City of Darkness

Street level businesses included many unlicensed doctors and dentists

Street level businesses included many unlicensed doctors and dentists

Kowloon Walled City was once the most densely populated place on Earth, with tens of thousands of people squeezed into just seven acres of tightly packed, haphazardly stacked apartment blocks. The lawless settlement governed itself for years, free from interference from the authorities. But it was plagued by gambling, prostitution, and organised crime, earning it a notorious reputation that kept police and health inspectors away.

Remarkably, the city was built entirely by the people who lived there, without plans, architects, or regulations. Yet with no assistance and no central administration of any kind, the city developed its own complex, self-contained infrastructure and the population grew rapidly from only a few thousand in the 1940s to an estimated 30,000 by 1990.

With no assistance or central administration, the city developed its own complex infrastructure

Hong Kong Island was ceded to the British in 1839 and the Qing dynasty built a walled fort in nearby Kowloon Bay to protect its territory. Over the years the fort grew in size and became a settlement, housing thousands of refugees from the Chinese Civil War in the 1950s. The city’s land was owned by the Chinese, but surrounded by British territory, making it an enticing haven for those desperately seeking to escape the conflict.

After several failed attempts to drive the squatters out, the British government distanced itself from the city, leaving the people living there free to expand it further. Taking advantage of this rare jurisdictional anomaly, the 14K and Sun Yee On triads took control of the Walled City in the ‘60s, operating brothels, opium dens, and illegal gambling parlours. This led to a dramatically increased crime rate, forcing the authorities to reluctantly intervene. In the early 1970s there were more than 3,000 police raids and over 2,500 arrests, and by 1983 the Kowloon City District police declared the crime rate to finally be under control.

A man watches a plane land at Kai Tak Airport from the city's rooftops

A man watches a plane land at Kai Tak Airport from the city's rooftops

Despite this, thousands of people lived relatively normal, happy lives in the city. “We didn’t know it was dangerous,” former resident Albert Ng Kam-po tells the South China Morning Post. “We’d fly kites on the rooftops and jump from building to building.” Ida Shum remembers the neighbours taking care of her children and cooking for them so she could work. “We all had good relationships in bad conditions,” she says. “We were always loyal to each other in the city. The sunshine always followed the rain.”

This close-knit community was a result of the limited welfare offered to the city. Except for basic services like rubbish collection and clean water, the residents had to rely on each other to keep living conditions tolerable. But life was still difficult. When it rained the dark, narrow streets that snaked between the tower blocks would flood. The water rose to people’s knees, forcing them to navigate through clumps of floating garbage. And because the wells were at ground level, people would have to haul buckets as high as 14 floors.

When it rained the dark, narrow streets that snaked between the tower blocks would flood

This was the height limit for buildings in the city, because any higher and planes landing at nearby Kai Tak Airport would have hit them. One of the few regulations the city was forced to abide by. And although some rubbish was picked up by the government, collections were infrequent, leaving the place littered with old mattresses, TV sets, and other junk, which would end up abandoned on the rooftops. But with an average rent of just 35 Hong Kong dollars a month (about £4/$5 today), these hardships were worth enduring.

In 1987 the British and Chinese governments jointly decided that the Walled City was to be demolished. The quality of life was far behind the rest of Hong Kong and the squalor and lawlessness had become a major concern. Over HK$2 billion was distributed to the 33,000 residents as compensation, although some had to be forcibly evicted. Demolition commenced in March, 1993 and concluded in April, 1994. Kowloon Walled City Park was built in its place and remains there to this day, with only a few crumbling remnants to remind us of this extraordinary, singular experiment in urban self-sufficiency.

Andy Kelly

Photography by Greg Girard