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This Week’s Entry: Kowloon Walled City
What It’s About: There’s been a settlement in the Kowloon section of Hong Kong since the Song Dynasty built an outpost to manage the salt trade nearly a millenia ago. But most modern-day mention of Kowloon Walled City refers to a cluster of poorly constructed high-rise apartments, built after the Japanese tore down the original city walls after WWII. The high-rises, built and endlessly rebuilt and modified with little regard for building codes or basic health and safety concerns, at one point housed over 30,000 residents in what was essentially a giant squat, without any public utilities and little to no involvement from the police or local government. Despite all this, a close-knit community formed in what was once the most densely populated location on earth.
Strangest Fact: While the Walled City had little if any government oversight, making it a haven for criminals from drug dealers to unlicensed dentists, the community of squatters still managed to provide their own social services. The cultural center of the complex was the yamen—basically the mayor’s office—which was used as a social center and for classes and religious services. While most of the modern Walled City was built in the 1960s and ’70s, it was eventually discovered that the yamen was an original structure dating back to the 19th century. It was the original magistrate’s office, and had been used by the British as an old folks’ home, a school, and a poorhouse, and was one of the only parts of the original walled city to survive the Japanese occupation during WWII.
Biggest Controversy: In the 1950s and ‘60s, Kowloon—which had never had much police presence to begin with—was ruled over by the Triad, who ran numerous brothels, casinos, and opium dens in the lawless city. In 1973-74, a series of over 3,500 police raids finally drove out the gangs, and crime steadily dropped over the following decade.
Thing We Were Happiest To Learn: As they say in Jurassic Park, life finds a way. While the massive Kowloon complex was built haphazardly throughout the ’60s and ’70s with minimal foundations and not much in the way of utilities, residents found ways to make the Walled City livable. Somehow, eight municipal water pipes managed to support the entire population, and some of the streets had fluorescent streetlights—a necessity, since a maze of balconies and upper-story walkways prevented sunlight from reaching the ground level. An attempt in 1963 to demolish some shacks led to the formation of a Kaifong—basically a neighborhood association—leading to some official government services, including mail delivery.
Thing We Were Unhappiest To Learn: The Walled City no longer exists. In 1984, the British government agreed to return Hong Kong to the Chinese by 1997. In the interim, the two governments agreed to demolish Kowloon. While none of the residents had any legal ownership of their homes, the city government nonetheless handed out $350 million USD in compensation to the roughly 33,000 residents who were evicted. The site of the city became Kowloon Walled City Park, which includes gardens, a wedding pavilion, artifacts of the old city, and a giant outdoor board for Chinese chess. The demolition wasn’t the first, as the Walled City high-rise complex was built after fire gutted a mostly-wooden squatter settlement, which in turn was built after the Japanese tore down the original Walled City, using stone from the wall to build an addition to nearby Kai Tak Airport.
Also Noteworthy: It should come as no surprise that such a unique urban landscape has captured the popular imagination. Kowloon was featured in Robert Ludlum’s novel The Bourne Supremacy, William Gibson’s Bridge trilogy, Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Bloodsport, numerous manga, and the Jackie Chan film Crime Story, which was filmed in the actual Walled City shortly before it was demolished.
Best Link To Elsewhere On Wikipedia: Kowloon has a sister “city” of sorts in Caracas, Venezuela. Centro Financiero Confinanzas is the third-highest building in the country, even though construction was put on hold during a 1994 financial crisis and never resumed. During a housing shortage a decade later, squatters began to move into the disused tower en masse, and now over 2500 residents live in the lower 28 floors. Despite a lack of basic utilities, residents have build their own water infrastructure reaching the 22nd floor, and traverse the first 10 floors on motorcycle.
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