Dystopian Dreams: The myth and marvel of shooting the Kowloon Walled City

Notorious for its brothels, opium dens, dog restaurants and triad gangs, the Kowloon Walled City lives on in both the Hong Kong consciousness and international pop culture, despite its demolition 20 years ago. The dark components that have served as inspiration for everything from the Call of Duty video game to the shady Narrows in Batman Begins are the very reason it was shunned and feared when it still stood. But with its cheap (albeit unlicensed) medical care, family businesses, old people’s home and temples, was it really all that bad?

According to the new book by Greg Girard and Ian Lambot, the answer is no. Having recorded the unprecedented urban phenomenon both visually and in interview form since 1986, the year before the announcement that the city was to be torn down, the two men are determined to show that, at least by that time, the Walled City’s macabre reputation was of a largely mythical nature.

Kowloon Walled City

Kowloon Walled City alley

Launching in Hong Kong tomorrow, City of Darkness Revisited is the followup to the revered 1993 publication City of Darkness: Life in Kowloon Walled City. Now out of print, the original offering sold 20,000 copies worldwide, much to the surprise of Hong Kong locals at the time.

“When we did the book in 93, all my Hong Kong friends couldn’t understand it. Why would you make a book about that? Why would you go there? They were all convinced I was going to get murdered,” Lambot tells Coconuts HK.

But Girard and Lambot, who found themselves match-made when mutual friends realised they were both obsessed with photographing the Walled City, discovered a very different reality in the depths of the so-called “Den of Iniquity” – a reality that neither could tear themselves away from.

Kowloon Walled City candy makers

Kowloon Walled City candy makers

Girard, who was working as a sound man for BBC News at the time, describes his first sighting of the city.

“I was photographing near the airport one night, watching the planes come in from Kai Tak, and I came around a corner and there was this thing that didn’t fit in. It looked like nothing else around it, almost medieval with its combination of structures and a squat village around it. I knew instinctively it must be the Kowloon Walled City, but there was no image to match in my head.”

When asked what the most shocking thing he saw was, the photographer says it was a beautiful Cathay Pacific air hotess, in full uniform, wheeling her suitcase through the filthy streets.

Originally a military fort, the Walled City was the only piece of Hong Kong the Chinese clung onto when the New Territories were handed to Britain in 1898. At this point there was only an estimated 700 living within the walls, but thousands of southern Chinese refugees, looking to take advantage of the perceived Chinese protection, began pouring in shortly after the end of the Japanese occupation in 1945.

Not wanting to upset relations with China, the British adopted a markedly hands-off approach to the Walled City. It was this dual jurisdiction and the almost complete lack of law and order enforcement that led to the enclave becoming famous for all the wrong reasons.

Kowloon Walled City caged balconies

Kowloon Walled City caged balconies

During the 1950s, it was effectively run by the triads, but after a succession of drug convictions and a couple of murder raps were handed down in the late 1960s and early 1970s, word got out that the Walled City was no longer a haven for vice. This word, however, seemingly failed to reach anyone who lived more than a stone’s throw from the area, as the majority of Hongkongers continued to actively avoid and fear what laid within.

An architectural photographer by trade, Lambot was first attracted to the unfathomable logistics of the Walled City, which is estimated to have housed more than 33,000 people by the late 1980s. Spanning just 2.6 hectares and reaching up to 14 storeys (the absolute highest it could go before posing a threat to the planes landing at nearby Kai Tak Airport), this ever morphing, unplanned and unregulated maze went against everything he had previously considered possible.

Describing the multi-layered labyrinth that could be traversed from north to south at almost any level, Lambot explains that he was both repelled and enchanted by the Walled City.

“The external conditions were terrible. The alleys were always slimy with dripping everywhere, rats around, virtually no windows and very little air conditioning, so it was very hot and steamy in the summer. But I was struck by how people have this amazing ability to find an existence and make it work. In that, the Walled City isn’t unique. It’s unique because it was urban and high-rise, but you’ve got the favelas in Brazil, the slums in India; people living at the lowest level, but they find a way to make a life.”

Kowloon Walled City factory

Kowloon Walled City factory

It was this beauty of human resilience that the two photographers set out to showcase in their first book, deliberately steering away from the horror stories and excessively gritty black and white photos that occasionally appeared in the press, and attempting to give their subject a truly neutral treatment.

While Girard recalls slammed doors and muttered curses when he first started photographing scenes within the walls, he claims everything changed after the demolition announcement in 1987, as the residents suddenly understood that the “two mad gweilos running around taking photographs” had no interest in making their home look bad, and were simply trying to preserve what would soon be gone forever.

Perhaps similarly to how the attitudes of the residents changed towards the photographers, the attitude of society towards the Walled City seemed to evolve after 1993, once the squatters had been re-housed and it was well and truly no more. Suddenly the lost city had taken on a dystopian but somewhat romantic aura, with popular culture from The Bourne Supremacy to Bloodsport having used it as a backdrop.

Kowloon Walled City shop

Kowloon Walled City shop

In the late 90s, Girard and Lambot were surprised to find themselves swamped by requests for a re-print, with everyone from architecture students to Hollywood studios, and even ordinary Hongkongers, suddenly desperate to get their hands on the book.

Years later with worldwide curiosity still enormously high, the pair decided a second edition – documenting the development of the city’s legend and featuring unseen photographs and interviews – should mark 20 years since the city’s demolition. If they had any doubt about the continued public interest, this was firmly dispelled when their Kickstarter goal of GBP50,000 was overshot by almost GBP35,000.

Kowloon Walled City Fuk Tak Shrine

Kowloon Walled City Fuk Tak Shrine

“At the time when we were interviewing people for the first book they were hesitant, because they would normally go to great lengths to pretend that they weren’t living in the city,” says Lambot. “When doing the new book, however, I couldn’t stop people coming up to me and saying, ‘I lived there’. They wanted to sit down for an hour and tell me their story. There’s almost a pride that you had a connection to it now.”

City of Darkness Revisited will be launched tomorrow, 7pm, at The Space (210 Hollywood Road, Sheung Wan), with an exhibition of photographs from the book running from Sep. 4 to 6.

This time the authors have little doubt that there will be an uptake, but even they continue to be amazed by the longevity of this dark but addictive piece of Hong Kong history.

“I have no idea why there’s still so much interest, but I’m very grateful for it,” says Lambot. “The fascination is worldwide. Partly the fact that it’s gone helps, but the myth exists, and it will always exist.”

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