City had previously acquired a reputation for gambling, brothels and drug-taking; after the War, the criminal gangs known as the Triad moved in again.

The pressure of population on land area in Hong Kong propelled a rapid growth of the Walled City upwards, until by the 1980s the buildings had reached 12 to 14 storeys, and the population was around 35,000. With the exception of one large central courtyard, the site was packed nearly solid, with gaps of only a metre or so between neighbouring buildings. The authorities had no control over standards and could not insist on specifications or drawings. Buildings were erected to sketchy plans on shallow trench foundations. Barrie Shelton, Justyna Karakiewicz and Thomas Kvan have written a book on The Making of Hong Kong. They say that “Standing on its own, each building would have collapsed; being hemmed in on three of their four sides, they were held up by adjacent structures, themselves structurally inadequate.” Further extensions were piled on the top or hung from the sides of buildings. Only the rooms on the perimeter had natural light.

Out of some 350 buildings just two had lifts: otherwise the occupants had to climb. There was a network of alleys at ground level, and gradually a labyrinth of horizontal connections was developed across the City at upper levels. Only the postmen – who ran a regular service – knew the topography of the entire complex. One way to get about was to go up to the roofs and jump from one building to the next. The postmen were specially trained in this skill.

A corridor in the Walled City: photo by Ian Lambot from <em>City of Darkness</em>, 1993
A corridor in the Walled City: photo by Ian Lambot from City of Darkness, 1993

Electricity was stolen from the mains outside, until there was a fire in 1970 and the authorities allowed legitimate metered supplies. The meter readers were armed with torches and dog repellent. Drinking water came from a few standpipes grudgingly installed by the government, and was carried by the inhabitants in cans. Other water, ‘pungent and murky’, came from wells drilled by the occupants, and was pumped up to tanks on the roofs. From there it was distributed to apartments and businesses through a looping, leaking tangle of hoses, hung from the ceilings of the corridors. Occupants carried umbrellas, and the postmen were issued with waterproof hats. In the early years, open sewers ran along the alleys. Much rubbish was thrown from windows into the courtyard or piled on roofs, until in later years, in yet another official intervention, a collection service was instituted, to reduce the risk of fire and the spread of disease. Even so, the City was infested with rats and cockroaches. Walking along the corridors, one was assailed by a ‘symphony of stinks’.

Two photographers, Greg Girard and Ian Lambot, started to record life in the City in the 1980s with pictures and interviews, and published their work in an extraordinary book called *City of Darkness *– a translation of the local nickname Hak Nam. What emerges, despite the filth and the crime, is a picture of a fully functioning if precarious community with a strong sense of solidarity. In Peter Popham’s words, it was “a working model of an anarchist society”. There were factories and workshops making textiles, plastic goods, golf balls, rulers, toys, and above all foodstuffs including sweets, noodles, roast meats and minced fish. Some 80% of the fishballs eaten in Hong Kong - a local favourite – came from the Walled City. There were restaurants, some of them serving the illegal but much prized dog meat. There were shops of all kinds, doctors’ and dentists’ surgeries, schools, temples and an Old People’s Centre. Off the squalid circulation routes were tiny, neat, well-furnished apartments, maintained with pride. Pigeon fanciers kept their birds on the roofs. The Chiu Chow Music Club gave public performances.

The administrators of Hong Kong had always wanted to get rid of the Walled City, but the Chinese had always refused. Once the political handover started to be negotiated in the 1980s however, the situation changed, and both parties came to agree that the insanitary and dangerous embarrassment had to be removed. A decision to demolish the City was taken in 1986. Most of the owners of flats and businesses accepted compensation, with regret and nostalgia for a place that had become their home. A few held out and were evicted by force. The site is now a park with trees and sports grounds.

Since its demolition, memories of the Walled City have proved a fertile source of inspiration for writers of manga, crime thrillers and science fiction, including William Gibson’s Bridge *trilogy, and Robert Ludlum in *The Bourne Supremacy. Ludlum describes the “shacks haphazardly perched on top of one another giving the impression that at any moment the entire blighted complex will collapse under its own weight, leaving nothing but rubble where elevated rubble had stood.” Part of the City was even recreated as an amusement arcade in the Anata No Warehouse in Kawasaki, Japan (closed in 2019).

No detailed surveys were ever made of the whole of the City of Darkness, so it is difficult to measure exactly how dense it was. The total floor area was perhaps ten times the area of the land, which would give a Floor Space Index (the ratio of the two quantities) of 10. Similar densities are being achieved today in new developments in the New Territories, but in towers of 40 storeys, three times as high.

Barrie Shelton, Justyna Karakiewicz and Thomas Kvan, The Making of Hong Kong: From Vertical to Volumetric, Routledge, London and New York 2011

Greg Girard and Ian Lambot, City of Darkness: Life in Kowloon Walled City, Watermark, Haslemere 1993