It was once the most densely populated place on Earth, a lawless slum known for drug dealing, prostitution and gambling.
Brothels, opium dens and good neighbors in Hong Kong’s ‘City of Darkness’
It was so notorious it even inspired a crime-ridden district in Christopher Nolan's movie Batman Begins.
But today there is little trace of Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City, which today marks the 25th anniversary of its demolition.
Situated near the old international airport, it was a high-rise squatter camp with a total area of about 6.63 acres – the size of five football fields – and incredibly housed some 50,000 residents before it was torn down by authorities.
That’s a population density of 4.83 million per square mile. In contrast, New York City, the most densely populated city in the US, has about 27,000 people per square mile.
By the 1990s, the settlement had expanded to about 500 illegally built interconnected buildings, with living units stacked so tightly that even sunlight couldn’t get through – giving rise to its nickname in Cantonese of ‘The City of Darkness.’
Operating outside the rule of law, it was a safe haven for brothels, gambling dens, opium parlors and heroin stands – but also a place for low-income families and small businesses looking to dodge regulations.
But how did this tiny, lawless enclave come to be?
It’s believed that the Walled City started life as a fort during the Song dynasty (960-1279), housing soldiers in charge of the salt trade.
It continued as a military outpost into the late 19th century, by which time the British had already taken control of Hong Kong, and it soon became a spot of anarchy and thriving criminal activity.
Parts of the Walled City were demolished during the Japanese occupation in the Second World War. But when the Japanese left, the residents moved back, and new squatters poured in, many of them Chinese fleeing the country’s civil war.
More high-rise buildings of up to 14 stories went up (none of which were constructed with the help of architects), and it was so cramped that some residents couldn’t even open their windows. Rent was cheap, at just $4 per month for 40 square feet of living space.
Without natural light, the narrow alleys were lit by fluorescent lights, with residents navigating dangling wires and constantly dripping pipes. Bulky trash like old TVs and broken furniture piled up high on the rooftops.
The chaotic, squalid settlement was a headache for the Brits, who tried and failed multiple times to clear it. Residents refused to recognize authority and even police were afraid to go in.
Former resident and US-based doctor Vivian Chan, who lived in the settlement for 10 years during her childhood, told the South China Morning Post: “The indelible memory I have of the Walled City is the impression that poverty can drive people to desperate measures in their scramble for survival.
“In those days I often came across junkies who slept under the stairs and would do anything just to get money to buy drugs. One time, when I was still a primary school kid, a young junkie held me at knife point asking for money,” she recalled.
While it had a reputation for criminality, fire hazards and pollution, the Walled City was also known as a close-knit neighborhood, housing schools and kindergartens and unlicensed doctors, small factories and market stalls. There was even a temple.
Retired cop Eric Lockeyear said: "Most residents were not involved in any crime and lived peacefully within its walls, but sadly, under appalling conditions – with no running water, street lighting, electricity or sanitation.”
In popular culture
In a June 2005 interview, Nolan said he had taken inspiration for the walled-in ‘Narrows’ slum featured in Batman Begins from the Hong Kong enclave.
Jean-Claude Van Damme filmed his 1988 movie Bloodsport in the settlement, and it’s also been featured in the Call of Duty: Black Ops video game, and Robert Ludlum’s book The Bourne Supremacy.
End of an era
But the authorities’ patience ran out in the 1980s, and in 1987 the government announced it would demolish the Walled City.
The eviction process was a long and slow one, but eventually the last residents were moved out in 1992, and demolition began, with the process complete by 1994.
Kowloon Walled City Park was built on the site the next year. Few traces of the settlement remain, although some artefacts and a gate were preserved.
But the neighborhood will always live on in the memories and hearts of former residents.
Additional reporting by Peace Chiu, Mary Ann Benitez, Cannix Yau