Stuck in a limbo between two governments: How the residents of Kowloon Walled City faced the consequences of living in a territory with unsettled political jurisdiction.
by Francesca Moral
In 1933, the Hong Kong government, still under British control, announced plans to demolish the houses located in Kowloon Walled City, a historical coastal fort in the area of New Kowloon that had been turned into a settlement, to build parks to improve the environment, but the residents protested. This event led to negotiations between China and Britain regarding the political jurisdiction of the area, until the Japanese invaded Hong Kong in 1941. During this period the Japanese not only ordered the demolition of the wall surrounding Kowloon Walled City to provide building materials for the nearby airport, but also expelled several Hong Kong residents, dropping the population number to only half a million. The once called “Walled” City lay from then on unprotected.
Even though there are no official government figures, it is believed that the population of Hong Kong had returned to its pre-war level of just under one million citizens by the year 1947. It was then that Hong Kong began facing a serious housing shortage. This sudden population growth also affected Kowloon Walled City drastically: Several refugees from the civil war invaded the city, taking advantage of the Chinese protection, and due to the lack of space, squatter settlements began to appear all over. In the following years, with Mao Tse Tung’s march towards power, many millions more fled to Hong Kong, increasing the population of Kowloon Walled City to around 20,000.
Due to the unsettled matter between China and Britain regarding political jurisdiction, proper administration was always difficult to implement. Over time, Kowloon Walled City became the most densely populated place on Earth with approximately 50,000 residents.
Kowloon Walled City had around 300 interconnected buildings constructed without the help from a single architect. It was a city where no regulations had to be met and neither social security taxes nor hygienic and sanitary practices were demanded. Rents were low because many of the buildings were illegally constructed either by residents or refugees themselves.
Based on investigations done by Chinese journalist Yuhan Liu, all residents in the city used the electricity and water that were brought in by either legal or illegal means. Thus, there were no conflicts between the residents and the squatters regarding the illegal supply of services. Moreover, Ian Lambot and Greg Girard, who lived and recorded life in Kowloon Walled City for five years starting in 1987, tell it was so difficult to get water, that it became a profitable business for some of the original residents. Property owners became private water suppliers because they were the only ones who had the right to drill the wells found on their own land. Therefore, they would provide the rest of the residents with water for a considerable price.
Similar to the precarious water and electrical supplies, the working conditions were not exempt of illegal management and just focused on money revenue without quality standards. People usually worked 12 hours a day for the numerous manufacturers who ran small illegal businesses thrived inside the Walled City, under precarious conditions, and with rats and cockroaches as their accustomed neighbors. In addition, the German documentary “Kowloon Walled City” showed that there was also a great amount of unlicensed dentists working in the city with no fear of prosecution. When asked about this, journalist Y. Liu explained that the dentists in Kowloon Walled City were actually qualified because many came originally from mainland China. The problem was that their professionalism was not acknowledged by the then colonial government. One thing for sure is that we will never know how many of Kowloon Walled City’s dentists were, in fact, impostors. Actually, there are no government figures that could help answer this question. Nevertheless, the residents of the Walled City didn’t care too much about this.
There weren’t police officers in the area. The Hong Kong government executed its power in the place, but public security matters were controlled by the Triads. With no Chinese or British government enforcement, the Walled City became a haven for crime and drugs. From the 1950s to the 1970s, it was controlled by Triad groups such as the 14K and Sun Yee On, and showed high rates of prostitution, gambling, and drug use. This situation changed between the ’70s and the ’80s, when continued anti-corruption campaigns and around 3,500 police raids were carried out. According to journalist Y. Liu, in the previous years, corruption cases were so common that even firefighters would watch houses burn if not given bribes. And in 1973 a police chief fled the territory after taking millions of dollars in bribes, infuriating the residents. It is in 1974 that Sir Crawford MacLehose, the then Hong Kong governor, made the decision to set up the Independent Commission on Corruption (ICAC). This resulted in 2,500 arrests, 1,800 kilograms in seized drugs, and the removal of criminal elements in the authorities. Thus, the triads lost their power and the police regained control of the city.
From dangerous to famous
While the crime rate was now somehow manageable, over time, both Britain and China found the situation of the Walled City to be intolerable. The quality of life in the Walled city was beyond terrible. Journalist Y. Liu tells that even though there was no discrimination towards the residents of the Walled City, the people felt that the triads and drug dealers were threats to the areas nearby. For the people of Hong Kong, the place was more of a “dark beauty”. Finally, the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984 solved the problem, with Britain handing over Hong Kong to the Chinese government with effect from 1 July 1997. In 1987, the Hong Kong government announced plans to demolish the city and replace it with a park. The residents were financially compensated and relocated elsewhere. The demolition of the Walled City began in March 1993, followed immediately by the construction of the park. The Kowloon Walled City Park was opened in August 1995, leaving the turbulent history of Kowloon Walled City not only in the collective memory of Hong Kong, but also captured in books, movies, documentaries, and photography projects.