Saturday, September 29

Friday Photography | Kowloon Walled City

Kowloon Walled City in 1915

We "Go East" in tonight's episode of Friday Photography. I wanted to follow up on a previous post about density in which I mentioned the Kowloon Walled City because it really is a fascinating story. I first learned about the city in reading William Gibson's Idoru, and later learned that he took further inspiration from the city for his amazingly realized anarchic sqautter city built into the Golden Gate Bridge Oakland Bay Bridge in his novel Virtual Light. As a real life local, the city has shown up up in various movies, even a Jackie Chan flick (1993's Crime Story). The Walled City even inspired the virtual settings for the video game Shenmue 2. An abbreviated & slightly annotated Wikipedia entry will weave us a short story about the amazing but now demolished Walled City:

The history of the Walled City (known as Kowloon then) can be traced back to the Song Dynasty, where it served as a watchpost defending the area against pirates and managing the production of salt. The Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory of 1898 which handed parts of Hong Kong to Britain for 99 years excluded the Walled City [which at this point was located in the heart of Honk Kong proper], with a population of roughly 700.

[Throughout the next 50 years] the Walled City remained a curiosity - a tourist attraction where British colonials could have a taste of the old China - [that is] until 1940, when during its WWII occupation of Hong Kong, Japan evicted people from the Walled City, and then demolished much of it - including the wall.

After Japan's surrender, squatters [mostly newcomers] began to occupy the Walled City, resisting several attempts by Britain in 1948 to drive them out. With no wall to protect it, the Walled City became a haven for crooks and drug addicts, as the Hong Kong Police had no right to enter the City. Mainland China refused to take care of it. The foundation of the People's Republic of China in 1949 added thousands of refugees to the population.
This is my favorite paragraph. By this time it is the late 1970's and 1980's:

Square buildings folded up into one another as thousands of modifications were made, virtually none by architects or engineers, until hundreds of square meters were simply a kind of patchwork monolith. Labyrinthine corridors ran through the monolith, some of those being former streets (at the ground level, and often clogged up with trash), and some of those running through upper floors, practically between buildings. The streets were illuminated by fluorescent lights, as sunlight was rare except for the rooftops. The only rules of construction were twofold: electricity had to be provided to avoid fire, and the buildings could be no more than about fourteen stories high, because of the nearby airport. A mere eight municipal pipes somehow provided water to the entire structure (although more could have come from wells).
... the story continues:

Over time, both the British and the Chinese governments found the massive, anarchic city to be increasingly intolerable - despite the low reported crime rate. The quality of life in the city, sanitary conditions in particular, was far behind the rest of Hong Kong. After the Joint Declaration in 1984, the Peoples Republic of China agreed with British authorities to demolish the City and resettle its inhabitants. The mutual decision to tear down the walled city was made in 1987. At that time, it had 50,000 inhabitants on 0.026 km², and therefore a very high population density of 1,900,000 / km². At its height, it was one of the most densely populated urban areas on Earth.

Evacuations started in 1991 and were completed in 1992. The 1993 movie Crime Story starring Jackie Chan was partly made in the deserted Walled City, and includes real scenes of building explosions. Kowloon Walled City was destroyed in the same year. Also, as the Walled City was beginning to be torn down, a group of Japanese explorers took about a week to tour the empty walled city, making a sort of map and a cross section of the city.
That last part is fascinating. Whoever that group was, I really hope they published their research. If anybody has any information on it, or on the Kowloon Walled city in general, get in touch! Until then, I'll be keeping my eyes out for it...

OK! Enough chit chat, on with the pictures (all of which were found with a simple Google search):

Kowloon Walled City in 1973

City Of Darkness: Life in Kowloon City seems to be the definitive book documenting the city and what it was like to live there with beautiful full color photographs - this has been on my wish list for years. The only other online resource worth mentioning, besides the Wiki entry above, is this page from Twenty4 - there are some great photographs (presumbly taken from City of Darkness) there.

Happy Friday!


Wheezy said...

I don't know what happened to the map of the Walled City, but a (badly translated) firsthand account of the 1991 Japanese expedition can be found

Anonymous said...

check the site of the potographer Greg Girard for more pics of the KWC.

gbroberg said...

Virtual light was before Iduro and it didnt take place on the golden gate bridge - it was the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge aka the James "Sunny Jim" Rolph Bridge aka the bay bridge - i dont mean to sound like a dick - just wanted to let u know

Colin said...

@gbroberg: Right you are! Thanks :)