Monday, April 29, 2013

Kowloon Walled City

When the Chinese leased Kowloon peninsula to the British in 1898, they retained a 6.5-acre walled compound for themselves. During World War II, the Japanese dismantled the wall, opening the site for settlement. Refugees from the fighting set up a squatters' camp on the site.

After the war, relations between the British and the Communist Chinese turned bitterly suspicious. The Chinese pretty much ignored their old fort, and the British, who had enough problems with the Chinese, decided to leave it alone. The result was an anarchist utopia, a place with effectively no government. The British only insisted on a height limit of 14 stories, since the site was close to Kowloon airport.

The result was this crazy agglomeration of high-rises, built without any input from architects or planners.

The only streets were tiny alleys a meter or two wide. Within this 120 by 210-meter space, 50,000 people lived, making it one of the most densely populated spots in the world.

There were also numerous industries, like this rubber plunger factory photographed in the 1980s.

In the late 1950s, the neighborhood was taken over by Triads, or gangs. Opinions differ as to whether their rule was benign or thuggish, but certainly the settlement continued to thrive. In the late 1970s the Walled City became a center for heroin distribution, and the British government of Hong Kong finally intervened, smashing the gangs and installing a sort of neighborhood council. But British law still did not apply in the city. So there was no licensing of businesses, and the place became particularly famous for underground dentists and surgeons.

These are from a fascinating diagram of the city prepared by the South China Morning Post. You can view the whole thing here.

As China modernized and the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule approached, the Walled City loomed as an embarrassment to both governments. They eventually agreed that it had to go, and it was demolished in 1994. But though it is gone, it is not forgotten. Pictures and articles are all over the web, especially on anarchist sites. As a vision of life without government, does this really appeal to anyone?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's because of posts like this I stop by here first thing every morning.

Incredible. The only things that don't come through in the photos are the stifling heat and the smells -- the smells, not all bad, made it hard to breathe when you first approached the Walled City.