Once considered the most densely populated place on earth, The Kowloon walled city was a mostly uncovered slum, but the people living inside it never considered it to be one. As the settlement grew bigger even the sunlight couldn’t penetrate it was also known as the dark city. It housed about 37,000 people in 500 buildings in a tiny space that did not follow any rules or regulations. It is exactly why it is still remembered today. The British had no control over it and China too did not want to intervene. The freedom from government interventions, rules and regulations made this place a haven for people from the lower strata of society.
The history of the walled city of Kowloon can be drawn back to the Song Dynasty of China that was at the height of its power in 960 AD. The original six-acre plot of land began to be used as an outpost to control salt trade until 1810, when China built a small coastal fort and, years later, surrounded it with a defensive wall. Nevertheless, the fortifications did not prevent the British from entering the city in 1899, more than 50 years after the conquest of Hong Kong. During the Second World War when Hong Kong came under Japanese occupation the wall was raised and the stones were used to expand nearby Kai Tak Airport. The settlement returned to Chinese rule in 1945 by 1947, more than 2,000 refugees wishing to remain under Chinese rule flooded the city. When Britain ended up taking a hands-off policy, it became a sanctuary for those who want to stay outside the law.
In 1950 the city came under Chinese mafia control, known as the Triads, and illegal activities started to flourish. A building boom took place in the 1960s and the walled city quickly turned into the notorious chaotic and anarchic sprawling city it is remembered today. Buildings built without regard to safety standards gave shelter to a fast-growing population, but as the city grew higher in daylight, the term “City of Darkness” was slowly blocked by a drastic increase in population, which has risen fivefold in 40 years, putting more pressure on the insufficient infrastructure and causing the filthy living conditions to deteriorate further.
The city was so densely populated that in contrast to the 37,000 people living in the city in the 1990s, Hong Kong and New York today will feel empty, only eight standpipes offered drinking water, drinking water often came from wells, but people complained that it was foul-smelling and contained soot-like particles. Living conditions were squalid, but the rent was cheap at only 35 Hong Kong dollars, about four U.S. dollars a month today, making up patchy or non-existent electricity for cramped and dirty spaces and no garbage collection. Garbage was usually dumped on the building’s rooftop because it was almost impossible to land it to a proper garbage disposal pit. The city was particularly attractive to dentists and manufacturers who were able to practice without a license. The walled city’s main inhabitants were Triads who could operate brothels, gambling houses and drug dens, and tourists who could find dog meat to eat which was then illegal in Hong Kong.
Following nearly 50 years of successful anarchy, the town became an embarrassment for the British who agreed in 1993 to tear it down. The demolition was finished in April 1994.
Even though residents resisted against the demolition at first, but eventually vacated the walled city. The residents received compensation and the site was turned into a garden in the style of a Ching dynasty.
Given the squalid living conditions, many former residents fondly remember the walled city, they considered it their home, their culture, and although living conditions were undeniably bad, many of them found it most pleasant. Often regarded as a symbol of resilience, the city paved the way for Hong Kong that it today is. Hong Kong owes a lot to this city.