Once there was a “city” in Hong Kong that was 119 times denser than the present-day New York. The metropolis was formed when tens of thousands of immigrants flocked to an area in Hong Kong and started building a towering community that rose as high as twelve stories. The construction started in the 1950s until 1994, and the community was built on a 6.4-acre lot.
Later on went by the name of Kowloon Walled City, it was able to accommodate an astonishing amount of population—33,000. Kowloon was known for high rates of crime and poor sanitation, but some features of it were also quite impressive. It was self-sustainable until it was demolished in 1993.
During the late 1980s, Greg Girard, a Canadian photographer, smuggled himself into the windowless world of Kowloon Walled City. The photographer shared some of his photos and thoughts during his time staying in the place. Check out his photos with some of his thoughts, together with the works of photographer Ian Lambot, in the book City of Darkness: Revisited.
Here are some of Girard’s photos of Kowloon Walled City:
The Walled City first caught Greg Girard’s attention in 1986. The photographer would eventually spend the next four years living in and out of the city to capture the daily life within its walls.
According to Girard, the Walled City offered people with no community a sense of togetherness despite its seedy reputation.
Wong Cheung Mi served as one of the Walled City’s dentists.
Wong could not practice outside the Walled City just like the other dentists. Because the Walled City’s dentists offered affordable services, many working-class citizens in Hong Kong went to Kowloon for their dental operations.
“Its physical reality kind of belied this community that it was,” Girard said, adding that people’s attitude toward him changed around 1990 when they learned the structure was to be knocked down.
Kowloon was self-sustainable with about every business imaginable operating inside its walls. Schools and salons were converted into strip clubs and gambling halls at night. Opium and other trafficked drugs also came frequently in the city.
There was only one law that was consistently enforced: the Walled City shouldn’t be higher than thirteen or fourteen stories. This is enforced so that low-flying aircraft wouldn’t have trouble landing on the nearby runway.
The only place to escape the dampness of the city was on the roof. But the area was also the most unsafe. According to Girard, “There were a lot of additional things sticking out and spaces between buildings that had been combined.”
The Walled City was built like a Lego over decades. The residents simply built rooms on top of another. Girard said that the city “looked formidable, but who knows?”
The British was governing Hong Kong during the time of construction of the Walled City. A clause in an 1842 treaty meant China owned the area where Kowloon rose. The city was effectively lawless due to it being caught in legal limbo.
Sanitation was of minimal importance. Girard revealed, “It was an intensely difficult place to function, with no laws governing health or safety.”
The photographer added, “It was nighttime all the time in there.” Sunlight was virtually blocked out by stacked housing even during day time.
“Hong Kong is kind of a surreal place,” Girard said. “The Kowloon Walled City was one of its more surreal mutations, but Hong Kong evolves and Kowloon evolves.”
Entrepreneurs, noodle makers, and even dog-meat butchers enjoyed zero regulations inside the walls. Making in-house manufacturing a huge part of the Walled City’s infrastructure.
Girard started as a threatening outsider, but he eventually left having formed genuine relationships. He also observed that people began to live increasingly quiet and traditional lives within the Walled City.
Totally free from health, fire regulations, and labor codes, Hui Tuy Choy opened his noodle factory in 1965.
Although rumors have it that Hong Kong’s government would rather turn a blind eye rather than intervening in the city’s affairs, Girard said that law enforcement typically only intervened when there are serious crimes involved.
The Kowloon Walled City was finally torn down in 1994. In its place, Hong Kong built a park. Today, the Kowloon Park is famous among birdwatchers, photographers, and tourists in Hong Kong looking for a relaxing place. The park is quite spacious and scenic.