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Hong Kong's Kowloon Walled City is a tourist park today, but few can truly remember all of the events that occurred within those walls. Kowloon's walled city developed over a few decades in the early 20th century, when it was a place that refugees could turn in the midst of much political upheaval, war, and poverty on the streets. It became a sort of lawless city, where the police forces never entered.
How Was it Built?
Construction of the city was done by handymen and carpenters who sometimes learned on the job. No regulations occurred for the buildings; if someone wanted to build something, all they needed was the money and and labor force to get it built. As a result, many poor and undocumented individuals came to live in the Walled City. Regulation of space was done among individuals, and to some extent by the rules of the community.
Over three hundred towers sprung up over a few decades, and thousands of residents came to live within the Walled City. With 1.3 million inhabitants per square kilometer, this was once thought to be the most densely inhabited place in the world. Before its evacuation in 1993, it is estimated that as many as 35,000 families lived in the seven-acre plot. Old pictures of the city are incredible; they show a massive block full of nothing but buildings, one building on top of the others.
Life in the Walled City
Citizens of the Walled city, while having no government to completely regulate the operations within the walls, formed a set of rules to live by so that they could all survive and prosper while sharing the limited space they had available. People who didn't follow the rules faced backlash by the rest of the community, and for the most part, everyone learned to cooperate and share the space respectfully. And because there was no authority, there was no welfare system; residents relied on each other to maintain basic standards of living. The ability to spontaneously create a society was one of the things that made this settlement successful for so many years.
Many people lived their entire lives in the walled city. There was a lot of commerce between residents, and people quickly learned who they could go to for certain goods and services. A community developed within the Walled city, where neighbors helped each other through the hard times. Despite the poverty, life within the Walled City certainly wasn't miserable, and people grew to care about one another and look after each other.
City of Darkness
This isn't to say that there weren't problems within the city. Issues arise in every community. Since there was no police force or authority to govern the people in the Walled City, this meant that a few bad apples took advantage of their impunity to try to take more than their share of the city's resources. Because of the lack of laws governing vices, the area became a haven for prostitution, drug use, and gambling, even for citizens who lived in the greater Hong Kong city. For these reasons, the city earned its reputation as being Hong Kong's “City of Darkness”. Thieves could escape into the darkness of the night with no one to stop them. All of Hong Kong city's criminal activity could be conducted within the Walled City with little trouble from the outside police force. Despite these problems, residents of the Walled City still made their lives work within this problematic home.
The Walled City Today
Today, visitors can see the site where the Walled City used to stand. While most of the buildings have been demolished, a few key buildings and sites still stand today. This historical area is a must see part of any trip to Hong Kong.
For more information: Kowloon Walled City Illustrated