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A Rare Insight Into Kowloon Walled City
May 7, 2012 6:31 AM   Subscribe


 
I remember, years ago playing Shenmue II (the Xbox version) and you spend the middle third of the game in Kowloon. It was a very surreal place and my mind kind of boggled at the idea that what I was exploring in virtual space was actually based on a real city. Crazy times.
posted by Doleful Creature at 6:38 AM on May 7, 2012 [4 favorites]


A couple are familiar from Girard's book Phantom Shanghai, which has an introduction by William Gibson. I have a copy somewhere. Amazon Marketplace has some wacky prices for it currently.
posted by hyperizer at 6:52 AM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Protip: Look at the photos, don't read the captions. It's the Daily Mail, and therefore horrible.

(And, really? No architects whatsoever? By the looks of it, Kowloon's problem was not too few architects, but rather, way too many.)
posted by schmod at 7:05 AM on May 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


Wow, the Daily Mail sure wasn't shy about just using text from Wikipedia wholesale with no attribution.
posted by whir at 7:12 AM on May 7, 2012 [7 favorites]


And, really? No architects whatsoever? By the looks of it, Kowloon's problem was not too few architects, but rather, way too many.

Probably more like too many civil engineers.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:20 AM on May 7, 2012


The Walled City was something really unto itself. A sort of unbridled version of Hong Kong within Hong Kong. No regulations, police rarely made inside to patrol the warrens, and you can tell it was a bit of a disaster from a hygenic point of view - but somehow it worked. My dad used go there to see his dentist. The place was (in)famous for cheap unlicensed dental work. You took your chances and let the free market decide risk and reward.

Of course - if there had been a fire, it would have been a catastrophe of the first magnitude. It's easy to romanticize the Walled City as something out of Blade Runner - but it's another thing to have lived there.
posted by helmutdog at 7:28 AM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Slums are slums, but I wonder what really makes us keep coming back to Kowloon? In my opinion, it's the vertical nature of the place. It's not miles and miles of slums, it's .01 miles of slums.

I see Kowloon and I think, why can't we live like that? It's so efficient, so space conscious, so dark and dangerous.

Why don't we live like that? Do we not already?
posted by rebent at 7:53 AM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


That first, aerial photo is very dramatic and wall-y but it's because all the surrounding buildings, which were not quite as dense but close, have been torn down.

At the time, I was told that Walled City was protected because it wasn't included in the original treaty when HK was turned over to the British; it was still under the jurisdiction of mainland China which is why the HK government had such a hard time regulating it. Reading the wiki just now I see that there was a bit of truth to that:

The Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory of 1898 handed additional parts of Hong Kong (the New Territories) to Britain for 99 years, but excluded the Walled City, which at the time had a population of roughly 700. China was allowed to continue to keep officials there as long as they did not interfere with the defence of British Hong Kong.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 8:19 AM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Be sure to watch the documentary linked in the "previously" FPP above.
posted by intermod at 8:40 AM on May 7, 2012


Oh heck, I'll copy it over.

A 1989 German documentary (with English subtitles) that goes inside of the now-demolished settlement:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
posted by intermod at 8:41 AM on May 7, 2012 [15 favorites]


I've loved looking a previous photosets of the walled city before, and now I can't look at it without thinking of the movie The Raid: Redemption.
posted by benito.strauss at 8:55 AM on May 7, 2012


Chungking Mansions is still there on Nathan Street in Tsim Sha Tsui, right? A more accessible taste of the same thing. I don't know about romanticized but when I first saw them, I immediately thought "THIS is what Blade Runner comes from."
posted by msalt at 9:13 AM on May 7, 2012


Kowloon: another example of what goes wrong when Big Government sticks its neck into the Free Market!


(as explained by Fox News....)
posted by IAmBroom at 9:19 AM on May 7, 2012


I wonder if it would be possible to pack more humanity and stuff into an area than there was in this place.
posted by pyrex at 9:38 AM on May 7, 2012


Amazing.
posted by chundo at 9:51 AM on May 7, 2012


I wonder if it would be possible to pack more humanity and stuff into an area than there was in this place.

Oh, easily. Because area != volume. Kowloon was only several stories tall; it'd be trivial to design modern skyscraper with near-Kowloon-level density on every floor (very slightly reduced due to more space for structural elements) and just run it up for a few dozen stories.
posted by Tomorrowful at 10:22 AM on May 7, 2012


The Jackie Chan film Crime Story was partly filmed in Kowloon and features part of it being blown up as Jackie runs away... I believe he got to do it because they were going to demolish it anyway.

It's an interesting movie in that it's much more serious and violent than most JC movies, and based on a true kidnapping story. Available on Netflix Streaming.
posted by Huck500 at 10:32 AM on May 7, 2012


Chungking Mansions is still there on Nathan Street in Tsim Sha Tsui, right?

Yup! As rickety as ever.

I never saw the Walled City in person, but my mother remembers being taken there for noodles as a young girl. She said that for regardless of all the dark and general creepiness of the place, they had some of the best noodles she's ever had.

If you're doing the touristy thing in Hong Kong, there's a park where the Walled City used to be with sort of a mini-museum, and some of the original stonework/building structures that survived being torn down. Well worth a visit, if only to stand in a quiet park and imagine the sheer amount of humanity once crammed into that same space.
posted by zennish at 10:34 AM on May 7, 2012


Please -- fascinating topic, but let's not get sloppy here -- Kowloon Walled City ≠ Kowloon. Kowloon is a huge area of Hong Kong, on the mainland, almost as big as Hong Kong Island. The few blocks which made up Kowloon Walled City were near the old Kai Tak airport.
posted by Rash at 10:53 AM on May 7, 2012 [4 favorites]


I wonder if it would be possible to pack more humanity and stuff into an area than there was in this place.

pyrex: see "Submarine, any".


Please -- fascinating topic, but let's not get sloppy here -- Kowloon Walled City ≠ Kowloon.

My bad, Rash!
posted by IAmBroom at 10:56 AM on May 7, 2012


Oh, easily. Because area != volume. Kowloon was only several stories tall; it'd be trivial to design modern skyscraper with near-Kowloon-level density on every floor (very slightly reduced due to more space for structural elements) and just run it up for a few dozen stories.

Yeah I get that, I think it's just the fact that it's all so exposed and out in the open that affects me. All those individuals going about their lives, their privacy so compressed that their everyday activities spill out into the open.

pyrex: see "Submarine, any".

Ah, good point! However, the lives of navy men aboard a vessel are temporary. The people of Kowloon probably settled as permanent residents (in the grand scheme of things).

I guess what I'm really getting at is sure we can pack a fuckton of humanity and associated stuff into one place, but should we really? And also, thank you Kowloon for the artistic inspiration you precipitated.
posted by pyrex at 11:13 AM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


There are places that have higher population density -- for example, a public housing complex near me has 14,000 people in two adjacent high-rise towers, with barely a scrap of green space in between. But people there get up in the morning, take the elevator downstairs, and leave. I don't think anywhere in the world has that many people who work, go to school, and sleep in such a confined space.
posted by miyabo at 11:55 AM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Please -- fascinating topic, but let's not get sloppy here -- Kowloon Walled City ≠ Kowloon.

The Walled City is gone, though. I brought up ChungKing Mansions because it's an easily accessible place you can go today to get a little taste of what that must have been like. not a distinct, freestanding building like we tend to experience in high-rise, but a bunch of interconnected mid-rise building that form a sort of organism together.
posted by msalt at 3:23 PM on May 7, 2012


Chungking Mansions is still there on Nathan Street in Tsim Sha Tsui, right?

Yup! As rickety as ever.


And still smells like masala, for some reason.

The few blocks which made up Kowloon Walled City were near the old Kai Tak airport.

And when it was demolished, a lot of the rubble was recyled to make one of the new runways - or so says my father, who worked on it.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 4:19 PM on May 7, 2012


Most of these photos appear in a book called City of Darkness: Life in Kowloon Walled City, with text and interviews by Ian Lambot. It was written around the time inhabitants were being moved out, and deals not only with their background (and the variety of reasons of why they lived in the Walled City), but also with their frustration over how little compensation they were getting from the Chinese government.

It's available on Amazon for not-so-crazy prices, and is really worth it if you're interested in Walled City.

A scene from the Jean Claude Van Damme movie Bloodsport was also filmed in the Walled City, it's on Youtube here.
posted by yellowlightman at 4:43 PM on May 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


A scene from the Jean Claude Van Damme movie Bloodsport was also filmed in the Walled City

That film was set primarily in the Walled City. My brother and I used to watch it all the time - part of the novelty was that it was set in our home town.

And I just discovered that the theme songs were composed and performed by Stan Bush, of Transformers' 'The Touch' fame. So much 80s goodness.

KUMITE! KUMITE! KUMITE!
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:09 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Chungking Mansions is still there on Nathan Street in Tsim Sha Tsui, right?

Yup! As rickety as ever.


I DON'T NEED A SUIT GET AWAY FROM ME!
posted by Blue Meanie at 5:52 PM on May 7, 2012


Thanks for the van Damme, yellowlightman!
posted by Rash at 9:54 PM on May 7, 2012


I've got that book, City of Darkness. It's amazing, and I highly recommend it. As for Chunking, I never stayed there, but I've stayed next block over in the Mirador Mansions, which are essentially the same thing, only (allegedly) mildly safer. Both times I stayed there, I was keenly aware that it was an utter firetrap. Perhaps coincidence, but also both times I stayed there, there were fires in Chungking.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:50 AM on May 8, 2012


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