It’s been 20 years since Kowloon Walled City was demolished, but amazingly, it remains one of the most dense structures ever built. As many as 33,000 people crammed into the seven-acre plot, known in Cantonese as “the city of darkness,” before they were relocated in 1993.
Nothing like it had existed before, and nothing has since.
The Walled City began as a Chinese military outpost in the 1800s, and emerged as a kind of no-man’s-land when England leased Hong Kong in 1898. The Japanese razed the site during World War II, and after the surrender, it became a magnet for refugees when neither England or China wanted to deal with the burgeoning, ungoverned community. In the years that followed, 300 towers rose on the site, these buildings were woven into a dense interconnected network infrastructure. There was never an architect or planner involved, just an army of residents and carpenters who worked to fill the cracks. Without city services, residents got water from wells, and trash was hauled up to the roof. Every resident had an average of 40 square feet of living space.
Though often described as a cesspool, the community was a model of cooperation: residents created basic rules to deal with matters of survival, like fighting fires. Schools, shops, and businesses (including those of doctors and dentists who couldn’t get licensed in Hong Kong) flourished. However, as you might imagine, crime also ran rampant. From the 1950s to the 1970s, it was controlled by Triads and had high rates of prostitution, gambling, and drug use. In January 1987, the Hong Kong government announced plans to demolish the Walled City. After an arduous eviction process, demolition began in March 1993 and was completed in April 1994.
Kowloon Walled City Park opened in December 1995 and occupies the area of the former Walled City. Some historical artifacts from the Walled City, including its yamen building and remnants of its South Gate, have been preserved there.