Kowloon Walled City

What happens when two countries claiming the same territory decide to work things out without actually relinquishing their claims? Sometimes, you’d get a condominium arrangement, such as the British/French New Hebrides (today’s Vanuatu), or the Dutch/Prussian-later-Belgian/German Moresnet (eventually awarded to Belgium in the Treaty of Versailles). But what happens when the two countries decide to wash their hands of it? In the case of the Egyptian/Sudanese Bir Tawil region, a total lack of governance, since claiming Bir Tawil would mean relinquishing claims to the larger Hala’ib Triangle. Somewhere in between those examples lies the strange case of Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City, one of the most densely-populated pieces of land in human history. It’s been gone since the mid-1990s, but the settlement’s strange, outlaw history continues to fascinate.


Kowloon Walled City, 1987. Source: Jidanni, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Kowloon_Walled_City.jpg. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

Kowloon Walled City well predated the establishment of the British colony at Hong Kong. It began life as a small Chinese fort during the Song Dynasty, intended to guard salt deposits, which it did for a few hundred years until 1810, when it was converted to a fort. When neighbouring Hong Kong Island was ceded to the British in 1842, the fort was reinforced soon after by the Chinese with a defensive wall in order to guard against further British influence. Within the walled fort, offices and barracks for civil and military personnel were constructed, creating the ‘Walled City’. Come 1898, however, the walled fort and the small city inside (around 700 people at the time) found themselves surrounded by what would be known as the New Territories – the land leased to Britain by China for 99 years to form what, in conjunction with Hong Kong Island, would constitute the modern territory of Hong Kong. The Walled City, however, was not part of the deal, and became a Chinese exclave surrounded by British territory, permitted as long as China did not use it to interfere with British troops in Hong Kong. The following year, however, the British rescinded this part of the deal and unilaterally declared the Walled City to be under British jurisdiction. When British officials suspected that the Cantonese viceroy had used troops to aid resistance to the British presence in the area, an attack was launched on the Walled City, only to find 150 residents left and no soldiers.


What would become known as Kowloon Walled City is labelled here as ‘Chinese Town’ on this 1915 map.

Even though Chinese officials had ostensibly deserted Kowloon Walled City, it still claimed the area. The British side also failed to do much with it, leaving it alone and adding to the confusion over exactly whose jurisdiction the city came under. The Walled City became sort of a sleepy tourist attraction thanks to its old buildings. Other than church-run institutions such as an old-age home built inside the former military residence (Yamen), pensioners’ homes and a schoolhouse, little happened inside the city for the next few decades until 1933, when colonial authorities decided to remove the decaying buildings and resettle the residents elsewhere. By 1940, only the Yamen buildings and one house remained. The wall around the Walled City was actually removed during Japanese occupation in World War II in order to use the stones to lay down airport runways. After the end of the war and Japanese occupation, China restated its claim to the city. In the aftermath, thousands of refugees sought Chinese protection within Kowloon Walled City. The British government tried to remove the refugees in 1948 in an attempt to turn the city into a ‘Garden of Remembrance of Anglo-Chinese trusteeship’ (a concept rejected by China), but riots ensued, and the British decided to forgo any further attempt at evicting residents lest their relationship with China deteriorate any further. From then on, Kowloon Walled City was left to its own devices.

Kowloon Walled City
The density of the Walled City was stunning.Photo: A. Case, http://www.flickr.com/photos/caseorganic/4476579793/.Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) licence.

Over the next three decades, the Walled City grew to a population of 33 000 residents by 1987 housed within just 2.6 hectares (6.5 acres) – an unbelievable density of 1 255 000/km2 (3 249 000/sq. mile). Alleyways were only a metre or two wide, never more. Since buildings could only reach a height of 14 stories due to the city lying in the flight path of Kai Tak Airport, once the last empty spaces on the ground were filled up in the 1960s and 1970s residents and business owners expanded inward, building caged balconies, widening upper floors until they nearly touched neighbouring buildings, and constructing vast informal networks of staircases, passageways and ladders connecting buildings. With the density and height of the buildings, it was rare for any spot on the ground to receive full-on sunlight (giving rise to the nickname ‘City of Darkness’); instead streets were lit by fluorescent lights 24 hours a day.

With this densely-packed population of thousands, and with no government willing to enforce any laws beyond placing height restrictions and supplying mail, water and electricity, Kowloon Walled City soon became one of the most notorious, secretive places on Earth. Triads and organised crime lords soon moved in to rule where government wouldn’t, operating networks of brothels, gambling houses and opium dens. Also retreating into the city were unlicensed dentists and doctors, who could practice cheaply, free from regulation or fees. 800 shops and factories existed with the bounds of the city, side-by-side with ordinary families who went about their daily lives. Many of these factories were food-related, providing sustenance for the rest of Hong Kong free from health inspection. The city was fed by just eight municipal water pipes, which lead some to speculate that secret wells must have dug somewhere to provide the supply necessary for tens of thousands of people. The Hong Kong government also provided the Walled City with electricity in the hope that it would prevent residents of the city from heating their homes with fire (a hazard in the crowded conditions). For the most part, it was something akin to a working model of anarchy, where an acceptable balance was reached by the people inside, and outsiders were kept at bay in order to maintain that balance.

九龍城寨 - Kowloon Walled City in 1991
Unregulated dentists at the edge of Kowloon Walled City advertise their services to passersby on the outside. Photo: R. Price, http://www.flickr.com/photos/83555001@N00/2350913856. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) licence.

By 1973, the Hong Kong Police had become fed up with the Triads and launched a massive series of raids on the city (more than 3 500 in 1973 and 1974 alone), cutting out most of the influence of the gangs and bringing the crime rate down to a level perhaps even lower than that of Hong Kong proper. There remained, however, no real attempt at governance from Hong Kong government, and police did still did not exercise jurisdiction over the Walled City. The community turned to itself for support. A mutual aid (Kaifong) association, had been in existence since 1963. Churches and charities also serviced the Walled City. Schools existed for children. Perhaps the major issue was sanitation; with nowhere to bury garbage, it tended to go on rooftops. Eventually, the sanitary situation degraded to a point where both China and the United Kingdom agreed in 1987 to demolish Kowloon Walled City and replace it with a park. After spending HK$2.7 billion to compensate residents and businesses for their evictions during 1991 and 1992, the Walled City was demolished in 1993. Today, the site is occupied by a tranquil city park. The old Yamen has been restored, and interpretive paths, pavilions and gardens tell the history of the old city. The Kaifong association still exists, serving the community’s former residents in various cultural and social endeavours, including the construction of a new community hall.

Here’s a link to a rather ornate cross-section of the city, showing how densely people were packed in. It is in Japanese, but even if you can’t read the captions, it’s a good visual nonetheless. Below, a four-part 1989 German documentary (subtitled in English):

Further Reading

Archidose (2005). Kowloon Walled City. Available at http://www.archidose.org/KWC/Main.html. Accessed 8 May 2011.

Greenwood, S. (2009). Dim Sum Dialogues: Kowloon Walled City. Gadling, 4 November 2009. Available at http://www.gadling.com/2009/11/04/dim-sum-dialogues-kowloon-walled-city/. Accessed 8 May 2011.

Leisure and Cultural Services Department (2004). Kowloon Walled City Park. 21 October 2004. Available at http://www.lcsd.gov.hk/parks/kwcp/en/index.php. Accessed 9 May 2011.

Sinn, E. (1987). Kowloon Walled City: Its Origin and Early History. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch 27: 30-44. Available at http://sunzi1.lib.hku.hk/hkjo/view/44/4401608.pdf. Accessed 9 May 2011.

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