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Here's What Western Accounts of the Kowloon Walled City Don't Tell You

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Postby Brazilkree В» 17.01.2020

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It is the s in Hong Kong , and you are eleven years old. Early one evening, you go out to a nearby neighborhood for dinner with your family. A five-minute walk from your primary school, it is also a place you frequent with your friends.

The food here is good and especially renowned for its fishball noodle soup, which is what you always get. Your bowl of noodles arrives and you slurp them down, unaware of the fact that over the next couple of years this very neighborhood will peak in its population and its infamy, and remain even decades later as one of the most remarkable social anomalies in recent history. At its peak, the Kowloon Walled City was home to 33, people in just two hectares of land—the size of about two rugby fields—making it the densest place on Earth at the time.

It was a hastily put together conglomerate of tiny apartments, one on top of the other, caged balconies slapped onto the sides and connected through a labyrinth of damp, dark corridors. All the while, the rest of Hong Kong went about as normal, seemingly unaffected by the crime and squalor within the Walled City.

This unique society and its complete neglect by the rest of Hong Kong was born of the equally unique political conditions of the Kowloon site. Initially a Chinese outpost for the salt trade during the Song Dynasty AD— , it was later turned into a military outpost with an added coastal fort in the s. However, the Kowloon site was an exception, with the British allowing the Chinese to stay at the site as long as they did not politically interfere.

Free from both sides of the law, squatters soon flooded in, and so began the legend of the Kowloon Walled City. By the population had grown to 17, People moved to the Walled City out of bankruptcy, lack of choice, and to either flee or exploit the lack of law.

Construction proliferated alongside population, a truly modern vernacular free from any building regulation or code. Within the darkness of the Walled City, crime, unregulated businesses everything from opium dens and brothels to plastic bags and spring rolls and family life went on day after day.

In , residents were evicted and given monetary compensation, and the site was converted into a public commemorative park. Despite my many, often lengthy, trips to Hong Kong , I have never visited the park. It is not a well advertised or well heard of tourist attraction, nor is it a place of local pride. In fact it was from the mouth of a Swede that I first heard of the Kowloon Walled City and each time since then that the Walled City has come up, it has been from Caucasian commentary.

There was no mention of the delicious bowls of noodles one could find there. In fact, most of our conversation focused on the food that you could find there. He went on to describe the physical environment of the place, with an energy that I have only otherwise seen during one of his jam-making frenzies. Smiling, he recalled the constant dripping of water leaks everywhere and the surreal disappearance of the sky once you entered. He also went on about the many unregulated businesses there, with special mention to the many unlicensed dentists that could operate liability-free, and also the dog meat stalls, which found success while canine cuisine was illegal in the rest of Hong Kong.

He admits that he knew of people being mugged and that people generally avoided the place after dark, but otherwise my dad complimented the Triads on their organization of the Walled City. Acting as a de facto city council albeit one funded by drugs and enforced through violence , the Triads organized a volunteer fire brigade and rubbish disposal, and resolved civil conflicts, particularly those between competing businesses.

The way my dad speaks of the Walled City, with something approaching pride, gives a very different impression to its popular depiction—it is much easier to tell a story of depraved lifestyles in a dark maze of inhumane living conditions. A documentary on the Walled City chronicled this complexity firsthand. Filmed by an Austrian with English subtitles, the s film gives an intimate look at life in the Walled City. We meet a breeder of illegal racing pigeons an alternative to betting on horses , a kindergarten, and even a Triad-funded pensioner.

All these stories, however, are set against a dark, dim architectural backdrop. This, perhaps, best represents Hong Kong—scary from the outside, but energetic normality within.

While it would be false to say that the documentary makers were exaggerating the extent of the squalid conditions, poverty and cramped spaces, these qualities are only striking in their intensity—not at all in their absurdity. Given the conditions and consequences in which the city was conceived, and its complete neglect, it could have turned out a whole lot worse.

When the Kowloon Walled City was torn down by outside forces, many of its residents were dissatisfied with their eviction and not even financial compensation restored the community they left behind. When still under British rule, it is important to remember that the Kowloon Walled City was not the only place of such density in Hong Kong. Contemporary to the Walled City were other urban squatter settlements, also ad hoc conglomerations but only of one storey, and roomier with just people per hectare—about 2 square meters per person.

The settlements sprang up from the population boom of the s, when Chinese refugees fled into the city following political turmoil in the mainland.

With this ancestry, and my own upbringing as a Hong Kong-born New Zealand citizen, it irks me to see the persistent fascination with the current density, of housing in particular, in Hong Kong. While physically long gone, the shadow of the Walled City and its colonial conception remains.

The common, lazy judgement thrown upon unfamiliar cultures is everywhere. My grandmother has, from her arrival into Hong Kong to the current day, lived in public housing. There are over , apartments across public housing estates, with 15, more apartments built each year. Just as with the Walled City, there is rarely any mention of the lives within the towering walls nor the delicious bowls of noodles.

Photos of these seemingly endless modules disregard and crop out any sense of thought behind the buildings, ignoring what have in fact been decades of design evolution and an increasing quality of public housing. The average living space has changed greatly over the years, and current legislation makes site-specific considerations, sustainable implementations, thoughtful interior and master planning mandatory.

Today, problems often associated with density, such as crime and sickness, are not notably prevalent in Hong Kong. Density will always be a fact of life in Hong Kong , manifested to its extreme in the Walled City and resolved in public housing today. The quarters given to the populous domestic maids really are too small, and immigrant housing is an increasing concern, with people renting out taped-off sections of rooftops for residency.

If the energy of young designers in both Hong Kong and abroad were focused less on criticizing places that are actually doing fine, there are real urban and social problems in Hong Kong that are currently, like the Walled City once was, being neglected. You'll now receive updates based on what you follow! Personalize your stream and start following your favorite authors, offices and users. About Contact Submit Advertise. Change country. Log out. Share Share Facebook.

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