What was life like inside the ‘densest place on earth’ ???? It was a colossal empire of little houses, stacked on top of each other, connected by staircases, snaking under dangling wires through corridors —– so dark —– even police were rumoured to be afraid of them. There were 33,000 people within the space of 1 city block. That was KOWLOON WALLED CITY, once considered the ‘densest settlement on earth.’
Before it was demolished, photographer Greg Girard spent years with collaborator Ian Lambot documenting this unique Hong Kong ‘phenomenon’, and remembers being amazed when he first saw it. After all, the WALLED CITY was a kind of ‘historical accident’. A former Qing Dynasty fortress, it never fully came under the regulation of the British Colonial Government in Hong Kong. As a result, its residents were free to build their dwellings as they wished, ignoring safety codes.
“Quite often, houses were built by building on to the next building, punching out walls to use their staircases,” said Girard. “A lot of them didn’t even have access to air or open space, because they were enclosed in the centre of the structures.
Deep within the building’s darkness, a variety of small businesses flourished. “The places that stuck out were the meat factories,” says Girard. “There were pig carcasses laying splayed on the floor, they’d burn the hair off with a blow-torch, it was all pretty open, and of course, there were no health laws governing the place.”
But, despite the city’s wild appearance, the photographer found that the people inside lived just like other people anywhere else. “It’s just that all these ordinary things were happening in an ‘extraordinary place’. Local architect Aaron Tan, now the Director of Hong Kong firm Research Architecture Design, a graduate student then, wrote his thesis on the WALLED CITY as it was being torn down.
“I was fascinated —– it was like a piece of machinery that worked very well. The demolition was like taking the machine apart —– the first time you could see what was inside. It was a really humbling process, for me as a designer, when we met this WALLED CITY, we started to see that people could be more intelligent than us —- designers —- that they could think of ways to solve problems that are outside the traditional academic world.”
Aaron Tan was specially impressed by KOWLOON WALLED CITY’s ‘water system’. To support its dense population, residents dug extra wells and built thousands of pipes, that twisted through the building. But, since pumping water to the City’s roof tanks required plenty of power, the people would take turns conserving electricity, so that water could be shared successfully. Despite the ingenuity of the WALLED CITY, by 1994 it was completely torn down by the City Government, which was eager to replace the ‘chaotic’ and ‘unregulated’ community with a Public Park.
Today, visitors to the site of the old WALLED CITY will find a placid garden with swaying trees and cloudy ponds. In the Park there is a small museum in honour of the WALLED CITY. But, when you look to the sky and imagine the ‘colossus’ of Hong Kong life that once stood, it is easy to see that something significant has been lost.
Even today, the City’s Legacy lives on. A ‘walled’ neighbourhood, called the NARROWS in the 2005 film “Batman Begins” was based on KOWLOON WALLED CITY. The City is even a level in the Video game : Call of duty : Black Ops . Because of the continued interest, Greg Girard is working with his fellow KOWLOON WALLED CITY photographer Ian Lambot to finish a new book of photographs “CITY OF DARKNESS: REVISITED”
The WALLED CITY was a kind of ‘architectural touchstone’ in terms of what a city can be —— unplanned, self-generated, unregulated. It was vital and vibrant and every part of it was being used. Ian believes the spirit of the WALLED CITY continues to pulse through the heart of Hong Kong itself.