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The Strange Saga of Kowloon Walled City (atlasobscura.com)
312 points by ecliptik 14 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 82 comments



> Even a new treaty in 1898, which granted Hong Kong, Kowloon, and further territories in Canton to Britain for 99 years, kept the Walled City under Chinese control. A year later, in May 1899, rumors circulated that Chinese soldiers were massing again in the Walled City, so the British sent troops across the water. They expected battle—perhaps another war—but found only the Mandarin. The irate official left too, and the British took the city, though the Chinese never renounced their claim. Missionaries moved in and built churches and schools, pig farmers from the surrounding hills took plots of land within the walls. There was almost no administrative control, and the city became a slum. Yet whenever the Hong Kong government tried to clear it to turn it into a park—evicting the residents in the process—the Chinese government always stepped in. After all, this tiny rectangle of land was still officially their territory.

Answers a question I'd had for a while: what was special about this piece of land that made it effectively lawless?


my understanding was that it was in administrative limbo. Britain owned Hong Kong, and China claimed authority over just to spite them. So Britain left it alone. But China didn't care enough to actually administer it. And besides, it was disconnected from the mainland and only i tiny insignificant plot of land. So why bother setting up all the infrastructure just for a tiny slum?

More complex than that even.

If Hong Kong was British under treaty then this area is not covered by British control. If the British exercise control then they are saying the treaty is invalid.

The Chinese didn't exercise control because to do so would validate a treaty that they objected to after the fact; that the original colony was seeded in perpertuity . They didn't want to fully disown it because they claimed the whole colony back, not just New Territories.

It was clear by the 1970s that since the Chinese could just cut the water supply off to Hong Kong if they wanted to, that the compromise solution was to pretend that the 99 years New Territories lease treaty had always covered the whole colony and just agree to handover with a two systems one state solution.


Amazing. Sad. I look up the Kowloon Walled City almost once a month.


I was studying in Kowloon City, the area where Kowloon Walled City is located at. I met a girl who was exceptionally hardworking as she told me she needed good grades to get good grades and hence earning money to get a better living for her family in the future. We were around 5~6 at the time.

Later I learnt that she lived inside the Walled City and her father was an unlicensed dentist. Drug addicts and dealers were so natural to her as she walked pass them everyday on the way back home after school.

20+ years later her dream come true and now she is a specialist. I wonder if the poor living standard inside Walled City somehow has a positive impact on her personality. Anyway, she told me that it was a truely amazing experience to have lived in the City, but she would rather not to if given the choice.


>I met a girl who was exceptionally hardworking as she told me she needed good grades to get good grades

You generally do yes


Some cross section is nicely illustrated at

https://www.thisiscolossal.com/2014/11/an-illustrated-cross-...


In the city of Kawasaki, Japan there was an arcade whose interior was modeled to look like Kowloon Walled City. The builders supposedly flew in literal trash from the actual Kowloon Walled City to use in the arcade. Sadly, they closed permanently at the end of November last year:

https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/anata-no-warehouse


Damned, that really sucks! :P We went there last Jully and it was marvelous. Not just the part modelled after Kowloon Walled City, but also the arcade itself, best arcade machine selection from anywhere we went. Even the other visitors we met were pretty cool, showing their crazy skills on the music arcades and sometimes ever wearing stylish cyperpunk styled clothes. :)

Oh well, at least we saw it while it was still operational.


I made a trip to Japan in November just to visit this before it closed down. It was pretty neat, but to everyone now terribly disappointed that they missed it: it was not as amazing as you hoped. Some of the interior architecture was I believe a very faithful reconstruction, but most of it can be approximated by walking around Mong Kok at night. A great deal of space was dedicated to arcade machines and there were some strange sci-fi elements that, in my opinion, detracted from the experience.

I didn't realise they'd shut! I visited maybe mid-November last year and really enjoyed the atmosphere. They had this bizarre glowing pool for the entrance where you need to hop over some rocks to get in.

Crap! I skipped it last time I went to Japan and was going to go this May. :(

”On average, residents received around $380,000 for their individual flats.”

I found that extremely high in 1987-89 dollars, but then realised this must be Hong Kong dollars. https://www.poundsterlinglive.com/bank-of-england-spot/histo... gave me an exchange rate of somewhere between 7 and 8 Hong Kong dollars to a US dollar.

I think that still was a considerable sum, around 1990 in China.


That's funny, since home prices in HK average something like 1.2 million US now I didn't blink twice at that number.

I wouldn’t blink, either, except that this was a slum (even by Chinese standards of the time), and that it was densely populated. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kowloon_Walled_City) says it had 5,000,000 people per square mile. Dividing by 20 floors still gives you 250,000 people per square mile.

If I calculate that correctly, that’s ballpark 100 square feet per inhabitant, and that area included shared space. I would guess the average ‘apartment’ would have about half that, and only the better ones would have windows facing outside.


100sqf per inhabitant isn't particularly uncommon in Hong Kong, even in normal flats. It's quite common to fit an entire family in 300-400 sqf and that flat will set you back nearly US$1m on HK Island.

> On average, resident owners received $380,000 for their individual flats – the equivalent to around £430,000 today.

https://www.elsewhere-journal.com/fallenglory


There's a sort of a documentary on Kowloon, from back in the day: https://youtube.com/watch?v=S-rj8m7Ssow


Thank you very much for this link. The original narration (written by Hugo Poritsch) is excellent and the subs by the uploader are among the best I've ever come across.

The Steam game linked to in the comments (https://store.steampowered.com/app/1178490/ParanormalHK/) looks promising.


I never went to see Kowloon in real life but I have the fondest memories of it through the detailed renditions and special atmosphere of Shenmue II on the Sega Dreamcast.

The story takes place in 1986; you play a young Japanese man in search for the killer of his father. The whole Hong Kong experience especially, still feels very much like (time) travel.

The game is also available on steam (and on console marketplaces AFAIK):

https://store.steampowered.com/app/758330/Shenmue_I__II/


I'm playing through the third at the moment. It has managed to recreate the atmosphere of the first two games in a respectable way (given the reduced budget) (even if IMO it's lacking some polish)

Kowloon is by itself a large borough or equivalent in Hong Kong.

A couple more god journalistic explorations of it from Wall St. Journal and the South China Morning Post:

http://projects.wsj.com/kwc/

https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1191748/kowloon-...


Somewhere (on Youtube or Vimeo I think) there is - or was - a "runthru" by someone (I believe they had to be Chinese) with a gopro or such strapped to their head - where they duck in an entrance of one "side" of the city, then "run" thru to the other "side" - and the along the way you get to see people, shops, etc - the denizens, so to speak, of the "city".

The reason I say I believe the person had to be Chinese is that the city, from what I know, is well known to be hostile to people who don't live in the city, and especially to people who look western and aren't with an escort. It was a very insular place, where even that person doing the runthru was taking a big change being stopped by someone, but probably would've had less hassle than someone who definitely didn't look like they belonged there.

Anyhow - it was a kind of "urbex" video of a place that - at the time - was still a vibrant, if mostly lawless - place of people going about their lives. Quite amazing to watch and see, honestly.


Are you sure that was a video of Kowloon? The city was demolished in 1993. While it's not completely out of the realm of possibility that someone ran through the city while carrying a camcorder, it would have been a rather substantial piece of hardware, and would have attracted a lot of attention.


The continued (and growing) popularity of KWC seems to me to indicate a real desire for a more organic, free-form style of living space and architecture as opposed to the IKEA / Dubai / generic mall style that we seem to be building everywhere. I wonder if something similar will ever arise in the near future...my guess is that we'll have to wait for space travel to really kick off to see more flexible forms of government and construction.

In any case, the closest thing today in Hong Kong to the Walled City is probably Chungking Mansions. Not quite as anarchic or run down, but it does have a family resemblance. I recommend the book Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong for more about the interesting global mix of people and economics that goes on there.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chungking_Mansions

https://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/G/bo11...


Such styles of living space and architecture are only popular until there's a fire or earthquake. Then everybody dies.

A cool coffee table book on this subject is "Kowloon large illustrated" (ISBN 4000080709) by Iwanami Shoten. Even if you can't read Japanese, the photos and illustrations are great.

Chasing the Dragon (Jackie Pullinger) is the account of a British woman who moved to Hong Kong and felt led by God to help the underprivileged in Kowloon City, with dramatic results. No illustrations, but a riveting read (if you have an open mind).

There's also a photo book by her about it called Crack in the Wall. Don't think it's currently in print but worth tracking down a secondhand copy.

Pretty sure she's shown in the documentary: https://youtube.com/watch?v=S-rj8m7Ssow

City of Darkness (Ian Lambot, Greg Girard) is also great. A reprint is available, I think.

I thought I recognized the name of this place. It is featured in the game Shadowrun: Hong Kong [1]. Highly recommend it, lot of fun.

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shadowrun:_Hong_Kong


It also appears in Iron Fist comics as something very different.

There are more photos, and discussion of installing electricity and water, on this website. (It seems to be by the same author as the Atlas Obscura article, or at least the same photographer.)

https://cityofdarkness.co.uk/category/the_city/


I’m curious about the economics of constructing such a place: 13 story buildings under such conditions seem a non sequitur.

It accreted, it wasn't planned. They just built things on top of other things.

13 stories seems too much to "accrete". Architectural or economic, it's a startling achievement of anarchy.

The book suggests a construction contractor would approach the owners of a smaller building, and in return for replacing it with a much larger one, they would own the lower X floors.

Bloodsport 1988 had a scene in the Kowloon Walled City

I think it and the Japanese footage is the only known film from inside?

A good excuse as any to re/watch a classic movie.


There's some BBC footage from Wicker's World where Alan Wicker is walking through the city and talking to local people.

He actually refers to an older documentary he made where his team were basically run out of the city by some local triads.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JchVQMuxRVA


Kumite! Kumite! Kumite!

No - see my comment elsewhere - there was a runthru video made of the city. I remember watching it on youtube or vimeo; not sure if it still exists to watch, tho.

Crime Story (1993) has a scene filmed in the abandoned city before demolition.

Call of Duty: Black Ops has an extensive session in Kowloon Walled City.

I think having a modern version of this would be kind of cool. Something that’s managed with laws and isn’t a slum. I’d imagine having everything you need in an enclosed space would be appealing to some people.

Firstly, afaik many high-rises are already set up this way, especially in China or Hong Kong where they get pretty dense.

Also IIRC there's a settlement in Alaska or Canada that's just one apartment building, population of 200-something. Personally I wouldn't be able to live there, with everyone knowing who's sleeping with whom.

Secondly, I don't know how enclosed you want the space, but in many European cities, you get everything you need and most of what you want in a rather short walking distance―instead of having to drive. Plus you get sun and fresh air, as opposed to what was there in Kowloon.


China it depends as many cities things are a fair distance away, but core of HK is pretty dense. But that’s a plus for me, that I can go downstairs and get most of what I need from a small radius that’s very walkable.

I agree with the 200 person complex, that’s too small. It needs to be something big enough and containing enough people that it feels like a small city, not a small school.


If it's just size you want.... here is a building with similar population, ca 30,000 ppl.

https://www.google.com.au/maps/@22.3080235,114.1927302,348m/...


Are you thinking of Begich Towers in Whittier, Alaska? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Begich_Towers

Huh learned the term arcology today. I think that’s a pretty fitting word to describe what I meant.

Someone didn't grow up playing Sim City 2000...

https://simcity.fandom.com/wiki/Arcology


> Also IIRC there's a settlement in Alaska or Canada that's just one apartment building, population of 200-something. Personally I wouldn't be able to live there, with everyone knowing who's sleeping with whom.

I take it you never lived in a large college dorm?


This is "le mur" / "the wall" in Fermont, Québec, Canada.

https://youtu.be/_xG1YmOWrD8


My condo-block has a 7-11, a gym, a hairdresser, and a massage place, and we get FoodPanda and groceries delivered. Some of my friends also live in the condo-block. I could easily go a week without leaving if I didn't make an effort.

Thailand is so convenient to live in

Something like a city without immigration controls so any of the world's refugees could go there would be interesting.

Are you imagining something different from a well-appointed apartment complex?

I live in one, it's very convenient, and I could probably avoid ever leaving if I wanted to,* but I don't think it bears much similarity to a leaking, lightless slum. And it couldn't while being managed by laws (specifically, building codes).

* I work from home, but there's plenty of employment to be found within the complex too, including a few office buildings.


I looked at purchasing a condo in North York up in Ontario a few years back. The condo was connected to a shopping center with grocery, restaurant, movie theatre and other shops. In addition it was right on top of the subway station. At that time I worked downtown in a building also with direct access to the subway as well as to the PATH network. So in this scenario I literally could never go outside and get everything I need, which is both good and bad.

I guess I had something like that in mind but minus the subway so things are in a smaller radius.


Growing up I loved stories about arcologies. Break-away super high tech cities that became their own enclaves.

The idea that the parent poster mentions is indeed referred to as an arcology, the idea being that you have a small city completely encapsulated within a single monolithic structure.

Remember those weird giant buildings from Sim City 2000? Those were arcologies. Other examples would be Peach Trees, the mega-skyscraper setting of Judge Dredd, and the Cairo arcology from Deus Ex 2


Add to that The World Inside novel, by Robert Silverberg (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_World_Inside).

> managed with laws

The OG Kowloon Walled City became itself because of lawlessness and self-sustaining. With law and regulation in place it’s hard to build anything close to it.


A complex of connected (underground and/or skybridges) skyscrapers that encompass all types of common food/shops and a wide range of residential would be pretty awesome. I’d move into something like that.

Bonus points if they built in a pneumatic delivery tube system for getting food from the restaurants to any of the homes/offices quickly.


Large parts of Downtown Minneapolis and similar northern cities are completely interconnected via basements and sky bridges.

If you're ever in San Francisco, go wander around the Embarcadero Center buildings 1-3. You can live there, go to the movies, eat at top notch restaurants all without touching ground level. If you want to go to the gym or buy groceries, you'll have to go to the ground level but you'll still be in the complex.

There are no convenience stores or grocery stores. It’s also open to the elements, IIRC?

You're right. In my head EC and the nearby Gateway homes + the parks bleed together.

My idea is something that includes a range of types of housing, at least 2 different types of food stores, at least 1 24 hour convenience store, a medical floor or two, at least 2-3 restaurants, at least 1 coffee shop, a bank branch, et c.

Some of these might need to be ground floor so that they can leverage the foot traffic in the neighborhood, but it might be possible to build the lowest few floors in a mall style around a 3-4 story central atrium so that the retail locations can be visible to anyone who walks in, sort of similar to the Berlin Hauptbahnhof that has pharmacies, food, retail, grocery, et c: all visible when you walk inside.

You'll know you've got it when a particularly indoorsy type could live inside the single structure for months to a year without leaving the building.


Yea I had something like that in mind too. Something like the PATH network in Toronto or the plus 15 up in Calgary.

Sadly the PATH is far from 24h, same for most of the businesses it connects.

I live in what is called an "urban village" in China, and aspects of it are similar to Kowloon Walled City. That is: there are a lot of quasi-legal mid-rise buildings so close together that if you walk in the alleys between them you cannot see the sky. Most apartments do not have a window, and those that do mostly just look out on the opposite building. Migrant workers live in dorms on the ground level and squatters convert rooftop greenhouses to small living spaces. The wider streets are still technically walking streets, although there you will also find cyclists and electric scooter delivery drivers squeezing through. There are lots of rats and cockroaches, but because gentrification there are also buildings that have a concierge and occasionally spray pest control.

The big difference between urban villages in the mainland top-tier cities and Kowloon Walled City is exactly that they are managed with laws. Although these villages are considered by middle class people as sketchy areas full of black society (mainland version of triads), in reality it's mostly just migrant workers trying to make a living. Plus, because mainland China, police (and informants) are everywhere, so it's relatively safe compared to the actual sketchy areas in low-tier cities.

The good things about living in an urban village are that there is very cheap food, the people are very friendly and you can walk downstairs to get everything that you need without having to visit a chain store.

The bad thing is that these areas are seen by the government as a necessary evil, and as soon as the surrounding areas get rich enough, they just clear the whole place out. Like, full on demolition bye bye. Because the vast majority of people living in urban villages are migrant workers, they have very few rights in the city (public schooling, healthcare, housing etc), so evicting them is easy.

If you're interested in this kind of living a great blog to follow is Shenzhen Noted: https://shenzhennoted.com/

Of course, you can also find a similar lifestyle in European cities, where most buildings are walking distance from a fruit shop, a kebab joint, a bakery and a pub. North American condo living is a totally different thing because it's dominated by shopping malls and chain stores. Even the working class towers in North America have fast food chains downstairs. The kind of local/community lifestyle we have here is something i really wish i could transport to the North American cities. It's so much better, imo.


There's a game, Tiny Tower.

It's a silly click/wait game with no substance to it, but it's sort of fascinating to imagine a real building like that.


> The result was a city outside the law: There was no tax, no regulation of businesses, no health or planning systems, no police presence.

interesting...i wonder if it could be considered one of the only known “libertarian” type of cities/places?

are there any other known places like this? did they fair any better?


Not quite the same thing, but: between 1918 and 1921, there was an 'anarchist territory' with a population of 7 million people in eastern Ukraine. By all accounts it was essentially stateless and had no real authority. Alas, it got entangled in the Russian Civil War and was dismantled in the 1921 by the Soviets.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Makhnovia


You can experience something similar today in Moldova. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transnistria

super interesting, appreciate the link

David Friedman (Milton Friedman's son), has written about how saga era Iceland could be considered libertarian.

http://www.daviddfriedman.com/Academic/Iceland/Iceland.html

His piece on the Amish

http://www.daviddfriedman.com/Academic/Course_Pages/Legal_Sy...

Somali Customary Law

http://www.daviddfriedman.com/Academic/Course_Pages/legal_sy...

See also Neutral Moresnet

https://mises.org/library/anarchy-aachen


Reminds me of the Java ecosystem



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