With an approximate population of 33,000 and a population density of 3.2 million people per square mile, the Kowloon Walled City holds the record for being the most densely populated place ever. In the City’s heyday, buildings nestled tightly together, and drew water from wells beneath. As the City approached its destruction in 1994, it had essentially become a single palpitating mass of cement and flesh. However, should one step into the Kowloon Walled City Park, the Yamen dominates the view—with a sweeping roof and courtyard, one would not expect that this structure was once the heart of a place notorious for its drugs, prostitutes, and gang activity.
The Yamen was one of the first structures to be built in the Kowloon Walled City; finished in 1847, the compound housed military personnel. It was built by the Qing Government in response to the British occupation of Hong Kong Island, which began in 1841. When the British gained Hong Kong in the 99-year lease in 1898, the Walled City was left in the jurisdiction of the Qing Government. The British later refuted this stipulation, and sent troops into the City. Eventually the British withdrew, and, as trouble in China emerged, Chinese forces left as well. With an uncertain political status, the Kowloon Walled City remained outside any governments’ reach until 1987, when both the Chinese and British Governments agreed to demolish it.
Some praise the Walled City as a functional anarchy. The City’s disputed status attracted a variety of groups and led to an active society. Those seeking refuge from the Cultural Revolution found opportunities inside—because the City lacked a licensing board, for instance, trained dentists and doctors could set up shop without interference. The City saw the production of fish balls, textiles, and other wares. Social services existed as well. An English Missionary turned the Yamen into a place for the elderly to live. Kindergartens and elementary schools appeared; some were even operated by the Salvation Army. The place provided a unique freedom for those who knew how to stay out of trouble.
Fascinated by opium dens and the intrigue surrounding triad groups, many have found their imaginations captured by the seedy side of the Kowloon Walled City. Films with stars like Jackie Chan feature fantastic fights in the City. Video games, such as Call of Duty: Black Ops, unleash players into virtual versions of the City to investigate crime scenes with a gun in hand. A Japanese theme park modeled after the City opened in 2009, and includes dolls posed provocatively. The destruction of the City itself has done little to deter people from visiting its scintillating scenes.
And yet, when one endeavors to visit the actual site of the City, it is not the wild, packed society that comes to mind, but the distant past. The Yamen recalls images of stately Qing officials. In a nearby pit, the foundations of buildings that like extirpated tree roots reveal an old stone path. Though the original city walls were destroyed by the Japanese, who repurposed the material for an airport during their occupation of Hong Kong during WWII, but old engraved signs reading ‘Kowloon Walled City’ in Chinese are on display. The surrounding park recreates a traditional Jiangnan garden style of the early Qing Dynasty with ornate fountains, pagoda-like gazebos, and bonsai trees. The physical site of the City today presents a genteel military outpost.
Will the Yamen itself be remembered as the heart of a dynastic past, a safe haven from a tumultuous cultural revolution, or a vice-ridden slum? It would seem that the Kowloon Walled City remains, if no longer a contested space, a contested idea. However, in the popular imagination at least, the Kowloon Walled City continues to exist today as a packed microcosm of lawlessness and potential.