Sunlight comes only rarely, with a sliver slicing down between the ramshackle towers. The light here is fluorescent and the people packed sardine tight amongst twisting corridors. Some of the lower levels are widely considered uninhabitable due to trash. Up the street (if it can be called that) there’s a drug parlor with an unlicensed “doctor” open for business upstairs. They exist openly: there are no police because there is no law.
The above is not a description of a dystopian (or utopian) fantasia, but of the Kowloon Walled City which was very real. From 1945-1993, a political loophole created a zone of Hong Kong where there was no law. The resulting anarchic, hodge-podge monolith was the descendant of the pirate utopias of old: a testament to humanity’s ingenuity, greed, violence and tenacity. Here is a glimpse within the walls of one of the strangest human settlements ever.
The story goes like this: it’s 1898 and, at the height of their imperial power, the British have just forced the Chinese to sign away the Kowloon Peninsula for the next 99 years. There is one exception, however, as the British agree to let a small magistrate’s fort remain until they set up their colonial administration. The Chinese leave, but when the British attack the fort, they find it abandoned. So, like any good colonial bureaucrat, they scratch their heads before promptly turning it into a tourist attraction and ignore its murky legal status.
Along comes World War II, and the Japanese, after taking Hong Kong, tear down the walls to build an airport. After the war, squatters flock to the area and begin to build. Attempts to evict them end, twice, end in riots that threaten to cause a diplomatic incident. The British go back to ignoring the place. The population grows exponentially, and by 1971 there are 10,000 people living on seven acres. It attracts the usual types drawn to undiscovered countries: criminals, dreamers, dissidents, refugees and the plain desperate.
But even as the buildings practically merge into one monolithic labyrinth, people manage to build a life in the Walled City. The communities work out basic rules to prevent fires, sink over 70 wells or tap into city supplies to get water (Hong Kong ends up providing it), set height limits on the buildings to prevent trouble with the nearby airport and establish volunteer groups to keep some basic order.
But this is still a lawless place. Driven from mainland China, the Triads set up shop and start living like kings, while Hong Kong’s upper crust comes in for the sex, drugs and gambling. The gangsters end up lording it over the inhabitants until 3,000 raids by the Hong Kong police in the 1970s clear most of them out (though it leaves the city ungoverned as ever).
After the Triad recedes, the city thrives, the population multiplies to 35,000 (making it one of the most densely populated places on the planet), and by most accounts, the violent crime rate is lower than similar neighborhoods in the rest of the city. Doctors and entrepreneurs who can’t afford the licenses in Hong Kong set up shop and make a fortune.
But, thing change as the handover to China approaches. Neither country’s government particularly likes the filthy uncontrolled pocket that their nearly century long dispute has created. An agreement is made, the residents are moved out and, in 1993 the whole staggering structure is demolished. Today, it’s a park.
Before and After
But the Walled City left its mark, vexing the Muscles from Brussels in Bloodsport, inspiring Christopher Nolan’s depiction of Gotham’s slums and is rebuilt in cyberspace in William Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy.
Every observer seems to have taken a different lesson. Some extolled it as the “rarest of things, a working model of an anarchist society,” while U.S. News and World Report (never big on the whole nonconformity thing in the first place), sputtering in its disgust, dubbed it “a fetid conglomeration” of tenements, piling on words like “festering” for good measure.
I think any lessons the place offers defy easy categories. But because it’s closer in history, it should be a reminder, whenever any of us looks back on the aforementioned pirate utopias, or the romanticized depictions of Tortuga or the Wild West, that those no-rules fantasy lands were real places with all the attendant blood and stink.
Yes, the anarchistic types out there are correct when they say that the Walled City is evidence that humans can co-exist, and even thrive, without laws constantly piled on them. But it’s not that simple. After all, without massive police raids (government incarnate), the place would have probably become a mob-run tyranny. Its residents had a degree of freedom that anyone who comes home to piles of bills or endless forms can’t help but envy. They also had darkness, a lower life expectancy, filthy living conditions and huge numbers of drug addicts.
But if the Walled City is a reminder that lawlessness isn’t quite as cleanly romantic as some might think, it also reminds us that a staggering number of societies are possible — and that every one of them has a price.
- City of Darkness, a book by photographers Greg Girard and Ian Lambot. The source for the best images of the walled city, including most of those in this article.