A photo of the outside edge of the city by architect Paul Rudolph. Image: Library of Congress
Until its final demolition in 1994, Hong Kong's Kowloon Walled City remained one of the strangest places on Earth. At its height in the late 80s, some 33,000 people were packed into roughly 2.6 hectares enclosed by former military base. Fitting so many people into such an incredibly tiny space meant building upward, turning the city into a stunningly dense vertical slum.
By all accounts, the ungoverned city had terrible living conditions, owing both to the simple reality of cramming so many people into such a tiny place as well as a legacy of Triad control. As noted by a 1995 South China Morning Post article touting the $61 million park that replaced the slum, the Kowloon Walled City was beset by "squalor and lawlessness" right up until it was demolished.
"The Walled City—the only part of Hong Kong which the imperial Chinese government refused to hand over to the British—became famous for its prostitutes, opium dens and unlicensed dentists," reads SCMP reporter John Flint's eulogy for the city. Flint reported that then-Hong Kong Governor Chris Patten "applauded the 'fantastic transformation'" of the former slum.
And what else could you say? Cramming tens of thousands of people into an area comparable to a city block without proper infrastructure could result in nothing else. And yet in the two decades since its disappearance, fascination with the city has endured, especially online.
Likely because it represents the perfect confluence of things internet loves—superlatives (the most crowded place on Earth!), a weird, bloggable history, China, contrarianism, its image of the cyberpunk dystopia we're all rocketing towards—the city has, in some portrayals, transitioned from one of the world's worst slums into "the modern pirate utopia."
Such a mythos is understandable with such a unique location, and it helps that the Kowloon Walled City was heavily inspirational to the cyberpunk genre, notably helping set the scene for Ghost in the Shell. And to be fair, there have been plenty of accounts that pull the rose-colored glasses away, this AMA serving as an interesting example.
That dichotomy, of the city being both a symbol of poverty affected by political gamesmanship as well as an internet curio, is why the Wall Street Journal's new documentary on Kowloon proves fascinating. It features Ian Lambot and Greg Girard, who combined to produce the text and photographs of City of Darkness: Life In Kowloon Walled City, which was published around the time of the city's demise, and remains one of the best records of what life there was actually like.
The city was borne out of longstanding tensions between the British and Chinese governments. It was spawned by the agreement, completed in 1898, to lease Hong Kong to the British for 99 years, which didn't include the Walled City. Hong Kong authorities attempted to demolish much of the former military outpost in the 1930s, which left the Walled City's formerly small population at close to zero, and Japan continued to tear down the fort during World War II.
But following the Japanese surrender, China reasserted its claim, causing the first flow of squatters to enter the city, which opened up to a flood as Mao Zedong instituted Communist rule in China. An essay by Julia Wilkinson in City of Darkness explains that these events, combined with an inability by the British to control the Walled City left it largely lawless; a 1959 murder trial resulted in jurisdiction being assigned to Hong Kong, but by that time, as the Journal documentary notes, the Walled City was already entrenched.
The result was a heavily isolated, ramshackle city-state. The documentary, as told through the lenses of Lambot and Girard, who are about to release a follow-up book called City of Darkness Revisited, shows how that isolation was a double-edged sword.
The city in 1989, soon before evictions began. Image: Wikipedia
The lack of outside support meant the Walled City was built on itself largely by itself, with commerce and industry mixed into itself as produced by a self-sufficient population. This idea, that an entire city could be built in three dimensions to support itself—imagine, say, a dentist's office squeezed into a dark alley four stories in the air—is likely what sparks the romanticized view of the city, especially after its influence spread into countless seminal sci-fi works, including William Gibson's Bridge trilogy.
It's a viewed typified by what Hong Kong architect Aaron Tan, who was a grad student when the Walled City came down, told CNN earlier this week. "I was fascinated—it was like a piece of machinery that worked very well. The demolition was like taking the machine apart—the first time you could see what was inside," he said. "It was a really humbling process for me as a designer—when we met this Walled City, we started to see that people could be more intelligent than us, the designers—that they could think of ways to solve problems that are outside the traditional academic world."
At the same time, that ingenuity was spawned by the city's isolation. There was little in the way of public services, meaning sanitation, public safety, and crime prevention were all the purview of locals. Heroin addiction and prostitution were rampant, and the city's citizens were largely on their own.
The same set of conditions that allowed the city to grow into an organic mass that's not been duplicated also produced its essential problem, which has often gotten lost in translation as the city's history has been canonized: The city's political, physical, and economic isolation left its citizens trapped inside its walls. It's a problem that stayed with residents to the end. "When people couldn't afford heroin, they would die," one former resident told the Journal. "Their family members just moved their dead bodies to the bedrooms."
The Kowloon Walled City continues to captivate people because of those problems, and its ills are also what make it such powerful inspiration for fictional portrayals of what's to come. An anonymous suburb is neither memorable nor a great plot device; even in Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, which is perhaps the best cyberpunk representation of the suburbanization of America, burbclaves take a back seat to the mystery of the floating slum that is the Raft. At the same time, the Walled City stands as proof that the dystopian futures we imagine have already been built.