The Life and Death of an Impossible City

Photographing Kowloon Walled City

Story: Niina Pollari
Photos: Greg Girard & Ian Lambot

City of Darkness Revisited is a photo book and cultural history of Kowloon Walled City, a largely ungoverned, densely populated enclave within Hong Kong. Originally a military fort, the Walled City saw its population rise dramatically during the second World War. At times, it was an urban settlement; at other times it was controlled by organized crime. But it was always a unique architectural and social phenomenon. At its capacity, it housed approximately 33,000 people, stacked vertically in precarious-looking buildings in an area of less than a tenth of a square mile. Rumors of lawlessness in its interior ran rampant, but its hallways held a complex (and largely peaceful) system of people, businesses, and community resources. In addition to residencies, there were factories, shops, and even community health clinics: the Walled City took care of its own.

In 1993, the Hong Kong government officially slated Kowloon Walled City for demolition, and the eviction process began for its tens of thousands of residents. The city was fully demolished by 1994.

City of Darkness Revisited, by photographers Greg Girard and Ian Lambot, is a revamped version of a book they made in 1993. It serves as a record of life in a place of sensory overload.

Greg Girard: It was like nothing else in Hong Kong: a mass of interconnected 12- and 14-story buildings forming a single huge structure, its facade glowing from the light of hundreds of apartments and shops. Clearly there was no administrative oversight. It was too dense, too ad-hoc, too unrestrained. All this was clear before even entering the place.

Walking into the city, you found narrow alleys between the buildings with dripping pipes overhead, discharge flowing in gutters, people stripped to the waist in their underwear working in tiny factories, the sound of metal pounding metal, butchered animals, unlicensed dentists, a two-man rubber plunger factory, carts stacked with steaming food, everything mixed together. It felt unreal (especially in the early days), and yet totally normal to everyone living and working there.

Ian Lambot: I arrived in Hong Kong in 1979, and knowledge of the Walled City was far less widespread than it is now. Unless you lived nearby, most people in Hong Kong never mentioned it. It was close to the old airport, so I had seen it from a distance, though in those days it was still surrounded by a large squatter settlement, so its seedy magnificence wasn’t quite so apparent. As soon as I asked my Chinese friends about the place, the stories of its danger poured out, which of course only made it all the more interesting.

What spurred me to go out there and photograph it properly was the news in early 1987 that it was to be cleared and demolished. I was doing a lot of architectural photography in those days and initially my thoughts were just to photograph it as an architectural phenomenon that might be of interest to a few architectural magazines. I hadn’t met Greg at this stage and had no thoughts of making a book about it.

Greg: I first heard about the Walled City while living in Hong Kong in the early 1980s: a city within a city where the police never ventured. That was one of the rumors. (The part about the police was false, we later discovered.)

I had never met a single person who had actually been there, or anyone who could tell me where it was. I “discovered” it one night while photographing near the old international airport, which was located on the edge of a very densely populated part of Kowloon.

The Kai Tak airport, which operated from 1925 to 1998, was an important and surreal detail of life in the Walled City. It was known for being difficult to reach, and landing required special training. In order to land, the pilot would have to fly straight toward a mountain; upon sighting an orange-and-white checkerboard painted on the mountainside, the pilot would execute a sharp 47-degree right turn and steady the plane’s course just in time to hit the runway. It was said that passengers in landing planes could see into the apartments of the Walled City.

Ian: Everything in my architectural training had taught me that such a place shouldn’t be possible, but here it was — and by all accounts, on its own terms at least, it worked very well. And of course, unlike all the myths, you quickly realised it was perfectly safe and, as in the rest of Hong Kong, its residents were just ordinary people trying to make a life and a living, albeit in rather extraordinary circumstances. That’s when the idea of making a book about the place first began to emerge.

I think we both realized that my architectural photographs and Greg’s people-oriented images worked well together and created something visually more engaging. It certainly helped crystallize in my mind how a book about the life of the city's residents might work.

Emmy Lung: I was still a student at the University of Hong Kong when I met Ian. When he came to the University looking for a student for his Walled City project, my professor connected us. I was fascinated with the project and had never been to the Walled City, so it didn't take me too long to commit to his offer.

Ian: Over the summer of 1988 I spoke to a professor of history at Hong Kong University who had been involved in an oral history program with the students there. She introduced me to Emmy Lung, one of those students who had just graduated.

Emmy loved the idea of working with these two mad gweilos who were photographing in this dreadful and dangerous place, and became the third member of the team. She was absolutely crucial in finding, talking to, and interviewing residents of the Walled City who were willing to be photographed and tell their story.

The more time I spent there the more I started exploring inside. I wandered around the main alleys to begin with, but over time grew bolder and ventured into the darker side alleys and up the stairs — then found the high-level corridors that allowed you to walk across the city without going down to ground level.

Emmy: It was dark and wet. The roads inside were narrow, and it was actually quite scary if you didn't know the place. You could get lost. It was like a maze. But as we spent a lot of time in the Walled City and got to know quite a lot of people, we became friends with them. I could easily go back for interviews and feel rather comfortable.

Greg: One thing we discovered early on was that the Walled City's reputation as a den of iniquity and dangerous slum was completely at odds with the reality of normal life conducted in abnormal and thoroughly compromised conditions.

An understanding of how the place worked, architecturally and socially, started to emerge as we spent more and more time there. I didn't have a theoretical framework within which I tried to make sense of the place. The Walled City was such a sensory overload and intellectual meltdown that I felt I had my hands full just trying to make pictures that conveyed what it was like to be there. Since the completion of the Walled City project, the spark to begin a new project has often come from that disconnect between the received wisdom and the hidden reality your senses, or your research, reveals.

Despite being home to thousands of squatters, the Walled City was an unclaimed corner of the world. It belonged to no government; neither Hong Kong nor China could enforce their laws within it. In 1948, the British government briefly attempted an unsuccessful eviction, but did not interfere after that. Hong Kong claimed jurisdiction over the city in 1959, after a trial for a murder that took place there. However, its influence was minor: occasional police patrols would enter, but otherwise Kowloon Walled City was left alone.

Ian: When I pitched up in Hong Kong, just a couple of years out of university and still thinking I was going to be an architect, [I traveled] to the great temples in Indonesia, Thailand, and Burma, many of which were a long way from the main cities. As a consequence I spent a lot of time in small towns and villages, which sparked a life-long fascination with communities — the human desire to gather in groups and establish settlements, and then set rules by which they should be assembled and run. That was very much my interest in the Walled City, not so much the city as organism, but the city as a community, and that what was what I wanted to capture with our book.

Greg: Part of what photography does, like nothing else I can think of, is create a historical record of how things looked at a specific time, no matter whatever other intentions you might have had when you made the picture. I knew I was making a record, at least I was trying to, but I didn't consider that it might be “historical.” I was more or less hoping people would see my pictures as soon as possible, if they were going to be seen at all.

At the time, when I began photographing there, there was no indication that the place would eventually be demolished.

There was increasing disparity between conditions in the Walled City and conditions elsewhere across Hong Kong; the decision to demolish it was made between the Hong Kong and British governments as part of the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984. The demolition itself took place after a years-long eviction process during which the government distributed over HK2.7 billion ($3.5 million USD) to former residents. The demolition itself took a year.

Kowloon Walled City in 1968
The Kowloon Walled City site as it looks today

Ian: The “historical” significance — if that it is what it is — of what Greg and I were doing when we were putting the book together couldn’t have been further from my mind. I was mainly focused on trying to capture what life in the city was really like. If anything, my interest then was sociological, an examination of a community that we found interesting and hoped other people might as well.

That said, I suppose my intentions as far as the new book are concerned have changed. When exploring the city’s architectural growth, its legal and political background, and the truth behind the myths that surround the Triads’ [criminal] activities there, I am far more aware that the book has in some way become the primary record of this extraordinary place, and I have an obligation to be as accurate as possible.

Although nothing comes close to being like Kowloon Walled City, there are still a few analogues in the world: places that approach it in their social structure or the way they’re constructed, even if nowhere comes close to its population or density.

Ian: From an architectural perspective the analogies can be fairly wide-ranging, from squatter settlements in general — in particular the slums of Mumbai and the Favelas in Rio, in terms of self-built and self-governing communities. These tend to be hand-made and low-rise, though, growing horizontally, so they rarely achieve anywhere near the density of the Walled City or its built sophistication.

The medieval walled towns of Italy and Spain are interesting in terms of the need to build vertically and in tight clusters within a confined area, and how this forces the buildings to become far more mixed in use, with workshops, shops, and living spaces all jumbled up in the same structure. In Yemen, the historical centre of Shibam is especially striking.

In terms of urban density, though, the most interesting comparisons are with the so-called “urban villages” that are currently springing up on the edges of the big cities in China, where migrant workers have been taking over unused land and building their own communities, but with relatively sophisticated construction techniques. Buildings nine or ten stories high are not unusual, and some are so closely packed that they have become known as “handshake” buildings, being so close together that neighbors in adjacent blocks can lean out of their windows and do just that.

The most fascinating example is the Tower of David in Caracas, where some 3,000 homeless people have taken over a deserted and unfinished office tower in the middle of the city and, inside its 40 or so open floors, created an entire community, with schools, workshops, health centers, and living areas — not unlike the Walled City in its general ambience, if not quite to the same density.

The site that formerly housed one of the world’s most densely populated areas is now a small urban outdoor plot. The Kowloon Walled City Park contains floral walks, a chess garden, and an area for weddings — and zero residencies.

Since the completion of the project and this interview, City of Darkness Revisited has gone to the printer, and 480 copies have been made. It’s an updated version of a volume called City of Darkness: Life in the Walled City, which Girard and Lambot printed in 1993. In addition to selections from the original book’s text and images, the revisited version includes an examination of the city’s architectural evolution from 1945 to its demolition. It also addresses the city’s unique legal and political status, as well as the myths and realities of organized crime there.

Perhaps the most interesting addition, though, is the description of how the influence of the city has spread into popular culture worldwide — depictions of it are ubiquitous. It’s been in films, in manga, and genre fiction: William Gibson wrote about it, and Robert Ludlum used it as a setting for one of his Bourne novels. A partial replica of it was even built in Japan at Kawasaki Park. The story of Kowloon Walled City continues to compel people interested in history, sociology, architecture, and the strange ability of humans to adapt to life anywhere.

For more on Greg Girard, Ian Lambot, and their book, visit their site here.