16 March 2016

Hong Kong Then and Now: Kowloon Walled City

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Over two decades since Hong Kong’s infamous Kowloon City was demolished, we dug into the history and modern age of what was once the most densely populated place on earth.

In March of 1993, eviction and demolition began on what some considered an eye-sore for Hong Kong, and others considered a feat in anarchy. Home to over 33,000 residents in its borders of no more than 6.5 acres, this topsy-turvy collection of rickety skyscrapers, DIY shophouses and narrow passageways was the most densely populated place on the planet.

Called “Kowloon Walled City”, most Hong Kong locals knew it as the city of darkness, ruled by all-powerful organized crime syndicates called Triads. Rarely would outsiders venture inside its colossal walls except when in search of drugs, prostitutes and illegal gambling. Even more astounding was how the city itself was erected largely by the residents themselves.

Kowloon began first as a military fort that slowly became a home to squatters who made a home from whatever they could, building rooms and levels on top of one another as they needed them.

Devoid of any building codes or regulations, the city’s population grew upward, with new levels being built (sometimes by hand) on top of others. Before long, it became a dense mass of high rises connected by interconnected walkways – most that saw no light of day.

But in 1994, this former military fort made its final transformation: into a beautiful public park. Nowadays, only remnants of the city’s Yamen building and South Gate still stand. Over two decades on, we look at how much this iconic area has changed – and what visitors can expect to see in its former home.

Kowloon Walled City 02

Kowloon Walled City 01

Density Versus Serenity

For those who haven’t heard of Kowloon Walled City, we wouldn’t blame you for thinking it was entirely fictitious. This truly bizarre example of chaotic architecture, resourceful thinking and resilient communities defied governance as much as it did logic. If photographic evidence doesn’t showcase the utter insanity of its construction, the statistics certainly do.

After the Chinese reclaimed Kowloon from the Japanese in 1945, thousands of refugees swarmed the area to take squatting rights. The new residents filled the walls of an empty military fort dating back to the Song Dynasty and it didn’t take long for an unplanned, helter-skelter of buildings to emerge in every gap. By the late 1980s, Kowloon Walled City stretched across 6.5 acres and contained up to 1,000 businesses, 8,800 homes and over 30,000 residents.

In 1987, the Chinese and British government announced that Kowloon Walled City would be demolished. It was a long, arduous process that costed US$350 million in compensation and took years to entirely clear the area. But, in 1994, the government was finally successful and made way for a large, elaborate park. In place of thousands of tiny apartments, there is now a peaceful park and from an overwhelming 500 intertwined high-rise buildings, there are now eight scenic zones, including the Four Seasons Garden, the Chinese Zodiac Garden and the Chess Garden. 


Kowloon Walled City 04

Debauchery to Luxury

Kowloon Walled City was a truly immense and untamed construction made up of dark corridors and hidden corners. From the 50s to the 70s the area was mostly controlled by crime lords and infamous for gambling, prostitution and drug use. The complex network of corridors made it practically impossible to police. In fact, one could actually cross the entire structure without touching solid ground.

Nowadays, over 20 years after Kowloon Walled City’s destruction, the landscape has few signs of its previous sordid history, let alone any high-rise buildings. Completed in 1995, elaborate artistic pavilions replaced the numerous unlicensed dentists and dainty bamboo terraces succeeded dangerous drug dens. Visitors can do anything from host or wedding photo shoots to just taking a casual stroll through the idyllic scenery.



Sordid Past or Precious History

Although Kowloon Walled City was known by various negative names by locals, including ‘a lawless twilight zone’, it has fond memories for others. The South China Morning Post recently wrote; “It may have been the City of Darkness to outsiders, but to thousands who called it home, it was a friendly, tight-knit community.”

There are still a handful of relics from the city that have been incorporated into the design of Kowloon Walled City Park. Remnants of the original South and East Gates have been kept on show and an old flag-stone path has been included in the scenery. There are even three cannons that survived from before the days that Kowloon was home to the original military fort.

Intrigued by Hong Kong’s extensive history? Explore the area on one of our unique tours or let us help you create your own with one of our expert guides.