The Incredible Story of the Kowloon Walled City

The Kowloon Walled City Park, Kowloon City

An unforgettable chapter of the Hong Kong childhood memoir I’ve been reading, Gweilo by Martin Booth, takes place in 1952, at exactly the spot where I’ve spent this humid morning, the Kowloon Walled City Park. Ever since I first read the book earlier this year I’ve wanted to see this extraordinary place for myself.

Having just moved to yet another new apartment building courtesy of the Navy, with his abusive, alcoholic father and his loving, sinophile mother, eight-year-old Martin sets off to explore the new neighbourhood of Kowloon City. His mother, ever keen to encourage her fearless son to see Hong Kong as close up as possible, gives him a free reign, but with one exception: “You do not go even near here”, she says, pointing to the Walled City on a map of Kowloon. So, of course, on his first morning he heads directly for it, entering by a run-down hutong (alleyway) without being noticed – or so he thinks – and staring all around him at the extraordinary city-within-a-city. From the dark and forbidding alleyway he looks in on countless small businesses operating operating from the ground floor, seeing people baking, painting lacquer boxes, sewing bedlinen or making noodles, and everywhere the air heavy with:

“…the smells of wood smoke, joss-sticks, boiling rice and human excrement…”

The sewers, such as they were, were just open gullies at the side of each hutong, that disappeared into holes in the ground. Then, from nowhere, a man suddenly appears, wearing only a pair of trousers, and with a big full-colour dragon tattoo on his back, who asks him in pidgin English what he thinks he’s doing there. At this point Martin could have been sent packing at best, or abducted at worst, but he had two things in his favour: he had blond hair, associated with gold and considered very lucky in Chinese culture, and also a gift for languages. He had been playing on the streets with local kids for months and had picked up enough Cantonese to introduce himself to this guardian of the city, and then ask, “Nei giu mut ye meng?” (What is your name?). The man was stunned, looking him up and down for ages, before finally taking Martin’s hand, shaking it and introducing himself as Ho. So began a guided tour of the Walled City, probably as rare a privilege as you could possibly have in Hong Kong, or perhaps anywhere else, at that time.

At the signing of the treaty at the end of the Opium Wars in 1898, China finally ceded Hong Kong and the New Territories to Great Britain, but with one exception: the ancient fort, with a population of only 700 and situated just twenty-five miles from the Chinese border, was somehow allowed to retain its Chinese status, answerable to the Emperors to the North, not the Empire to the west. As the years went by, it became a law unto itself with no one really willing to address the problem of what to do with it. It became known as ‘China Town’, and was considered merely a bit of a curiosity by the British.

A map from 1910 – note how different the waterfront was from today’s vast reclaimed acreage

The lack of jurisdiction had other, predictable consequences: by the time little Martin arrived at its gates it was a hotbed of Triad activity, prostitution, gambling and a notorious opium den. Westerners were said to have entered but never left, and it had become strictly off limits to them.

Martin’s guide took him on a head-spinning tour of the old part of the city, made more disturbing because he suddenly realised that should anything happen to him, no one knew he was there. He was greeted by an old woman who stroked his hair for good luck, as did so many Chinese people that he met, then led him to a strange room of traditional hard wooden kang beds, each with a man apparently asleep on it, but some with hands twitching like a dreaming dog’s paws. “Nga pin”, she told him, and he wondered what this could mean. The longer he spent there, the more worried he became for his safety, but without any obvious reason except unease at the strangeness of it all. From a balcony he glimpsed a dark, central courtyard, with smoke rising from the buildings, and knew that this must be the main Temple. As he left the city, he vowed never to be so foolish as to return there again, a vow he totally failed to keep. On his return home he asked the family servant what nga pin was. “Opium”, he told Martin, with a concerned look.

On a later return to explore he was greeted by a different, younger man who was more open with him and enjoyed showing off his obvious status as they walked along the streets, with girls giggling and blushing as he passed. He showed him the opium smokers in more detail, as well as the young boys who delivered the trays of burning poppy seeds to each customer’s pipe, and took him on a spine-chilling visit to a gloomy basement where there was a collection of vicious weapons kept behind a drape that the guide demonstrated for him, taking off the wall a six-pointed steel star (familiar to anyone who like me grew up with the US tv series ‘Kung Fu”) and throwing it hard into the opposite door with just a tiny flick of his wrist. He was even shown around a brothel, one of the oldest buildings within the walls, where he met a young woman in a yellow cheongsam who stroked his lucky hair and asked him if he knew what jig-a-jig was. They passed a butchers and Martin witnessed the messy slaughter of a squealing pig, after which his guide said that if he ever told anyone about what he’d seen within the Walled City, this was what exactly would happen to him, making a throat-cutting gesture with his thumb.

Martin wrote his memoir in 2004, safe from any fear of retribution, because by then he had been diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour, and wanted to be sure that his amazing stories would survive him.

All that remains of the entrance gate today is this:Various charities had tried to infiltrate the extraordinary culture within the walls, to help improve sanitation, healthcare and education for the unbelievably over-populated mini-city, but to almost no avail. It remained steadfastly ‘off-grid’ in every way, which included its electricity supply (tapped from nearby cables) and water (‘stolen’ from the city mains). Martin Booth describes it as “the smallest city state that ever existed”, with a population that had been bolstered by criminals escaping the Japanese invasion in 1939 – it remained in glorious isolation even through those appalling years, the Japanese only intruding as far as to tear down the old stone walls and use them for building the original airstrip of Kai Tak airport – and then again in 1949 by criminals gangs fleeing the Chinese Revolution who also chose to make it their new home. The new ‘businesses’ they set up for themselves only served to deepen the community’s problems.

Every time a building filled up with tenants, they simply threw up a new one, with little or no planning. This led to ever growing demands within the city and there was a huge concentration of unlicensed doctors and dentists operating without the tediousness of training or oversight (in a strange echo of this, if you wander past the Phillipina housemaids in Central on a Sunday you’ll see that many operate makeshift dentist studios, checking fillings, cleaning plaque and whitening teeth for each other). In 1951, a year before Martin’s adventures there, there had been a disastrous fire that destroyed half the buildings. This led to a rebuild, still going on at the time of his explorations, that created the appalling mess of multi-storey apartment buildings that were so hard to control or manage.

After so many years of failing to reform the city, the local government finally stepped in and it was demolished in 1993 (by this time crime had reduced enough to make this possible). In 1995 it was entirely replaced by a beautiful city park, the one I visited today, with lakes, pavillions, scented flower walks and sculpture gardens; replaced except for one or two remnants, that is. The only remaining building from the old walled city is called the Yamen and is now used for exhibitions and information about the city’s past……and then when the park was being built, old stones engraved with text and a section of gate from an earlier incarnation were discovered, and now form part of the park. I walked through the peaceful gardens for a couple of hours, until I was driven by the heat to find an airconditioned restaurant for lunch, where I sat and wrote this. To give you and idea of how it used to look, here’s a stunning aerial picture from the mid-1970s that I came across (I recognise the three low tower blocks on the left from my visit today). At its peak population of 50,000 inhabitants in 1990, it was the most densely populated space on earth: You might also notice that right at the heart of the city, where the high-rise buildings suddenly stop and the sun barely ever reaches, is a mysterious darkened area. I was dying to know what went on there.

This was the temple courtyard of the old walled city, the most inaccessible and secret part of all. I found a superb brass model on display in the park, that revealed the structures that had filled this intriguing void:This was what Martin had glimpsed from the balcony, the temple to Kwan Ti. I felt strange, standing as high on tiptoe as I could in order to look down into this central courtyard, wondering about the sad lives that were spent and wasted within the city.

If you didn’t read any of the display boards, or had never heard the story of the Walled City, you could wander around this park simply enjoying a green, peaceful space in the middle of this crazy city, listening to the sweet birdsong, never knowing what used to be here. Unless, perhaps, you found that, like Martin, you were as sensitive to the presence of spirits and ghosts as the local people were, and felt as though you were surrounded by spectres of the past, like wreaths of incense smoke curling around you as you step across the invisible boundaries of buildings long since gone.

Three further bits of information about the Kowloon Walled City: firstly, a link to a blog about a place in Kawasaki City, Japan that has recreated a ‘Digital Kowloon City’, like a set from Blade Runner (a film that keeps coming into my mind when writing this post):

Digital Kowloon City, Japan

Then this – just before the site was levelled to the ground, some enterprising Japanese architects decided to try and record a sort of x-ray view of every room in the towers of the walled city, producing a really remarkable work of art in the process. It’s on display in the park, beside the brass model:

And finally before we finish, a very informative and beautifully realised five minute video made by the South China Morning Post with more facts and figures about the city, and that makes the point that to many of its residents, it was a close knit and caring place to live:

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