Extract from 'Fallen Glory' by James Crawford

Photo credit:  ‘Inside the Walled City’, 1998 , © Patrick Zachmann / Magnum Photos

Photo credit:  ‘Inside the Walled City’, 1998 , © Patrick Zachmann / Magnum Photos

No-Man's City
Kowloon Walled City - Kowloon, Hong Kong
(Born 1843 - Died 1994)

In the aftermath of the Second World War, refugees flooded south to the Kowloon Peninsula. The only trace of the old city was the derelict shell of the Mandarin’s house. Yet people gravitated almost instinctively to this rough rectangle of ground. Perhaps it was the feng shui. The Walled City had originally been laid out according to the ancient principles of Chinese philosophy: facing south and overlooking water, with hills and mountains to the north. This ideal alignment, it was said, brought harmony to a ll citizens. In their desperate plight some refugees may have believed that Kowloon would be a much-needed source of luck and prosperity. Others, however, recalled that this had once been a Chinese exclave in British colonial territory. The stone walls of the ‘Walled City’ had gone, but the refugees were convinced the diplomatic ones remained. 

By 1947 there were over 2,000 squatters camped in Kowloon, their ramshackle huts arranged in almost the exact footprint of the original city. No one wanted to find themselves outside the borders – those on the wrong side of the line risked losing the protection of the Chinese government. The people kept coming, and the camp grew ever more squalid and overcrowded. 

Appalled by the conditions, the Hong Kong authorities made plans to clear the refugees. On 5 January 1948, the Public Works Department, supported by a large police presence, removed the squatters and demolished all the slum housing. Within a week, however, the occupiers had returned to rebuild their shacks. When the police attempted to intervene, a riot broke out. News of the disturbances spread across China, and the plight of the ‘residents’ of Kowloon became a cause célèbre. The British consulate in Canton was set on fire, and a group of students in Shanghai staged a protest strike. Officials from the Chinese government travelled to the Walled City – and officially encouraged the refugees to continue the struggle against their British oppressors. 

The provincial Canton government sent a delegation on a ‘comfort mission’ to the region, supplementing the distribution of food and medical aid with messages advocating militant action. The Chinese Foreign Ministry continued to argue that they retained jurisdiction over the city and its people. Amid mounting tension, the Hong Kong government relented. The eviction programme was halted, and the police withdrew. From a temporary refugee camp, Kowloon now began to evolve into something more permanent. A new city was being founded on the ruins of the old.

What kind of city? Naturally, the judgement of Sir Alexander Grantham, Governor of Hong Kong from 1947 to 1957, was damning. Kowloon, he wrote, had become ‘a cesspool of iniquity, with heroin divans, brothels and everything unsavoury’. The Chinese claims to sovereignty over Kowloon did not extend to any day-to-day administration; they merely used its uncertain status as a convenient tool for political point-scoring. After the disturbances in 1948, the Hong Kong government had settled on a similar policy of non-intervention. The result was a city outside the law: there was no tax; no regulation of businesses; no health or planning systems; no police presence. People could come to Kowloon, and, in official terms, disappear. It was little surprise that criminal activity flourished. Five Triad gangs: the King Yee, Sun Yee On, 14K, Wo Shing Wo and Tai Ho Choi, took up residence. Kowloon’s extra-legal status made it the perfect place for the manufacture, sale and use of drugs like opium and heroin. The city that had been founded to police the traffic of opium became the epicentre of Hong Kong’s narcotics trade.

Organised crime may have dominated much of Kowloon, but it did not define the city. Entrepreneurs, attracted by low rents offered by private landlords, saw a unique opportunity. Hundreds of factories were established, with entire families manning the production lines. Conditions were often appalling, yet productivity – and profit – remarkable. Goods made in Kowloon were exported throughout Hong Kong, China, and even, in some cases, the world. Plastics and textile manufacturing were a speciality, as was food production. To the blissful ignorance of Hong Kong’s well-heeled residents, the dumplings and fish balls served in their restaurants were frequently sourced from Kowloon. 

The citizens of the Walled City demonstrated an extraordinary capacity for change and adaptation. The boundaries of their world were tightly constrained, yet, as more people continued to enter the city, their architecture met the demand. As modern high-rises grew up in Hong Kong, the builders of Kowloon copied what they saw, erecting tower-blocks of their own. Thin columns, established on foundations often consisting of thin layers of concrete poured into shallow trenches, started to extend skywards. With no requirement for planning permission, structures were thrown up with amazing speed. Subsidence and settlement were common. Because the high-rises would often lean against each other, residents called them ‘lovers’ buildings’. 

As the blocks began to merge together, the city became less a collection of buildings, and more a single structure, a solid block filled with thousands of individual units designed to meet every requirement of a city: living, working, learning, production, commerce, trade, and leisure. Increasingly, residents were physically sealed-off from the outside world. Light did not penetrate down to the narrow lanes leading between the high-rises. It was the beginning of the ‘City of Darkness’.

A system of self-government gradually emerged. In 1963, for the first time in over a decade, the Hong Kong authorities attempted to intervene in Kowloon, issuing a demolition order for one corner of the city, and proposing to relocate the displaced residents to a new estate development nearby. When the plans were made public, the community instantly formed a ‘Kowloon City anti-demolition committee’. 

They sought support from Peking, and once again the Chinese government – now in the form of Chairman Mao’s Communist People’s Republic – raised their objections at the highest diplomatic level. ‘The City of Kowloon is China’s territory, and within China’s jurisdiction and... this has all along been so in history,’ was the message conveyed to the British Foreign Office. When the Hong Kong government went ahead with publishing a schedule and dates for demolition, the Chinese accused Britain of a ‘gross violation of China’s sovereignty’. Once again, broader diplomatic issues – namely the future of Hong Kong and the New Territories as a whole – forced the British authorities to relent.

Emboldened by their success, the ‘Kowloon City anti-demolition committee’ became a permanent association, with the aim of representing all the needs of their residents. Known as the Kai Fong, they set up their office in the old Mandarin’s house, and handled everything from hygiene and fire-prevention to providing administrative support for property transactions – notarising bills of sale and deeds of ownership on strips of rice paper. From 1968 to 1979, until the Hong Kong government introduced compulsory free education, they even ran a school in the city. 

One of their chief tasks, however, was to lobby the authorities for a permanent water supply. The government had always refused to connect Kowloon to the mains – not least to avoid encouraging further population growth – and for decades residents had taken matters into their own hands. Some paid the Triads for supplies tapped illegally from the mains system. Others sunk wells beneath the city, and used electric generators to pump water to tanks built on the rooftops of the tower-blocks. From there, a network of makeshift pipes spread out across the city, supplying water to any resident paying a subscription. 

Over time the wells were drilled deeper, until some reached up to 100 metres below ground. Under pressure from the Kai Fong, the Hong Kong government eventually agreed to install standpipes, but only one was actually placed inside the city. The others were pointedly positioned just outside the perimeter of Kowloon. In the 1970s, mains sewage was provided; prior to that, human and industrial waste had merely run out of the city in open drains. As it filtered down below the city foundations, this sewage must have contaminated many of the water sources from which the wells drew. 

For all the ingenuity of the residents and the Kai Fong, there was no denying the unsavoury conditions within Kowloon. The city was dank, fetid and filthy, home to an accumulation of dirt and smells that amounted to an assault on the senses of obscene proportions. As time passed, the contrast grew even more acute between the respectable face of the city, represented by the Kai Fong, and its popular reputation as a warren of criminal activity. 

While police had begun to conduct irregular raids of Kowloon in the 1960s, making hundreds of arrests, many felt these incursions were barely scratching the surface. ‘The Walled City remains the vice centre of Hong Kong,’ wrote the Hong Kong Standard in June 1968, ‘with an estimated 5,000 drug addicts.’ When another concerted police campaign was undertaken in the mid-1970s, 500 pounds of heroin and nearly 4,000 pounds of opium were seized. At the same time, the city became a magnet for evangelical Christian missionaries, who set up Salvation Army outposts and drug rehabilitation centres in the heart of Kowloon, often leasing properties and arranging protection from the same Triad gangs who were feeding the addicts’ habits. So many souls to save – and in such a small space – was clearly too much to resist. 

For decades the city had stolen electricity from the mains supply, yet in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Hong Kong authorities approved official installation, probably as a safeguard against the extreme fire-risk posed by the makeshift wiring which riddled Kowloon’s infrastructure. Employees of ‘China Light and Power’ led cables into the city ‘inch by inch’: sometimes attaching them to alleyway ceilings; at other times being forced to dig below the pavements. ‘The city was just a maze of pipes and wires all over the place,’ explained one engineer. ‘We had to invent many new ways of installing cables’. Even then, often the technicians could only lead the mains cables to the lower floors of the tower-blocks, leaving it to the residents to connect the supply higher up the buildings. All the same, it was symptomatic of changing official attitudes towards Kowloon. Light was shining into the deepest corners of the City of Darkness. 


At 9.20am on 14 January 1987, thirty trucks pulled up around the perimeter of Kowloon Walled City. Within the trucks were over 400 officials from the Hong Kong Housing Department. They were organised into 60 teams, each containing a police officer, and they immediately began to erect cordons around the 83 streets and alleys leading into and out of the city. At 10am, they entered Kowloon, on a mission to contact and survey every single resident. 

At 9am, the Hong Kong government had announced that Kowloon was to be cleared and redeveloped as a public park, and that all residents would be re-housed and compensated for any costs incurred. Of course, the city had been in this position before. The difference this time, however, was that an agreement was already in place with the Chinese government. Just minutes after the first notice, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing released a supporting statement. They backed the move as being essential ‘for fundamentally improving the living environment of the inhabitants of Kowloon Walled City’, and continued that they wished ‘to express our full understanding of the decision made by the British Hong Kong government to take appropriate measures to clear the Kowloon Walled City and build it into a park’.

The city’s fate had been sealed just over two years before. On 19 December 1984, the governments of China and Great Britain signed a joint declaration, affirming that the transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong would take place on 1 July 1997. The Chinese Foreign Ministry had always used Kowloon as a political pawn to remind the British and the world of their claim of ownership over the New Territories. With a diplomatic solution in place, the Walled City lost its special status. Almost instantly, this protected exclave, once praised by a high-ranking communist party official for ‘doing a good job in self-administration’, was reclassified as an unhealthy slum. In the 1960s, the leader of the Kai Fong had explained that, ‘as long as the Communist flag is flying here, Peking knows it’s their duty to protect us... This is part of China. The Walled City will never become part of Hong Kong. One day Hong Kong will become part of us.’ And so it would, in a sense. Except that no Walled City would be there to see it happen. 

The plans for clearance and demolition were kept secret. Compensation was a key element of the eviction process, so there was the permanent danger of a sudden influx of people keen to grab a slice of government money. For six months at the beginning of 1986, Housing Department officials kept Kowloon under surveillance, working to produce an estimate of population numbers, and a record of the exact physical dimensions of the city. Once this initial report was complete, planning began for the door-to-door survey. The purpose of the operation remained under wraps until the last minute. It was only on the morning of 14 January, as the Housing Department inspectors arrived for work, that they were informed of their task.

The joint statement from Britain and China had stunned the residents of the Walled City, leaving many simply resigned to their fate. The Kai Fong had always presented itself as the champion of the rights of Kowloon citizens. Now it found it hard to argue against a government-sanctioned, comprehensive resettlement package that placed residents’ welfare at its heart. Although a resistance movement did develop after the survey, its main outlet was a series of anonymous posters stating that Kowloon had been built with ‘blood and sweat’, and demanding appropriate compensation. The demolition, it seemed, was inevitable. 

The compensation package for residents and business owners totalled $2.76 billion.On average, resident owners received $380,000 for their individual flats – the equivalent to around £430,000 today. Negotiations progressed over the course of several years, and by November 1991, only 457 households were still to agree terms. By this time, a large proportion of the 33,000 residents had already moved out. Some, however – described as ‘difficult clearances’ – clung on till the end. Section by section, the Walled City was closed down and condemned. Demolition teams began to move through the emptied units, stripping buildings of hazardous materials – in particular, of huge amounts of asbestos sheeting – and removing all inflammable or chemical substances. Once the sweep of a block was complete, it was sealed with mesh windows and padlocked gates, to prevent residents or squatters from returning. 

During every phase of the clearance, police were required to break into flats to evict small numbers of residents. At the same time, pest control teams moved through the deserted alleyways, in an attempt to destroy Kowloon’s massive rat population before it decamped to other housing estates nearby. Finally, on 2 July 1992, riot police with shields and clubs forced out the last remaining residents. Already evicted from their homes, a group of twenty or so had set up a protest camp in a small Buddhist temple on the city’s kerbside. A tall wire fence was erected to encircle the whole site, following almost exactly the line once marked out by the old granite wall. Kowloon was closed and sealed up for good.

On 23 March 1993, a wrecker’s ball smashed into the side of an eight-storey tower-block on the edge of the Walled City. This was a solitary, ceremonial swing. The real work of demolishing Kowloon, piece-by-piece, would begin several weeks later. The moment was applauded by a crowd of invited guests and dignitaries. It was also greeted with shouts of anger from former residents who had gathered for one last, futile protest. It took almost exactly a year to reduce the rest of the city to dust and rubble. 

Remarkably, from within the modern wreckage, fragments of the original city emerged. There were two granite plaques, each marked with Chinese characters: one read ‘South Gate’, and the other ‘Kowloon Walled City’. Once the ruins of the tower-blocks had been cleared away, developers uncovered segments of the foundations of the original wall, along with three of the iron cannons that had once bristled from the city’s ramparts. A solitary building still stood at the centre of Kowloon, the one structure to have survived throughout its whole turbulent history – the office of the Mandarin. Over the course of the next year, the ruins began their rapid conversion into a landscaped park, modelled on the famous seventeenth-century Jiangnan gardens built by the Qing dynasty. 

The paths running through these new gardens were named after the streets and buildings of the demolished slum. The Kowloon Walled City Park was officially opened on 22 December 1995 by the British Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten. It had taken some six decades, but at last Kowloon was transformed into the ‘place of popular resort’ envisaged by Sir William Peel, the Governor of Hong Kong in 1934: six-and-a half acres of ornate bamboo pavilions, pretty water-features and vibrant greenery.

This is the story of the rise and fall of a slum. It was born out of a quirk of history; it exploited its unsavoury reputation; and, as is the fate of all slums, it became an embarrassment before being levelled by the authorities. Is there any greater significance to its story than that? Many would argue not. But while locals and tourists now enjoy the park, some still crave the claustrophobic darkness. Theorists from the wilder shores of architecture keep returning to the idea of Kowloon. On this tiny rectangle of ground, a single community created something that had only existed before in the avant garde imagination: the ‘organic megastructure’. 

The concept of the megastructure emerged in the late 1960s, as a radical departure from the conventional idea of the city. Instead of buildings being arranged around public spaces, streets and squares, the megastructuralists envisioned one continuous city binding citizens together in a set of modular units, capable of unlimited expansion. It was a city designed to live, evolve and adapt, fulfilling all the needs of its people, and with the capacity to endlessly ‘plug in’ more units to meet changing desires. 

Architects pushed this idea to extremes, most sensationally in the work of Alan Boutwell and Michael Mitchell, who in 1969 proposed a ‘continuous city for 1,000,000 human beings’. They envisaged a single, linear city, sitting on 100-metre-high pillars, running in a straight line between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of North America. Kowloon, in effect, was proof of concept. Within its anarchist society, argued the megastructuralists, was the kernel of an architectural utopia. 

Others, however, saw Kowloon not as a Petri dish for urban theory, but a model or diorama for a new kind of construction – one that did not exist in the ordinary physical plane, yet was as real as anything that could be seen or touched. The renowned American science fiction writer, William Gibson, described Kowloon, not long before its demolition, as a ‘hive of dream’. What Gibson saw in the unregulated, organic chaos of the City of Darkness was an embodiment of his famous concept of ‘cyberspace’ – or, as we would call it today, the internet. 

In its formative years, the internet provided the perfect environment for the establishment of multiple, self-regulating communities. Just like the Walled City, it operated outside of law or external oversight. It was post-design and post-government. Thousands, even millions of Kowloons could spring up at will in cyberspace: digital enclaves thriving on creative and political freedom, possessing an autonomous, dynamic structure that allowed them to grow at a frightening, near-exponential rate. It was also, just like the Walled City, living on borrowed time. ‘I’d always maintained that much of the anarchy and craziness of the early internet had a lot to do with the fact that governments just hadn’t realised it was there,’ commented Gibson. ‘It was like this territory came into being, and there were no railroads, there were no lawmen, and people were doing whatever they wanted, but I always took it for granted that the railroads would come and there would be law west of Dodge.’

Yet to Gibson’s mind, the people of Kowloon – and the megastructuralists – were groping towards the next stage in human evolution. He saw the Walled City, that accident of urban birth, as a crude, subconscious schematic of the future, a blueprint for coders and hackers, the architects of the web, to follow. In his 1996 novel Idoru, Gibson imagined a virtual Kowloon, a Walled City 2.0 recreated as an ultra-libertarian web sanctuary: ‘These people, the ones they say made a hole in the net, they found the data, the history of it. Maps, pictures... They built it again.’

So the wrecking ball may not only have been destroying a notorious slum. Perhaps Kowloon was also the first, true, physical monument to the internet. The city offered a glimpse into the infinite horizons, the structural possibilities – and the inherent amorality – of the digital realm. And as a result, it may also serve as an origin point for an ever-growing, secret structure that lives between the strands of the web. When Gibson’s ‘They’ rebuilt Kowloon digitally, did they create an internet bogeyman? Has the City of Darkness evolved into the ‘Dark Net’?

This extract is taken from from Chapter 16, No-Man’s City: Kowloon Walled City – Kowloon, Hong Kong (Born 1843 – Died 1994) from Fallen Glory by James Crawford, published by Old Street, 2016 / 978-1910400432 / Paperback / £12.99. Website Link.