Kowloon Walled City
Kowloon Walled City, Hong Kong, was once a military watchpost that protected the area against pirates before China came under British Rule. After the Japan occupied it during WWII, squatters moved in and neither Britain nor China wanted to take responsibility, and it effectively became an independent, anarchic city. There was no police because there was no law, so it was soon thick with brothels, casinos, cocaine parlours, opium dens and unlicensed doctors’ practices. Since it was confined to just 6.5 acres, the city was forced to grow up using every inch it could—300 interconnected buildings layered up 16 stories in a ramshackle labyrinth, so interwoven that the lower levels had to be lit by fluorescent lights because sunlight couldn’t reach. The population flourished, a testament to human ingenuity and survival, but the lawless city wasn’t as romantic as some might think—50,000 people were crammed like sardines into just a few blocks. The average apartment size was 23 square metres, and the living conditions were so far below the rest of the country that the authorities eventually agreed to tear it down. Many protested, but Kowloon Walled City was demolished in 1993 and a park was built on the site—including a scale model of the once-thriving city.
I spent time in the walled city in Kowloon before it got torn down. All kinds of stuff happening in there, not just prostitutes and opium dens, come on (opium which, by the way, was brought by the British mentioned above, whose rule China “came under” via the Opium Wars, which were waged to force China to accept opium and trade away Chinese tea). I’m talking traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture, herbalists, dentistry, massage, also lots of tailors, seamstresses, shoemakers, eye doctors. Basically, a bunch of human beings making do in very tight crowded spaces, something Chinese culture has traditionally been very good at. However, my family was happy to see it torn down, like most Hong Kongers. It was was past time to clear that space for a fresh start. One thing most people don’t know about Hong Kong is that the majority of the housing there is public (i.e. government-owned), despite its reputation as a capitalist haven, so it’s possible to relocate people into new public housing when big infrastructural changes occur.
Yep. My aunt (my mother’s sister), still lives in Wong Tai Sin. Until my early teens (before HK reverted from British rule), she lived in the same apartment that my mother grew up in after the family (except for my eldest uncle) moved to HK from southern China back in the 50s after my grandfather died. When they decided to tear down that set of blocks, she was relocated into a smaller apartment in a newer building in the same area.