Hak Nam, City of Darkness, the old Walled City of Kowloon has always fascinated me. I’ve seen many pictures of the 200 metres by 100 metres city with buildings of up to 14 floors high, narrow alleys with cables hanging low and tiny flats squeezed next to each other. It was famous for many things, including its Dentist Alley but also home to crime and drugs. It does not exist anymore, it was demolished in 1994 and today a park resides where it used to be. But its history remains.
The Walled City was arguable the oldest part of Hong Kong. It was founded in the Song Dynasty (960–1279), as an outpost to track the trade of salt. It stayed small, unpopular for many hundred years until a small coastal fort was established in 1810 and in 1847 the defensive wall was built. The Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory of 1898 handed the New Territories to Britain for 99 years, but excluded the Walled City.
Though the British claimed ownership of the Walled City, they did little with it over the following few decades. The Protestant church established an old people’s home in the Yamen, as well as a school and almshouse in other former offices. Many parts of the Walled City were demolished during the 1940s and during the Japanese occupation the City’s wall were used to extend the nearby Kai Tak Airport.
After Japan’s surrender, China tried to ‘own’ the Walled City, but Britain took over and for most of the time, ignored it. There was no water supply, the alleys were only 1-2 m wide and had poor lighting and drainage and the sunlight rarely reached the lower levels. People called the Walled City a City of Darkness, resembling an urban slum. An informal network of staircases and passageways also formed on upper levels, which was so extensive that one could travel north to south through the entire City without ever touching solid ground.
But crime was rampant and Triads tried ruling the Walled City with its brothels, gambling parlours and opium den’s. While children played on the roof tops at daytime, no one dared to go up the roof tops at night time. What started off with 2,000 squatters in the early 50s became 33,000 residents in the 80s and many small factories and business thrived. Still, quality of life was behind the rest of Hong Kong and a mutual decision was made in 1987 to tear the Walled City down.