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About Kowloon Walled City

In case you haven't noticed, I have a bit of an obsession with Kowloon Walled City, to the point of writing a trio of stories set in a reinvented version of it. Also called Hak Nam, the walled city came to exist during the British occupation of Hong Kong. The original site where the settlement existed was in a bit of an administrative grey area between the Chinese and British governments, and over time people began to gravitate there after being expelled from mainland China, or to escape government restrictions, or to hide from the law.

What resulted was a city that became a self-contained, self-governed unit comprised of housing and factory blocks that practically grew on each other until you could stand outside in broad daylight and see only the thinnest shaft of sunlight seeping down to bless one hallowed spot on a narrow, filthy street. Amidst the scents of frying fish balls and garbage you could look up at see nothing but criss-crossing clotheslines and electrical wires spider-webbing up to a sky made only of rooftops, where the stars had been replaced by flickering neon signs. Prostitutes and drug dealers lingered around the corner from close-shouldered temples; police officers watched night-soil men trundle by from inside yellow-lit noodle houses. What was a bakery by day became a living room by night, and friends greeted each other in line to draw potable water from the few working mains.

Kowloon Walled City was a thriving example of a sustainable anarchist society that, despite what it lacked in the base infrastructure of the city (easy access to running water, waste disposal), managed to prosper well enough to support over 30,000 people. While it had a reputation for seediness, danger, and filth and was a breeding ground for illegal gang activity among groups such as the Triads, it also created a unique sense of community found nowhere else in the world.

The walled city has been gone for nearly two decades now, torn down and replaced by a park, but its memory still lives on. If you're interested in learning more, one of the best places to start is Greg Girard's wonderful photo book, City of Darkness: Life in Kowloon Walled City, the source of the image above. The book features richly detailed interviews with former residents, and beautiful stories from writer Ian Lambot about his experiences exploring Kowloon Walled City's twisting pathways.