Words by Rhys Mather, Features Sub-Editor
Prior to 1994, if you journeyed to the Kowloon City District of Hong Kong you could find a series of 300 interconnected towers, some reaching 14 stories high, crammed into the space of around 4 football pitches. Narrow alleyways were overshadowed by make-shift drainage, meaning daylight could barely penetrate the lower levels, and the 33,000 residents took to using umbrellas for constantly dripping water from the decaying pipes. New structures built on old created a labyrinthine network of stairs and alleys, once the most densely populated place on Earth; this was Kowloon Walled city – also dubbed Hak Nam, “the city of darkness”.
The city started its life as a military fort in the 19th century, near the border of British Hong Kong to defend China from further conflict – as the first opium war ended in devastating loss for the Qing dynasty. The fort was occupied by British forces in 1899 and was left virtually abandoned until the Chinese civil war following World War 2, which lead to Mao Zedong formally declaring the People’s Republic of China – refugees fleeing the war went to Hong Kong with many settling in Kowloon walled city. Many thousands of settlers began the construction of what would eventually become Hak Nam, originally the city was mostly rudimentary wooden huts but underwent huge development in the 1960’s where the city’s characteristic high-rises first appeared. Neither China nor Britain ever established effective governance within the city, and it became a stronghold for various triad gangs who operated dozens of illicit businesses within Hak Nam’s walls.
This is where Hak Nam is often misrepresented – the city is typically remembered as a lawless haven for crime and depravity, but its important to recognize the vibrant community of thousands who called the city of darkness their home. The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) writes:
“Despite a reputation for lawlessness, the walled city was a remarkably functional, self-governing society that embodied the political ideology of anarchy.”
Indeed, the walled city was governed by a collective of residents named the “Kowloon Walled City Kai Fong Association” – the association was formed to combat British eviction efforts and was responsible for authorizing all building work within the city, which became necessary as the idiosyncratic architecture would need to be managed in order to accommodate the booming population. Facilities and buildings within the walled city included: schools, temples, factories, even an old person’s home and a youth centre. The city had no way of generating electricity, but creatively siphoned power from outside. Remarkably, Hak Nam only had one postman for the 33,000 residents, Lam Po-chun worked as the mailman for 12 years in a city with two elevators – one hell of a paper round.
Despite the work of the Kai Fon association, the city was still plagued by issues of improper sanitation and unregulated construction – rats were commonplace due to the lack of large-scale waste disposal and buildings often lacked windows or proper ventilation. There was an undeniable criminal element within Hak Nam – with triad gangs like the 14K running an extensive drug trade and operating illegal casinos and brothels; unlicensed dentists and doctors ran practices marked with neon signs. Triad presence was significantly reduced after a series of thousands of police raids between 1973 and 1974 but crime remained rife for Hak Nam’s entire history.
This being said, Hak Nam was host to various legal, albeit unregulated, businesses and the majority of residents were not involved in any criminal activity. The city had an impressive manufacturing industry, producing everything from noodles to rubber – one factory purportedly produced 10,000 golf balls a day! The city of darkness had another curious export – fish balls. It sounds strange but according to the WSJ Hak Nam once supplied a staggering 80% of Hong Kong’s fish balls, which is especially impressive considering they’re one of the regions signature delicacies. The walled city also had a major sweet factory, The Industrial History of Hong Kong Group writes:
“Located on 12 Sai Shing Road from the early 70s it produced a wide range of sweets which were sold locally to HK wholesalers and also sent to Macau. The sweets were also delivered to toy factories where they were put inside some of the toys. The factory was operated by Lee Yo Chan. At its peak he employed ten full-time workers and twenty temporary sweet wrappers. Many of the latter were children who worked after school for as little as half an hour.”
Photographers Ian lambot and Greg Girard spent 5 years exploring the walled city and meeting its people. Their work culminated in a book: “City of Darkness: life in Kowloon Walled City”. The Book paints a picture of the more subdued side of Hak Nam – they write of daily life within the city and what residents would do to pass time:
“Every afternoon the alleys were alive with the clacking of mah-jong tiles. Up on the roof, in cages not much smaller than some of the city’s homes, cooed hundreds of racing pigeons. A part-time Chinese orchestra got together twice a week, and melancholic, sinuous notes of the old instruments filtered up and down the alleys.”
While Hak Nam is certainly awe inspiring – it’s important not to romanticize a place where conditions were harsh, and life was difficult. Water contamination and sickness caused by poor air quality was common, sanitation became such an issue that many residents moved out. Whether it was concerns over health or if they just considered it an eyesore, the British and Chinese governments announced a joint plan to demolish Hak Nam on January 14th, 1987. The eviction process was arduous, despite the poor conditions, Hak Nam was home for thousands of people. The government distributed approximately HK$ 2.7 billion (US$ 350 million) as compensation to the 33,000 residents and by the end of 1991 there were less than 500 households remaining. The residents who remained were forcibly evicted from their homes between 1991 and 1992 – its unclear if they were ever compensated. The city was demolished in 1994 and redeveloped into a park.
Hak Nam is remembered by many as a den of vice, a place where the law was absent, and crime ran amok – in reality Hak Nam was a community of disadvantaged people simply looking to survive. For all its flaws the walled city was an utterly unique political and architectural phenomenon – a city built and governed by its citizens, an anarchist experiment that could very well be the most extraordinary housing project in history.