January 22, 2024 | Jamie Hayes

Kowloon Walled City Was Like Nowhere Else On Earth


A City Like Nowhere Else On Earth

There's never been anywhere quite like the Kowloon Walled City—and there probably never will be again. 

From its origins as a military fort to its final days as a lawless enclave, the walled city has captivated the hearts of all those who dared to explore its overcrowded streets. Though the city was demolished in the early 1990s, it still stands as a testament to urban development and human resilience. 

Let's take a deeper look at the strange history of the Kowloon Walled City. 

Kowloon Walled City

Kowloon's Military Origins

The walled city was built during China's Song Dynasty, which lasted from 960-1279 CE. It started off as an army outpost, which was built to help organize the salt trade in the region. For hundreds of years, Kowloon was a small outpost, but that all changed in 1842. 

This is year that the Chinese government gave up control of Hong Kong, giving the island to Britain. Before the territory officially changed hands, Chinese authorities has made formidable improvements to Kowloon, beginning the transformation of the small fort into the walled city that the site is now remembered for. 

Kowloon Walled City EditorialWikimedia Commons

The Brits Move In

Though the city can trace its origins back a millennium as an army fort, things really started getting interesting when the British began occupying Hong Kong. 

At first, they thought the walled city might pose a threat, so they attacked—and found nothing but 150 scared residents inside. 

They claimed authority over the walled city, but mostly left it to its own devices.

kowloon walled cityAtlas Obscura

Chinese Town

The walled city became a strange relic in industrializing Hong Kong. The Brits called it "Chinese Town," and it was little more than a curiosity for the colonizers. 

Soon, however, the city stood in the way of "progress," and the British planned to tear it down. At the time, there were over 400 squatters living in the city. The authorities offered to compensate the squatters with shiny new houses, but before long, the squatters weren't the only ones standing in the way of plans to demolish the city. 

Chinese nationalists claimed jurisdiction of Kowloon Walled City and protested the plans to tear it down. The project became tangled in red tape until WWII, when everyone suddenly had bigger problems.

kowloon walled cityArchitectural Review

Population Explosion

Before the conflict, Kowloon Walled City had been a quiet reminder of an older time, but with the onset of the Chinese Civil War, things changed—fast. 

Hong Kong saw a massive influx of refugees, and many of them ended up behind the city's decaying walls. In 1947, the British attempted to drive 2,000 squatters out of the city, but failed.

After that, they washed their hands of the walled city and left it to rot—and to grow.

kowloon walled cityArchitectural Review

The Wild East

By 1960, the walled city was a lawless enclave run by vicious drug triads. Law enforcement rarely ventured inside, and only in tight groups—like an army unit entering dangerous territory.

But the walled city didn't decay under this lawlessness—in a way, it thrived. Massive construction ensued, with developers building strange, ramshackle buildings on top of the old ones. 

Soon, almost every single building in the tiny city was 10 stories tall.

Kowloon Walled City EditorialWikimedia Commons

Urban Jungle

Kowloon Walled City looked like the setting of a dystopian movie. Tens of thousands of people crammed into the 300 or so buildings that covered the city's minuscule 7-acre footprint. 

A lack of construction oversight meant that few of the buildings had proper lighting or drainage. The average apartment was just 250 square feet. 

Sunlight rarely reached the ground, where a network of claustrophobic alleys crisscrossed the enclave—very few of which had proper streetlights.

kowloon walled cityAtlas Obscura

A World Record 

By the 80s, Kowloon Walled City was the most densely populated place on Earth—perhaps the most densely populated place ever, with roughly 1,255,000 inhabitants per square kilometer.

But while Kowloon Walled City might have seemed strange and terrifying to outsiders, a tight-knit community formed within.

kowloon walled cityAtlas Obscura

Strange Streets

Though the triads ruled the streets, there were still thousands of residents who simply wanted to eke out a living, and this urban jungle brought them together. 

A network of passageways formed throughout the upper floors, so that residents could cross from one side of the city to the other without ever venturing down to the poorly-lit streets.

kowloon walled cityArchitectural Review

Home

Families bonded together, and people frequently gathered on rooftops open to the sky. Residents would congregate in the old administrative building at the city's center—one of the few relics from the city's past—to have tea, take classes, and watch television together. 

For them, the walled city wasn't some frightening oddity; it was where they slept, worked, and played.

kowloon walled cityArchitectural Review

The End

Kowloon Walled City couldn't avoid the creep of progress forever. In the early 90s, the government decided that it was time for this enclave to come to an end. They distributed around $350 million to the thousands of people who lived there—whether they wanted it or not—and had them forcibly evicted.

Authorities demolished the city between 1993 and 1994, and turned it into Kowloon Walled City Park, as it remains to this day.

Kowloon Walled City was not what anyone would call a perfect city. Or even a good city. But it was a community unlike anywhere else in the world—and for the people who found themselves living there, it was home.

kowloon walled cityArchitectural Review

Sources: 1


READ MORE

Zita Facts

Tragic Facts About Zita Of Bourbon-Parma, The Refugee Empress

If you assume the Hapsburg monarchs led charmed lives, you haven't heard the tragic tale of Zita of Bourbon-Parma, the Refugee Empress.
January 3, 2024 Brendan Da Costa

Fearsome Facts About King Yeongjo, Father Of The Mad Prince

Yeongjo ruled prosperously for half a century—but his reputation was tarnished by the shadow of his son's brutal execution.
March 12, 2024 Rachel Seigel

The Yanomami Tribe

Explore the world of the Yanomami people, indigenous inhabitants of the Amazon rainforest. Discover their unique way of life, from traditional homes and egalitarian society to the challenges they face from illegal mining and logging. Learn about their culture, history, and the importance of preserving their isolated community in this in-depth article.
November 9, 2023 Allison Robertson

The Yali People of Indonesia

Discover the Yali people who live in the remote mountains of Papua, Indonesia. As one of the few tribes of today who continue their traditional lifestyle, the Yali people have a long list of fascinating cultural practices. From intriguing cultural attire to shocking warrior rituals, find out which traditions they continue today, and which they've retired.
June 28, 2024 Allison Robertson

The Yagua Tribe

Discover the Yagua people, an indigenous tribe living in the dense Amazon Rainforest of Peru. From grass skirts and spears to body painting and intriguing marriage rituals, find out why they're known as the most characteristic tribe in the Amazon.
May 16, 2024 Allison Robertson
China Internal

Xiong'an, China: The City of the Future

Discover Xiong'an, China: The City of the Future. From robots and sensors to a points-based population management system, find out what makes this up-and-coming smart city appealing to Chinese citizens, and what other countries may think about it.
February 12, 2024 Miles Brucker