There’s never been anywhere quite like the Kowloon Walled City—and there probably never will be again.
Though the city can trace its origins back a millennium as a military 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.
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 Brits planned to tear it down. Chinese nationalists protested, and the project became tangled in red tape until WWII, when everyone suddenly had bigger problems.
Before the War, 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.
The Wild East
By 1960, the walled city was a lawless enclave run by vicious drug triads. Police rarely ventured inside, and only in tight groups—like a military 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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.