Weeks ago I gave my son Martin Booth’s memoir, Gweilo (Bantam, 2005) about growing up in Hong Kong in the 1950s.
He just reached the part when Booth ventures into the Kowloon Walled City. When he asked about the Walled City, I rushed over to my bookshelf and plucked out a picture book that shows the ins and outs of the Walled City. (City of Darkness, Watermark, 1999)
I have a few regrets from my Hong Kong years and the Walled City is one of them. This jungle of run-town tenements was torn down in the early 1990s, which means it was still fully standing in 1990 and 1991, during my first stint in Hong Kong. I’d heard of the Walled City back then and felt eerily curious about it. But I never got around to seeing it.
What started out as a Chinese military fort around 1000 years ago remained a part of China after the UK took control of the New Territories in 1898. This photo was taken that year.
So it was really a no-man’s land because the British ruled the land surrounding the Kowloon Walled City for many miles around. In the 1950s, with the influx of mainland refugees, the Walled City developed into a gross firetrap. The refugees tried to claim the Walled City as their own, outside British colonial rule. And that’s pretty much what happened, as triads ran the place and the police stayed away. As you can imagine, drug use, prostitution, and gambling thrived there. Although it was still part of China, the PRC had nothing to do with it (they were busy with their own problems).
The outside of the Walled City looked rundown.
But when you see the entire thing, it’s quite upsetting to imagine how people lived like this for generations.
The Kowloon Walled City housed barbershops, factories, bakeries, Buddhist temples, and schools, not to mention thousands of residential units.
The Walled City was demolished in 1993-1994 and a new park opened in 1995.
If you have stories or memories about the Kowloon Walled City or the park, I’d love to hear them!