Today Boing Boing linked to a Dark Roasted Blend feature on three 20th century Asian urban ruins: Hashima Island (or “Battleship Island”) in Japan; the legendary futuristic resort that never quite was, San Zhi, in Taiwan; and perhaps the ultimate unnatural disaster: the walled city of Kowloon.
From this angle, it’s a SimCity player’s worst nightmare. (Or perhaps just a dystopian arcology.) But the reality of the place was (since it no longer exists) beyond anything I could dream up. Wikipedia offers a good overview, but essentially, due to some quirks of history (followed by a period of domination by crime syndicates), this 6.5-acre portion of Kowloon (adjacent to Hong Kong) was, for much of the 20th century, almost entirely unregulated and unpoliced by either the British or the Chinese. Over time it was built up into a giant, dense maze of shops, factories and apartments (not to mention brothels and opium dens), with (in some parts, at least) stunningly squalid living conditions and as many as 50,000 residents.
Eventually the entire thing was leveled in the early 1990s and converted into a park, but the bizarre history remains… told best, perhaps, in a German documentary that is available in its entirety in four parts on YouTube. I don’t speak German, but it’s fascinating to watch even with no sound. And so, here it is…
I was surprised by some of the street-level exterior shots at how colorful and almost seemingly normal (if still insanely dense) the place seemed, but then the camera turned down one of the dark, narrow passageways leading into the heart of the walled city. It was amazing to see these alleys wind left and right (and up and down), fetid water dripping from above, rats’ nests of electrical wiring and water pipes leading off in every direction (not to mention, well, rats’ nests), and then, suddenly, an open doorway leading into a blindingly lit, miniature factory cranking out wonton wrappers or woven fabric or… whatever. I cannot comprehend how this place hadn’t burned down already years earlier, taking most of its residents with it (since there was nothing even remotely resembling a fire escape in the completely unregulated, ad hoc construction).
I’m struck by the sheer chaos of this place. It’s jarring to see the elements of a modern structure — electricity, running water, modern building materials, and other technology — assembled with no overall plan, no regulation. In some ways it’s surprising that it’s as orderly — as functional — as it is. In a strange way it’s a testament to the human spirit. Populated largely by refugees, outlaws, and the forgotten (or those the outside world would just as soon forget), it’s amazing how industrious and ambitious (or at least resilient) most of its residents remain despite their living conditions.
Tiny apartments, I expected. Unsanitary markets, I expected. Even the forest of TV antennas and clotheslines on the rooftops didn’t surprise me. All manner of crime wouldn’t surprise me. The thing that totally shocked me about this place was the proliferation of industry in it. There are factories making food; factories making plastics; factories making clothes; metalworks. I can only imagine the miserable heat and stench inside most of these spaces.
And then, a school.
And a church.
As I mentioned, I don’t speak German, but I’m able to pick up enough cognates to make some sense of the narration. Certainly I know what das labyrinth means. And yet, the more I see, and the more I become desensitized to the squalor of the alleyways, the more surprisingly familiar, surprisingly unsuprising, the interiors of the homes and the businesses seem. Everything is incomprehensibly crowded and cluttered, but it’s unmistakably human. But the marginal comforts of home can’t make up for the suffering of the old man lying in a pile of blankets in an alleyway, next to a dead rat, or the profound resignation on many of the silent, pensive faces.
The rooftop, and the courtyard deep inside the heart of the labyrinth, offer a rare glimpse of sunshine, and they make me wonder how often, if ever, the residents of the walled city would venture forth from their anarchic, cyberpunk quasi-prison. Many people in the walled city were (somewhat ironically) there to escape punishment, but most, presumably, had committed no crime. But were they free to leave? Were they stigmatized (or worse) if they dared venture out into the rest of Hong Kong? Answers to these questions may lie in the narration, which I regret I do not understand better.
Unlicensed, unregulated dentists and doctors. When I think of places like this, and practitioners like them, I typically think of unscrupulous hucksters and grotesque, unpunished malpractice. But seeing it in action, after all I’ve seen already, I have a different take. Sure, it may not be approved by the medical establishment, and there may be no recourse for patients who have been treated improperly, but it’s still a practice undertaken with care and effort, genuinely striving to relieve suffering. At least, it can be that.
As evening settles in, a shopkeeper sweeps trash from the alley outside her door. And I realize as my somewhat voyeuristic, entirely vicarious journey into the walled city comes to an end, and as much as I may lay misguided sympathy upon its former residents as I objectify and dehumanize their experience, that they are (or were) real people too, living a life in some ways unimaginably different from my own, and yet in other, deeper ways, strikingly similar. They have families, they work, they eat (even if much of it is stuff I’m too afraid to touch), they create, they perform. Who am I to judge their way of being, especially when I know so little about it, or how it came to be?
But there is one thing in the lives of the former residents of the now disappeared walled city of Kowloon with which I absolutely can relate: its absence.
For all of its wild, chaotic life, its teeming throngs of residents, engaged in every activity imaginable in human existence, all within the space of a few acres, now it is all gone. Open space. Air. And a park.
I can relate to this because it reminds me of a strange place in my own past: Wahlstrom Hall. While no walled city of Kowloon, Walhstrom Hall was quite possibly the strangest, most chaotically architected dormitory in the history of American colleges. I lived there for four years. And now it is gone, leveled just like the walled city, replaced with little more than grass and air. I can’t say that my quadrennium in Wahlstrom really gives me any insight into life in Kowloon’s walled city, but it certainly does contribute to my strange affinity towards this incomparably strange place in Hong Kong that once was, and is no more.
Note: If you’d like a more informed opinion on the Kowloon walled city, here’s a post from a blogger whose dad lived there for 14 years. There’s also an excellent (if somewhat antiquated in its design… and regrettable use of Papyrus font) website devoted to the history of Kowloon Walled City with informative articles and a number of photographs.