Kowloon Walled City, a few miles north of Hong Kong, was just the size of a couple city blocks. But it was home to some 33,000 people who lived and worked in the city’s hundreds of little buildings and apartments, each of which was stacked atop the next to form a monstrous and compact slum. Before it was demolished in 1994, it was considered to be the most densely populated settlement on the planet. To the Chinese government, the city was an embarrassment — both for its unsightliness and lawlessness. But to the thousands who lived there for decades, Kowloon Walled City was home.
The site of the city was originally a Chinese military fort that was taken over by the Japanese during World War II. In the years following the war, the fort became a squatter’s village caught in a legal limbo between the British-run Hong Kong government and the Chinese government. As such, there was no one to officially enforce criminal law, housing codes, or business regulations.
To navigate the city, you had to walk through narrow, dark streets, some only 6 feet wide. Some of the paths on the upper floors were so narrow you had to walk sideways to pass through. A majority of the city’s buildings and paths had no windows and almost no natural light. And because of the poor plumbing, the entire city was constantly dripping.
"There was never any top-down guidance or planning about how the place should be,” Greg Girard, who spent years photographing the city, said. “It grew as an organic response to people's needs."
With its dark alleys and winding staircases, the city was extremely hard to navigate for outsiders. You could supposedly cross the length of the city on its upper-floor paths to avoid ground floors all together. Mir Lui, a postman who was assigned to the city in 1976, was forced to learn the layout. After years, he’s said to be one of the few people who knows all the city’s ins and outs.
As it grew, crime became a major problem in the city. From the 1950s to the 1970s, Triad criminal groups controlled the city. Starting in 1973, Hong Kong Police conducted about 3,500 raids and seized about 4,000 pounds of drugs, largely eradicating the groups’ power. In 1983, the city’s crime problem was said to be under control. "The city normalized, but the reputation stayed until the end. It was a place your parents told you to never go to," Girard said.
Crime was just one aspect of the city’s economy, however. Many doctors, dentists and other professionals opened offices in the Walled City either because they couldn’t afford rent on the outside or because they had emigrated from China to find that their licenses weren’t valid in Hong Kong. The city earned a reputation as a place where working class people could see a doctor on the cheap.
Restaurants and food manufacturers were also a big part of the Walled City’s economy. With no regulations to worry about, the city became a spot where Hong Kongers could get dog-meat stew, a dish banned by the British in the city proper. Unregulated Walled City shops also supplied fishballs, noodles and meats to Hong Kong restaurants.
Even with the city’s eccentricities, many residents lived like regular Hong Kong residents. Children would do homework in their parents’ shops. Adults would lounge on the city’s rooftops while their kids would play, both enjoying a respite away from the stench and humidity trapped below. And neighbors would help one another — it took vast amounts of energy to pump enough water into the city for its thousands of residents, and they took turns conserving electricity so their city wouldn’t go thirsty.
Eventually, the city became too much of a headache for government officials and it was razed in 1994 to make way for a public park. About 33,000 residents were displaced, including many older residents who had lived in the Walled City for decades. Though they were compensated, many say it wasn’t enough. If you want to take a tour through Kowloon Walled City, you can check out photographer Greg Girard’s book, “City of Darkness Revisited.” Or you can watch an old documentary about the city here.