Kowloon Walled City: The Modern Pirate Utopia

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.

38 Responses to “Kowloon Walled City: The Modern Pirate Utopia”

  1. V1 Says:

    That cameraman seems to have studied the traditional Hong Kong “hidden-camera-on-belt” method of filmmaking :]

    Thanks so much for posting this! That first image is perfect; it captures every detail of the old city, right down to the grandfather shops and constant traffic.

  2. dramatis personae Says:

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  3. Vivacious G Says:

    Thanks for this article which has touched me on a personal level.

  4. Mer Says:

    Incredible. Like something out of a China Mieville novel. I’m reeling. Thank you, David.

  5. Hester Says:

    Someone has actually built a small replica of Kowloon in Second Life.
    One of the all too few worthwhile places in SL

  6. Nina Says:

    Speechless. I just have to thank you for the article.

  7. Zoetica Says:

    I’d expressed my awe in email already but felt compelled and do it here, as well. It would have been a hell of a place to visit and get lost in for a week. Much appreciated contribution, David – I’ll be dreaming of this place tonight.

  8. Jani Says:

    I guess you could have been get lost there not only for week but forever. And I bet few people might actually gone that way in those wild years.
    But hooray for this post. I like it.
    Reminds me of some English-Russia posts about deserted places and some Vice-magazine articles about weird places that people live. Like Crypt living people in Manila, they even had karaoke joint in one of the crypts.

  9. Tequila Says:

    Excellent article. I remember a documentary on this place left a serious impression on me in grade school (yes I watched a lot of TV as a kid…) and often daydreamed about the place. While it has indeed been romanticized and it’ll no doubt find life in many more pieces of work…its spirit lives on around the world. Be it in that desert city/society that has chosen to unplug from the world here in the states to uncontrolled pockets of societies that police and govern themselves like those found in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

    More recently the strange phenomena of unrecognized countries that exist but don’t at the same time have caused quite an international stir. The case of Somaliland being a prime example.

    Prior to the latest fallout in Mogadishu, Somalia a strange peace flourished for a bit that resembled a lot of what is seen above. It even had it’s own thriving cell phone companies and money exchanges.

    So for me I’ve no doubt we’ll see another Kowloon Walled City emerge.

  10. Héloïse Says:

    Very Miéville, indeed. And wasn’t it also featured in Murakami Ryû’s “Coin Locker Babies” too? (A book I highly recommand to any Coilhouse reader, by the way.)

  11. Shay Says:

    Absolutely incredible. I had no idea such a place existed. Wow.

    Thank you.

  12. Sabro Says:

    Hi, today is the BlogDay and I just want you to know I did choose you as one of my five recommendations for this year.

  13. Zoetica Says:

    Aww, Sabro! That fills me with total joy – thank you for making my morning.

  14. vbright Says:

    this is amazing! thanks coilhouse.
    also, anyone else getting the BLAME!/megastructure vibe from this?

  15. cappy Says:

    Yep, just like I thought it’d look like in Idoru, I think.

  16. alapoet Says:

    Great look at a fascinating (and now obliterated) city!

  17. Kowloon Walled City: the modern pirate utopia « &¶ Says:

    […] Walled City: the modern pirate utopia My article on the lawless labyrinth that was the Kowloon Walled City is up on Coilhouse: Sunlight comes only […]

  18. » Dystopian Past: Kowloon Walled City DEGOURGET.com Says:

    […] Coilhouse Magazine feature here […]

  19. David Forbes Says:

    V1: An ancient and revered art. ;-) Yeah, I thought the camera work was sloppy too, but it was one of the few videos I saw out there of the walled city before its demolition.

    Vivacious G: And thank you for that comment, it made me smile.

    Mer: You’re welcome. I figured we can all use a reminder of exactly how unreal reality can be.

    Hester: Wow. Gibson proves prophetic again.

    Zoe: And I’ll express my gratitude here too, as that’s exactly the reaction I hoped to inspire. I agree about getting lost there, though the grumpy pragmatist in me probably wouldn’t have wanted to venture inside without a half-decent knowledge of Cantonese and a good knife. The travel-junkie side would have canceled that out by inwardly stammering “Holy shit this is amazing!” every five seconds or so.

    Tequila: Doubtless we will, every system creates gaps.

    There is something that escaped my notice when I wrote this article. One of the only structures that survived the Walled City’s destruction was the original magistrate’s yamen. It dates from 1847 and while the inhabitants put it to various uses (school, clinic) during the lawless days, it was kept intact.

  20. Jerem Morrow Says:

    It’s nice to find the world isn’t as small as I keep thinking it is. Danke D!

  21. Rant Things » end of weekend link dump Says:

    […] for a while due to legal strangeness between China and Great Britain, there was essentially a lawless, unowned city (or “pirate utopia”) in the mid 20th century. (via […]

  22. R. Says:

    That was a great article, David. I had heard of Kowloon Walled City in passing but never knew exactly what it was. That city is something I would never imagine existing in this world but it did and it left its mark.

  23. The Meltdowns » Kowloon - Walled City Says:

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  24. 7 Abandoned Cities and Places in Asia | WebUrbanist Says:

    […] the rogue ungoverned Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong things were so tightly packed that trash blocked off parts of buildings and many […]

  25. BigRussia Says:

    Отлично!!! Вместо книги на ночь

  26. Judith Thelen Says:

    Hello, I was in Hong Kong, on my way to China with my husband. We walked around the first morning before our flight to Shangahi. We came upon the Walled City (we were staying that anairport hotel near there) and were facinated. I was awe struck and have never been able to get it out of my mind. Such a piece of history. It’s a shame it is gone. I grieve for it.

  27. Kowloon Walled City | Something Out of a Science Fiction Story « Hello Universe, This Is Nessie Says:

    […] a great article with lots of info, pics and a 9 minute video that claims to give you a rare look inside the city […]

  28. The Tech Gonzo Diary » Coilhouse issue 3 Says:

    […] It includes an extended version of my friend, Mr David Forbes, excellent piece on that former pirate utopia, the Walled City of Kowloon. […]

  29. areya Says:

    Pardon my ignorance but how is the walled city different from the favelas in Rio?

  30. Sam Cheng Says:

    areya, I grew up in HK but never been to Rio. I’ll say the KWC is much much more crowded. It had 50,000 people in 26,000 square meter or about 2 million people per 1 square km. HK has a moderate size of about 1000 square km. If the entire HK had this population density, there would be 2 billion people in Hong Kong… almost double the entire population of China!

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  33. Ricky Says:

    I have been reading ur article and can’t help but feel you are not balanced in your portrayal of teh Walled City. I don’t mind saying that the people who have written comments like “i wish it were still there” and “love to visit”, have made me feel sick to my stomach. The Walled City of Kowloon was not a place to visit nor was it a thriving version of self determined modern society. It was a 100 % triad run, opium, heroin and prostitution hell hole. With no water, for the most part, no plumbing at all and many dying peopel living within. I have known many aid workers who have worked amongst the city and believe me it is a blessed miracle that the City is gone, both for the inhabitants and for the world at large.

    Serioulsy people… wake up to reality

  34. Of Kowloon’s Walled City and “Virtual Light” (by Gibson) | storiesbywilliams Says:

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  35. Derrick Says:

    A similar place exists today in Mumbai, India. It’s called Dharavi. It’s a thriving, mostly lawless area which packs something like a million people into a square mile. It’s certainly not utopia, but it’s nonetheless a fascinating hotbed of micro-entrepreneurship.

    Here’s a YouTube intro: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VW35myugiMA

    There are actually four parts to the above video. I can’t find the other parts right now, but they’re quite fascinating and worth seeking out.

  36. Romain Nervil Says:

    Incredible story!

    I used one of your pictures for a post on the Walled City on TED’s City2.0 platform, you can see it here:http://www.thecity2.org/stories/kowloon-the-walled-city, and credited you as a source, let me know if it is ok!


  37. sheesh Says:

    I have a really good 1984 Hong Kong action film titled LONG ARM OF THE LAW, which is said to be one of the last films shot in Kowloon City before it was demolished. The last major action scene in,where the cops close in on the robbers, is the filmed-in-Kowloon part, and it is truly amazing, incredible and intense as all hell. The way Kowloon is described in this article, it makes me wonder how the hell the film crew was ever able to film there in the first place (besides being required to pay the triads off! Here’s that final scene—the movie is on DVD, but hard to find:


    The whole film’s finally on YouTube, for anyone who wants to check it out—it’s that damn good, and a genuine HK action classic to boot.

  38. A New Look at Kowloon Walled City, the Internet’s Favorite Cyberpunk Slum | VORTRA Says:

    […] Likely because it represents the perfect confluence of things internet loves—superlatives (the most crowded place on Earth!), a weird, bloggable history, China, contrarianism, its image of the cyberpunk dystopia we’re all rocketing towards—the city has, in some portrayals, transitioned from one of the world’s worst slums into “the modern pirate utopia.”  […]