Kowloon Walled City

RM: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

RM: In 1898 China granted a 99 year lease to Great Britain for the areas across the harbour. The British controlled island of Hong Kong. But smack in the middle of that territory, known as Kowloon, was an enclave that wasn’t included in the lease. A place that would at least officially still be controlled by the Chinese. It was a large fort built decades earlier to put a check on British expansion, but it evolved into something very, very different.

NV: This was the first photo that I saw of it.

RM: Why don’t you start describing it…

NV: Okay, the first analogy that springs into my mind… is it looks a little bit like the Borg cube from Star Trek. It’s a city block and we’re not looking at a neighborhood that’s nestled in a city. Like, we are looking at a Borg cube that is in the middle of nowhere. There’s skyscrapers behind it, but the demarcation between this neighborhood and everything else is staggering.

RM: That’s my friend Nick Vanderkolk from the program Love and Radio showing me photos. He was the first person who told me about this place. It became known as “Kowloon Walled City”

NV: And even though the walls eventually came down, its name was still appropriate. There was no mistaking the boundaries between it and the rest of Hong Kong. The edges became a wall of 13 storey high rises overlooking a comparatively sparse squatters village. Buildings evolved organically, growing tendrils of bridges pipes and wires that encroach on other buildings
until the city turned into a single giant organism.

Because it was in this legal no-man’s-land: not under British jurisdiction, but pretty much ignored by the Chinese authorities, it became a magnet for the displaced and the marginal. Thousands of people moved there after war broke out with Japan in the ‘30s, and even more moved there after the Republic of China went Communist. Detracted gangsters, drug addicts, sex workers, refugees, and it also drew a lot of average people from all over China who needed cheap rent, and saw opportunity.

RM: Kowloon Walled City was at its height, the densest place anywhere. Ever. It had a population density of about 3.2 million people per square mile. In comparison, Manhattan has a population density of about seventy thousand people per square mile. That means that Kowloon Walled City was about forty six times as dense as Manhattan.

NV: So let me put that another way. If Manhattan want to get anywhere close to that kind of density, every man woman and child living in Texas would have to move there.

GG: I came across it very much by accident. I came around one corner and saw this structure that looked really different than everything else around it.

NV: That’s Greg Girard, a photographer. He lived in Hong Kong in the ‘80s and ’90s.

GG: And that’s when I became aware of the walled city, and started photographing there. It’s density was immediately apparent. Buildings had been built up against each other without any space between them. Each homeowner or each person who rented would build a different kind of caged balcony that would stick out a meter or two from their apartment. It was a way of opening up the apartment and getting more space and air and light.
I went for a first walk into one of the alleys and was immediately struck by what’s overhead, and that this tangle of electrical wires….and wet garbage that had been thrown from the upper floors. T.V. antennas all over the place.
Credible noises from the various manufacturing metalwork, small kind of foundries. Cotton mills, kitchen furnaces burning, or barbecuing pork, or duck or whatever. Sensations underfoot as you go down some alleys, you know, into watery squishy stuff.

NV: Watery, squishy stuff?

GG: Yeah, I mean, you know, stuff between buildings that you’re walking on. I mean, I really don’t even know what some of it was. All manner of sensory assault really.

NV: Greg took a lot of photographs of the walled city. There’s one probably one of my favorites of his, of a temple. It’s much shorter than the thirteen story high rises around it.

RM: Over the Temple is those huge metal grate that’s there to keep trash off the roof.

GG: The lifestyle of living in the walled city was to dispose of garbage by throwing it out your window and saw the temple next above its roof and it actually cost beautiful Shantel to all just trash it allowed for a really interesting light filtered down through some of the bases in the garbage almost like a tropical kind of canopy except this one was made of refuse.

RM: That new voice you heard is Aaron Tan.

NV: Aaron is an architect from Hong Kong. He wrote his master’s thesis about the walled city and he interviewed a lot of people who lived there.

AT: The worst city was at this prime time news during the ‘60s and ’70s, and it was also the same time where the great thinkers of architects like the {inaudible} was talking about this kind of self organizing structure, intelligent building thinking. All this was going on in the West, but not recognizing the existence of the wall city and trees doing that. So on the other hand the city in Hong Kong is growing by itself but without any architect working on it, so it’s like a coexistence of two. One is very theoretical, one is something very real. They do not know the existence of each other until much later when in late eighties when Greg Girard…or in the early ‘90s when we start to look at it, amazing coexistence of these two things during the same time.

RM: Because the walled city was virtually autonomous from both China and Britain, there wasn’t a lot in the way of infrastructure. There weren’t any building codes obviously and there wasn’t any garbage collection either.

NV: Which is why people threw their trash out the window. The walled city gained a reputation as a sort of den of iniquity. There were high levels of prostitution, gambling, organized crime and for some reason there seems to be a lot of rampant, unlicensed dentistry?

RM: But a kind of order did emerge.

NV: The triads are sort of like a Chinese version of the Mafia. Filled the power vacuum with its own rule of law. They made at least some attempts at hygiene.

AT: Triad gangs could get drug addicts to clean up the streets.

NV: And residents’ organizations popped up to settle disputes between neighbours. There was industry too: noodle factories, fishbowl factories, textiles.

RM: There were restaurants, and because the sanitation wasn’t great, they would kill your meal in front of you to prove that they weren’t serving a spoiled meat.

NV: A lot of the electricity was pirated. Someone would tap a cable into the grid and run it over across the buildings and then an official would shut it off. Then somebody would tap the grid again, lay new cable on top of the dead one and then that would get shut off, and so on and so on. Eventually there were just so many cables running over and across all of the buildings but the alleyways below were almost in total darkness.

AT: You cannot rely on what you see because you get lost right away, you know? But based on smell, you could better. Maybe they’re selling pork here and then there’s another cluster doing sugar and sweet. So actually relying on your smell, you can actually navigate through the city better.

RM: It was said that if you knew your way around the city’s elaborate maze of catwalks, you could walk from one side to the other without ever touching the ground.

At the end of the ‘70s and ‘80s when the end of the New Territories lease was on the horizon. Britain and China began to figure out what it meant for the future of Hong Kong. And part of that negotiation included the question of what to do with the walled city.

NV: After three quarters of a century of ambiguity from both countries, they finally agreed on a long eviction process. And in 1993, four years before Britain handed over control of Hong Kong to China, Kowloon walled city was demolished.

RM: But the story of the walled city does not end with its destruction.

BD: I’m Brian Douglas and I designed the first draft of the Kowloon Walled City level in Call of Duty Black Ops.

RM: Call of Duty it’s a first person shooter video game series.

BD: Normally you get into like, an army situation where maybe you’re in the middle of the street or you’re up on the second story of something, but it’s not a very vertically dynamic world most of the time. Except visually we never usually get to get up to those tall points.

NV: In other words, in most games like this the scenery is just scenery. You can’t interact with most of the world that exists off the ground.

BD: Usually they’re just there to make the world feel fleshed out and real. But with Kowloon we were actually like, “Well let’s go up there!”

NV: Call of Duty Black Ops is just one of many games to recreate the city. It lives on in a kind of virtual memorial except with um, way more gunfire

BD: This is kind of a level builders dream, because it provides opportunities that we don’t normally get. In our first sequence you can see sort of the liberty that it allowed it to take, because if I needed to just make something really sort of, crooked and awkward, it was just all like, carte blanche because it really fit into the nature of the city. The doorways weren’t necessarily the right size or the hallways were a little thinner and they’d bend in the middle. Some of the ceilings were a little taller where it wasn’t really fully developed, and there were wires coming off of it. You could just imagine what you will for it, and it was probably suitable.

NV: I played the walled city level. Actually, that’s a lie, I watched a friend of a friend play because I probably would have died in the first few minutes. Anyway, it’s clear that Brian and the other designers put a lot of thought into each location. For instance, a particular room might have a happy meal on the table. There are these signs of a moment in someone’s life but even though the world is full of bad guys trying to shoot you, you come across almost no one who’s actually living there. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that this was a real living breathing neighborhood.


When you discovered that they were going to be tearing down I mean what do you think about that? You sort of knew it as a real neighborhood, and not just a sort of fantastical den of iniquity.

GG: Yeah, you know, quite mixed feelings. I mean the place was completely unbelievable. It was just this fantastic phenomena.

RM: This is Greg Girard again, the photographer.

GG: At the same time, that civic minded part of you knows that this can’t and shouldn’t continue. It was a fire hazard, a health hazard. It’s one of those things that….it fell between the cracks and grew there into this beautiful monstrosity.

NV: Aaron, the architect has a similar ambivalence.

AT: I do, for me as from an architectural point of view, I was very sad to see it go. But when I interview with people twenty years later, I also get half half kind of respond. Some people say, “Oh this place is smelly, it’s bad. Glad he’s gone so now you see my place is much better.” But yes, some people have very good memories of walled city. They miss the richness of the space inside, they miss the community inside, they miss the convenience inside… That they can get things easily in the city. So you do get these two kind of opinion, too.

NV: But for Aaron there was a value in having it dismantled. As a graduate student he got to observe the city getting taken apart piece by piece.

For him it was an autopsy, a way to see how the various pieces of the city all fit together. He was able to build an understanding about how cities function almost with their own will. And as an architect, Aaron learned to allow for the sort of organic self-determination into his projects.

RM: Tan now incorporates some lessons of Kowloon Walled City into his own work. Rather than planning everything to a T, he now looks for ways to allow the organic nature of a city to organize itself.

AT: We’re not saying that this is a wonderful place. We were not trying to say that we want to duplicate this model because its existence is so unique position in history, you can recreate it. But again, when you look at it, it has a certain quality in its performance of an ism. It performed well in a very restrictive constraint that uh, with lack of water, without electricity, they know how to organize themselves. They know how to deal with it. The trash, like I said, on one hand it’s full of all trash but on the other hand, it could organize the people inside to remove them. And even a postman inside, know how to deliver letters. So it is a kind of a good alternative model for us to evaluate design strategy.

  1. Eve Schmitt

    Given the possible human density that the Walled City demonstrated, I calculate that you could fit about 900 million people in the land area of New York City.

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