Lost Masterpieces

The Lost Chinese City Police Feared to Enter

Kowloon Walled City, a 6.9 acre cesspool of crime, trafficking, and unlicensed doctors, was once the most densely populated place on earth--and its legacy endures today.


This is part of our weekly series, Lost Masterpieces, about the greatest buildings and works of art that were destroyed or never completed.

It was one of the greatest unplanned wonders of the 20th century—a city of no taxes and no laws. A 6.9 acre cesspool of crime, trafficking, and unlicensed doctors that was once the most densely populated place on earth.

Kowloon Walled City, an island of ill-repute in Hong Kong that grew out of a technicality in a treaty between two empires was lost forever in 1994, torn down and replaced by a park.

But its legacy is well worth considering, certainly as one of the early forerunners of what is today a cottage industry of slum tours.

But most importantly given its unregulated and organic development, as a counterbalance to the 20th century urban planning ideas of giants such as Le Corbusier which we have discussed.

When government officials announced on the radio on January 14, 1987 that Kowloon Walled City would be torn down, they sealed the city in order to do an official count.

They tallied the city’s populace at 33,000, giving it a density of 3.05 million people per square mile--although other tallies put the population between 40,000 and 50,000.

For comparison, Manhattan’s density in 2012 was 71,323 per square mile.

Its 300 wooden buildings were all connected, built without professional architects and often some grew wider as they got higher.

From the sky it looked as if the mid-rise slums of of Asian megacities (already quite dense) had been put into a giant trash compactor that smushed them together.

The beauty, at least for me, always came from images from its side, where its various colored apartment towers always appeared as a 20th century version of Riomaggiore in Cinqueterre.

What went on inside, however, wasn’t so romantic.

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Each person had about seven square feet of living space.

Walking into the city gave one “the sensation of passing from one world to another,” says photographer Greg Girard, whose photographs of the walled city are among its best known and who co-wrote the book City of Darkness: Life Inside Kowloon Walled City. “Once inside, daylight more or less disappeared.”

A total of 77 wells were dug inside the city, some of them more than 100 yards deep. Pumps brought the water to the roofs which was then delivered to the various apartments and shops through a complex pipe system. Electrical wiring ran on the outside of buildings to lessen risk of fire.

An article in the South China Morning Post on the anniversary of its destruction revealed that while on the street one could find restaurants (often with dog on the menu) and the unlicensed medical practitioners for which the city was known, inside the buildings were brothels and gambling havens, and inhabitants walked with umbrellas because water was always dripping from pipes above.

Its name in Cantonese was City of Darkness. Until the 1970s it was run by the triads (Chinese organized crime) and police were reportedly afraid to enter.

However, by the time Girard and his partner Ian Lambot arrived in the 1980s it was far less of a criminal haven than it had been.

“Ordinary people living in extraordinary circumstances,” is how he describes it. “When I started photographing there, vice (prostitution, drugs, gambling) wasn't any more prevalent in the Walled City than in other parts of working class Kowloon. Probably far less in fact.”

He and Lambot worked hard, he says, “to address was this outdated notion of what life was like there. For the most part people were simply trying to get by, like anywhere.”

According to a timeline created by the Wall Street Journal, Kowloon Walled City got its start as a fort in the Song Dynasty in 1197 to control the salt trade.

After China lost the First Opium War in 1842, the island of Hong Kong was leased to Great Britain.

In 1847, China put up a granite wall around its fort as part of its defenses. This didn’t work out so well, because in 1860, after losing the Second Opium War, China was forced to cede a piece of the mainland called Kowloon Peninsula.

In 1898, even more territory was signed over to Great Britain as part of a 99 year rent-free lease. This land, called the New Territories, is north of the Walled City of Kowloon.

There was, however, a clause in the treaty that allowed China to keep control of its now-surrounded fort “except so far as may be inconsistent with the military requirements for the defence of Hong Kong.”

As colonial powers are often wont to do, the British reneged and in 1899 kicked the Chinese out of the Walled City and it was left abandoned.

For much of the first few decades of British rule, the site was largely in ruins. When the Japanese invaded, they tore down the walls and used them to build Kai Tak airport.

After the war, when the Communist Party officially took control of mainland China, refugees by the thousands flocked to Hong Kong. Kowloon Walled City became its Ellis Island.

Over the ensuing decades it would grow from a few thousand to tens of thousands. In 1950, a fire burned the dwellings on the two-block area to the ground, leaving 20,000 people homeless but also providing room for the type of taller buildings that would accommodate even more people.

The British threatened multiple times to go in and clear it out, and each time Chinese diplomatic fits about sovereignty forced them to back off.

When Hong Kong’s police became more serious about cracking down on organized crime in the 1970s, the city instead became more of a haven for those trying to avoid the regulations and taxes in Hong Kong.

In 1984, the Thatcher government officially agreed to a timeline to hand Hong Kong back to Chinese control. Negotiations over what exactly to do with the Walled City continued until 1987, when a plan to destroy it was announced.

For two years, beginning in 1991, residents were slowly evicted, and Hong Kong spent $384 million in compensation for the businesses and residents.

In the meantime, it became immensely popular for the tourism industry known as slum tours. The Wall Street Journal reported that diplomats and “busloads of tourists” from Japan came to tour the site.

A travel piece at the time opened by describing the experience as, “Following the logic of a sewer rat, we twist from one dank passage to another in search of the heart of the infamous Kowloon Walled City.”

“At the time I wouldn't have hesitated to say that it should indeed have been town down,” Girard tells me. “It was a health and safety hazard, a fire hazard. Most apartments and rooms had no access to daylight or fresh air, and the general sanitation situation was pretty grim. To expect people to continue living like that wasn't an option.”

But, he admits, “looking back now, more than twenty years later, I wonder if there might have been a way to preserve something of it. The erasure is maybe more complete than it needed to have been.”

For those who never got to see the famed two-block complex, Girard says to go walk around modern-day Hong Kong, particularly Kowloon City. “Now imagine,” he instructs the reader, “what these places would look like if there was no government oversight, no building codes, no health and safety regulations to interfere with what these places are straining to become.”

By April of 1994, demolition was complete. The following year, Kowloon Walled City Park with its traditional Chinese gardens, opened in its place. An icon of 20th century urbanization was no longer.