It has nearly been three decades since the demolition of the Kowloon Walled City, and still, the effects it had on Hong Kong and the images it left behind linger. For many who lived there in the past, these memories aren’t necessarily bad.
The Walled City was bloated with crime, prostitution, and drug use, but there was a closeness to those that called it home. Together, the residents of the city resisted the Hong Kong government's efforts for decades as they tried to move everyone out. Having never been ceded to Britain in their 99-year lease of Hong Kong to the UK, the residents often felt that the Walled City was really China and that the Hong Kong government should leave them alone. The result of all this was one of the most iconic slums in history.
What the Kowloon Walled City Really Was
2.7-hectares of the slum were erected around what was originally a fort. Sixteen-story buildings stacked on top of each other like an organic being. Opium parlors, whorehouses, and gambling dens run by the triads ran this place. Police, health inspectors, and tax collectors feared going inside. Its name in Cantonese translates ominously into the City of Darkness.
Despite being infested slum, complete with dripping sewage and crawling rats, it was a nightmare for Hong Kong’s government to try to get its residents to accept their rehousing agreements. Chinese shopkeepers, faith healers, and self-taught dentists, alongside criminals, fought to keep the Walled City alive. With 300 interconnected high-rise buildings, all from the mind of one architect, the Kowloon Walled City truly was a slum to behold.
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The Birth of the Walled City
The history of Kowloon’s Walled City far exceeds its history as a slum. From 960 AD to 1297 AD, it was a small fort constructed by the Sung Dynasty. It was built up in the 1800s as the Chinese faced off with the British, who held Hong Kong Island.
In 1898, when China ceded Hong Kong to the British on its 99-year lease, China was unwilling to cede Kowloon.
The British would attempt to clear the city several times but would ultimately fail as they extended their Jurisdiction across to Kowloon and the walled city. Parts of the city would be leased to churches and charitable groups, but by 1940 just the Lung Chun School was still in operation.
When the Japanese invaded during WWII, they ended up demolishing the Walled City’s wall, its oldest part, in an attempt to stop Chinese refugees from flocking there. By 1947, there were 2,000 squatter camps, and by 1971, 10,000 people occupied 2,185 dwellings.
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The End of the Walled City
During the 80s, it was home to 35,000 people. All attempts to clear the city were met with threats from the city’s residents. They would threaten a diplomatic incident that could possibly harm Sino-British Relations. The residents would often claim that the Walled City was part of China, not Hong Kong, to the Hong Kong government shouldn’t have any power there. This led to the government taking a largely hands-off approach to the city for years.
From the 50s till the end of the 80s, the walled city was a bastion for Chinese criminal activity through the triads, and illegal vendors ranging from opium dens to dog restaurants opened throughout the city.
In March 1993, this changed. The government was finally about to get the last residents to accept their rehousing agreements and compensation. This would lead to the fall and demolition of the Walled City, marking the end of this infamous landmark.
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Stories from the Walled City
With so many tens of thousands having lived in the Walled City, it was inevitable that stories of life there would eventually get out. One story comes from Heung Yin-King, who grew up with her family in the Walled City after formally living in a rooftop hut in Hung Hom.
During the 1960s, Yin-King and her family moved into a 70 sq ft room in a two-story house. They were near Tung Tau Chuen Road. They shared the house with seven other families. Eventually, they would move to a two-bedroom flat on the fourth floor of a Tai Cheng Street high-rise.
Yin-King recalls her life as being happy during that time. She recalls their poverty but fondly remembers how close she was to her family and friends and how happy she was during this time. She was the eldest daughter, and because their fourth-floor home didn't have running water, she would have to frequently run buckets of water from the first floor to the fourth. She blames this for why she is so short.
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What Can Travelers Discover Today?
The metropolitan area of Kowloon still exists today and is a thriving part of Hong Kong, full of wonderful must-visit locations like the Temple Street Night Market. However, the Kowloon Walled City is near, in its entirety, gone. Some pre-1898 structures from before the walled city was handed over to the British remain in what is a stunning Chinese-style park. The original fort that would become the Walled City, along with a few historical relics, can still be found by visitors to the park.
Visiting the Kowloon Walled City Park
For those who may find themselves visiting Hong Kong, the Kowloon Walled City Park is one of the more interesting places in the city to visit. Not only is it a stunning and lovely park, but its connection to the past and the past of the city make it a popular destination to visit. It is hard to imagine the towering and interconnected high-rises that used to fill this area and the tens of thousands that called the Walled City home.