Really excited to do this one. Kowloon city has such a cool story, but there was a lack of foresight during construction to say the least. This episode isn’t an engineering failure quite as on the nose as our other episodes, which is why we’re covering it in episode 45. It’s essentially what can happen when there is an absence of building regulations. Not saying we should do this everywhere, I don’t know if you could actually recreate Kowloon Walled City again, but it’s definitely fascinating to learn about.
The City was originally a military outpost dating back to the year 960.
The City had an area of about 26,000 m2; about the size of four FIFA soccer pitches or 16.5 NHL ice surfaces for our Canadian listeners. People from America, I’m not sure how many washing machines per bald eagle that works out to .
1839 - Quing dynasty - First Opium war - 1894 China lost and handed over Hong Kong to Britain
It was officially turned over circa 1898 around the time Britain won the second opium war and received additional parts of Hong Kong. Kowloon was known as a fort at this time and quickly became a home for the homeless
Between Britain ownership of Hong Kong, Japanese occupation during world war 2 and China, the City has seen many actual and claimed owners. Despite its many claims of ownership, no one seems to have actually administered the city.
1933 - British tried drove out Chinese squatters
After world war two, 2,000 squatters occupied the City fleeing from Chinese civil war. The British tried to drive them out in 1948, but were unsuccessful and adopted a “hands off” policy in regards to the City
By 1950 - the population included refugees, criminals, drop outs, peasants, anarchists, and people fleeing the law - became Kowloon walled city
A Jan 11th 1950 fire destroyed over 2,500 huts in the City which were homes to nearly 3,500 families and 17,000 people. Only the ancient core remained, but residents returned to rebuild; the city grew organically according to resident needs. The fire highlighted the importance of proper fire protection in wooden squatter areas, but allowed the City to build anew. There was speculation that the fire had been set intentionally.
From the 1950s until a series of more than 3,500 Hong Kong police raids in 1973/1974, the City was largely ruled by organized crime syndicates known as triads.
During that time, mainly during the 1960s, the city underwent massive construction. Developers built modular structures above older ones. Due to nearby Kai Tak Airport, the city has a height restriction of 13-14 stories, but they certainly filled all of the space in between each building. The airport was also the source of significant air pollution, it was also the source of one of the best approaches in the world. Aircraft had to fly over Victoria Harbour and Kowloon City, pass north of Bishop Hill, identify the giant red and white checkerboard on Checkerboard Hill and very low altitude 47 degree right hand turn. Unfortunately (fortunately?) Kai Tak was closed in 1998, so no more Kai Tak Heart Attacks for passengers that experienced the low to the ground right hand turn.
There were eight municipal pipes that provided water to the entire city, although they could get more from wells.
Chaotic network of overhanging pipes and wires
Upper levels has a network of stairs and passageways - could travel across the city without touching the ground
There was one post person that was responsible for mail delivery in the entire city of 8500 premises, 10,700 households, and more than 33,000 residents.
Only 2 elevators in the entire city, which sounds like a lot of walking up and down stairs for the only post person.
A few streets were lit with lighting because the sun rarely reached lower levels because of the density of the structures. - in Cantonese it was known as the City of Darkness
Among the businesses that took place within the walls of the city were unlicensed doctors and dentists who could operate without prosecution and even several small factories. Everything from fish balls to golf balls was produced within Kowloon.
1962 - British said they would demolish the city in one year - China said they couldn't interfere
Because of a previous arrangement on paper, the British said China could own the walled city, but they didn't let China in to administer it. So it became a diplomatic no man's land
Very cramped - more and more arrivals - refugees from China or Hong Kong citizens ruined by the 1973 stock market crash
Even though no one oversaw rules within it, the British prevented it from growing out, so the City could only build up. As the rest of Hong Kong grew up, so did Kowloon.
By 1980s it was 14 stories tall - average block was several 30 sq m apartments balanced precariously on top of each other. - some blocks has 10 sq m apartments, smaller than a bedroom in north america - 3 or 4 generations would live in these apartments incl the family business
No labour laws enforced, mecca for those operating without a license - slaughterhouses and heroin dispensaries.
At one time, 80% of all rice balls consumed in hong kong and the surrounding territory were prepared in the walled city
People were enforcing order, just not the police or government
Triads called the shots - basically city hall - organized waste collection, recruited volunteer fire departments , kept order in cramped alleys and paid senior residents pensions. Even an old folks home in one of the blocks - gangsterism on the side
Most common illegal act was drug trade - opium dens everywhere and easy access to heroin, causing rampant addiction
Functioning society with schools, kindergartens, libraries, and temples
Grown with no central planning
In 1980s a resident tried to map the city, took him 6 years
NYC density of 27,000/km2, walled city was equivalent of 1.2 million people /km2
1980s hong kong police started policing inside, but only to keep people safe and not enforce any laws
1986 - colonial governor of Hong Kong was aware Britain’s time in Hong Kong was coming to an end in 1997
6am January 14, 1987 the residents of kowloon learned of the plans to demolish the city - housing department staff and police sealed off all 83 exits and registered 19,606 people in the city, later revised to 28,200 people across 8,800 buildings
China would normally back up the city against the british but not this time - they didnt want to deal with it themselves
New homes and compensation packages were handed out to residents and businesses
By jan 1991, 96% of residents and 51% of businesses agreed to leave
June 1992 the british tried to remove the last of the residents
July 1 1992 at 430 the last family agreed to leave
Demolition began in march 1993 until april 1994
Many residents remember it fondly
And its population grew to about an estimated 50,000 people before being demolished in 1994.