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Kowloon: The Forgotten City

Hong Kong is a city filled with both history and stories. Due to its skyrocketed population density and cost of living, there have been several controversies over their massive housing projects, sometimes involving living in tiny dwellings, to solve the region’s gentrification.

Kowloon’s Walled city used to be one of them, and prior to its demolition it had been a hub for illicit activities and sketchy stories. However, just like anywhere else in the world, there was a human side to this area locally known as the “City of Darkness”, and we are going to explore both sides of it.

The Walled City

Kowloon’s walled city, sometimes known as the City of Anarchy, was a piece of urban land in the region of Hong Kong in which due to a legal vacuum it was never held power by the British during colonial times, leaving it a Mainland Chinese enclave within the British-controlled region of Hong Kong. Considered by some a “slum”, it became lawless when both the British and Chinese government chose not to intervene in any way in the city, making its administration all up to the locals.

From inside, it was a hub for organized crime and private investment in housing and production of goods and food. Not only was labor cheaper within the fortress, but also exempt from regulations from either government.

The walled city gained international fame when Canadian photographer Greg Girard documented life from inside, showing the humane, and often non-portrayed in the media side of it.

What made it gain its negative fame?

The fortress built by the Qing dynasty became a military settlement in the 19th century, only to become a refugee residential area.

Due to its lawlessness, it gained negative attention throughout time, even from the local authorities like the former governor of Hong Kong Sir Alexander Grantham, who claimed that the city had become “a cesspool of iniquity, with heroin divans, brothels and everything unsavoury”. As expected, these allegations contributed to its negative fame among the locals, some of whom would dodge the area to avoid getting mugged.

In some way its low prices and lack of regulation provoked an opium and heroin epidemic within the city. It is said that over 5000 drug-addicts were to be found in the area, and that attracted several evangelical Christian missionaries to preach and set rehabilitation centers. The living conditions within the city were those of a slum, where the inhabitants lived in cramped places in inhumane conditions and in a setting where most of them had no access to running water and other basic hygienic services.

The Flipside

While poverty and precariousness should never be romanticized, one should not forget that a whole 33,000-inhabitant civilization existed within Kowloon.

People carried on with their lives and took part in mundane activities of all sorts. Small businesses were founded, some of which would not go any further than one’s house, and it was a welcoming community to those escaping bankruptcy and to migrants. Families with children called Kowloon their community.

Even some outsiders would visit Kowloon for cheap street food, which would sometimes be sold outside the complex and even abroad, becoming a cultural hotspot for Hong Kong.

The complex was governed by triads, which was a self-governing system in which all the residents took part and resolved conflicts.

With all its flaws, it was a functioning society where people of all sorts lived and coexisted.

So, should it have been demolished?

As I see it, it is a bit more complicated than a yes or no:

Its living conditions were inhumane, but it is extremely rare to find people willingly choosing to live in such conditions. Most of the inhabitants were mere victims of gentrification and displacement. Victims of these social conditions should not be blamed for the circumstances they are found in.

In my point of view, its lawlessness did nothing to prevent crime, and most of it ruined people’s lives (e.g., human trafficking in brothels). So even though in some parts self-regulation was effective, it was proven that for the moment being, some crimes need to be punished by law.

Regarding the locals, when illegal housing projects like these are demolished, they should be given an alternative place to live, especially having in mind that most of the inhabitants have nowhere else to go and this was the only way of living according to their means. Investment in public housing and regulations on gentrification would help not only to avoid slums like this to be created, but also to keep inhabitants from resorting to illicit activities to pay for their needs.

All in all, even though Kowloon is fondly remembered by most of its former inhabitants as what they once called home, we should not forget that efficient urban planning where affordable, livable housing is a priority would have solved the problem before it was even created. After all, despite the political issues that defined the existence of Kowloon, it was precariousness and other social issues that made people move inside the complex.

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