Kowloon Walled City: Heterotopia in a Space of Disappearance

September 9, 2013

Essay by Matthew Hung with photography by Greg Girard.


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Kowloon Walled City, Tung Tau Tsuen Road, 1987. © Greg Girard.

The Kowloon Walled City is known by many as the informal settlement that once existed seemingly out of place within modern Hong Kong. Many dared not enter this lawless zone that had developed a reputation as a place to be avoided, somewhere that harbored vice and illicit trades. A place where triads and criminals were in control and those brave enough to enter risked having their cameras smashed or worse their throats slit;1 apparently at odds with the rest of Hong Kong.

It was often considered an anomaly, a place defined through difference from its context and little has been written to understand it beyond this limited scope. This opinion of the area was placed firmly into view when a Chinese government spokesman described the Walled City strikingly as “a problem left over from history,”2 essentially claiming it was superseded before it had reached irrelevance. For such a complex territorial entity with a population content with their surroundings,3 this comment has obvious contradictions.

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Kowloon Walled City night view from southwest corner, 1987. © Greg Girard.

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Aerial view of Kowloon Walled City, 1989. © Ian Lambot.

Historical Account

This architectural phenomenon was born out of a rich nineteenth century political environment where the conflicts of the Opium Wars and the subsequent Unequal Treaties led to Hong Kong being ceded to Britain and in doing so turning the Walled City into a Chinese enclave. The British invasion of the Kowloon Walled City in 1899 and unilateral act of legalizing the change of sovereignty then provided the ambiguity for the area to develop into a political no man’s land. Existing as a diplomatic black hole, the area provided a place where the surges of refugees escaping China’s political turmoil could find freedom. The uncertainty of the Nationalist Party in the 1920s, the civil war after the Japanese occupation of WWII, the communist reforms from the late 1950s to the mid 1970s, all precipitated influxes of refugees from across the border into Hong Kong. Though the colonial government tolerated these refugees, the Walled City was a rare corner where these migrants were free from the control of the state.

Occupying the void between the two sovereign nations, the Walled City’s unique context manifested itself most clearly during the numerous territorial disputes. China saw the ceding of Hong Kong to the British after the Opium Wars as unfair as they were in a vulnerable position when the Unequal Treaties were signed, claiming that they were void having been signed under duress.4 As China could not meaningfully dispute the ceded territories of the treaties but had a valid claim over the sovereignty of the Kowloon Walled City, it became a place where the politics between the two nations were played out. The ambiguity over its sovereignty allowed the Walled City to be disputed but neither side were willing to relinquish this area nor did they want to take full control. For China, the enclave was a visual reminder of the Unequal Treaties hence the illegitimacy of foreign rule over Hong Kong, but they were also weary that claiming the area would suggest the rest of Hong Kong was rightfully British territory. 5 6 Likewise, allowing the Chinese to lay claim to the area legitimized British rule as it provided a contrast between lawlessness and order, but without control over the area Hong Kong would have to tolerate the enclave as being outside their jurisdiction.

Aside from the successful evictions in the late 1930s, any further forays into the Walled City by the colonial government were met by riots and resistance of the squatter population, constantly reminding the colonial government that they were rightfully living on Chinese land. Many of these disputes escalated into political incidents and with China siding with the Walled City residents, the colonial government were repeatedly forced to withdraw. This included eviction attempts in the late 1940s, the redevelopment proposals of the mid 1950s , the plans for a neighboring resettlement estate which encroached on the Walled City in the early 1960s, and the attempts to remove and preserve two of the Walled City’s original cannons in the 1970s, all of which the Hong Kong government had to concede on.

Following the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on 19 December 1984, when it was agreed that Hong Kong’s sovereignty would be returned to China on 1 July 1997, the political ambiguity that had protected the extralegal community and allowed the illegal structures of the Kowloon Walled City to be sustained disappeared. It was clear that after the declaration was signed, China would no longer protest if the British exercised jurisdiction over the area as the whole of Hong Kong would be returned to them after 1997. As a result the Walled City became vulnerable, suddenly finding itself existing on Crown Land.7 Within three years the residents and business owners were compensated for their loss and the decision was made to conserve only the old deputy magistrate’s office from when the Walled City was a Chinese fort, the rest was reduced to a hundred and fifty thousand cubic meters of rubble.8

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Children playing on Walled City rooftop, 1989. © Greg Girard.

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Walled City rooftop view, 1989. © Greg Girard.

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Cathay Pacific Jet Passing Walled City Rooftops, 1989. © Greg Girard.

Spatial Account

The inherently selective nature of a historical account and the linear temporal framework it adopts is restrictive and cannot offer a balanced picture of a historical subject. Portraying the Walled City solely in such a way, it becomes an isolated element within the urban landscape of Hong Kong; a place that was shaped and defined by the incidents out of its control. The linear temporal account also suggests that the Walled City had only one eventuality: destined to be a political no man’s land as a result of the nineteenth century treaties and the following invasion of the Walled City; destined to be an attractive place for crime and illicit trades; destined to be demolished after it’s ambiguous jurisdiction had been resolved. Although this was the outcome, this portrayal allows it to be considered as inanimate and without agency. It therefore neglects the inherent relationships that the Walled City had with the rest of Hong Kong. For it to grow to such an extent and be sustained for such a long period in history there must have been a vast number of social, economic and cultural links with the rest of Hong Kong. Some of these links can be uncovered by examining the Walled City through the spatial concept of Heterotopia and in doing so begin to provide a more thorough understanding of the area.

Heterotopia was a term first coined by Michel Foucault in 1967 to an audience of architects where he used it to explain the spaces of otherness. These spaces are sites that are places outside all places but at the same time relates to all the other sites from which it is located against.9 Foucault used the mirror as a metaphor for a Heterotopia due to its ability to reflect and disrupt. When considered in such a way the Kowloon Walled City can be seen as such a mirror to Hong Kong where some aspects of it confirm through its similarity with the rest of the colony but also unsettle through its rejection of the norms outside the informal settlement.

Foucault outlined principles or characteristics that are present in all Heterotopias and these can be seen in the Walled City. One such principle is that Heterotopias exist in diverse forms but can be broadly categorized as either Heterotopias of Deviance or Heterotopias of Crisis. Heterotopias of Deviance are places where those “whose behavior is deviant in relation to the required mean or norm are placed”10 such as prisons and psychiatric hospitals. Meanwhile, Crisis Heterotopias are places where those who, in relation to the society they live in, are in a state of crisis such as adolescents and the elderly but could equally apply to the refugee. During the Walled City’s time in Hong Kong, it provided a place where those people that were in a state of crisis could reside. In particular, it allowed those refugees who had been alienated by China, but also inconsistent with the new orders of the colonial government, a place to live in a state of crisis. The impermanence of other squatter areas were solidified in the Kowloon Walled City by the ambiguous political environment and provided an area of relative stability. Therefore, this area naturally attracted skilled migrants who found they could not legally practice in the colony. Doctors and dentists could operate without costly retraining in order to obtain a license and customers from across Hong Kong enjoyed the cheaper service. Similarly, the manufacturing sectors found the lack of regulation desirable enabling them to keep overheads low. The tailors, the textile manufacturing, the fish ball factories and the many other businesses, all linked the Walled City to the wider society. The one-room factories that existed within boundaries of the enclave created products from raw materials that would have been sourced from or through Hong Kong. Likewise, the products processed by them would be sourced not only by the marginal such as street vendors but also by mainstream businesses.11 Therefore, the market mentality that prevailed in the rest of Hong Kong also existed within the Walled City. Shielded from the forces of the market and the state, the business owners can be seen as opportunists that parallel those in the rest of Hong Kong.

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Noodle factory and residence, 1989. © Greg Girard.

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Walled City apartment interior, 1989. © Greg Girard.

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Walled City apartment interior, 1989. © Greg Girard.

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Walled City shop and residence, 1989. © Greg Girard.

Foucault also defines that each Heterotopia has a precise function within a society but can have one function or another depending on the “synchrony of the culture in which it occurs.”12 This change in function is evident when we consider the Kowloon Walled City in relation to the change in the government’s attitudes during the 1950s. Although the Walled City had connections with illegal activities as far back as the early colonial period and the multiple attempts to demolish it demonstrates the concern the Hong Kong government had in this regard, it was primarily another squatter settlement in a sea of other squatter estates during the 1950s. These places were the normal way of life for many migrants at the time and were even considered an accepted part of the unofficial housing policy.13 They were considered desirable by the colony as they provided cheap labor to Hong Kong without the need for any British intervention.14 The position the colonial government held was that the squatters were not invited to Hong Kong and therefore the taxpayers did not have any obligation to attend to them.15 However, with disastrous fires becoming increasingly common in the informal settlements and a growing concern of how this may be perceived as a mistreatment of the Chinese people by China, Hong Kong embarked upon an enormous re-housing program.16 This program would eventually become the biggest public housing program in the world, affecting forty-five per cent of the Hong Kong population by the 1980s,17 and would change the context of Hong Kong completely. In doing so it shifted the Walled City from being a place accepted in society to an area incongruent with the rest of Hong Kong.

The remaining characteristic that particularly relates to the Walled City, is Heterotopias function in relation to all other spaces in one of two ways; as Spaces of Illusion that relate to the suppressed aspects of life within a society such as a brothel or as Spaces of Compensation where it is a space that is perfect in relation to the wider society such as a the seventeenth century colonies founded to be a pristine model in contrast with the colonial centre. The Walled City was predominantly a Space of Illusion where it fulfilled the actions that the government suppressed and provided for demands that were considered incompatible with society. The ambiguity of the jurisdiction over the Walled City meant that it became a natural haven for all forms of vice. Prostitution, illicit shows, drugs, restaurants offering dog meat and gambling dens found a place to operate with relative stability within the six and a half acre site. Though these illegal activities were in high concentration, it is wrong to assume that their business thrived on the residents. Many of the clients of these trades were from beyond the walls of the city. It has been described as a “Dark Twin” to Hong Kong, providing a shadow economy to fulfill the needs that a formal economy cannot meet.18 This shadow economy was in obvious conflict with the Hong Kong government yet it was also a place that provided products and services that were in demand. The idealized illusion of Hong Kong as a perfect place the government endeavored to create, could only have been plausible if there was another place which represented all that the administration stood against. The Walled City was therefore portrayed as self-sufficient and isolated, able to represent the moral shortcomings of the colony.

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West Side street (overhead pipes), 1990. © Greg Girard.

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Water standpipe (man washing), 1989. © Greg Girard.

Cultural Account

It is clear that both the British and the Chinese governments had political agendas in allowing the Kowloon Walled City to develop and for a negative image of the area to be maintained. However, once it had been agreed that the sovereignty of Hong Kong would be returned to China after 1997, the Kowloon Walled City turned from being a political tool to a political embarrassment for both sides, and thus quickly swept under the carpet. What remains unclear is why there was such little protest over its demolition. As shown by the spatial account, the Walled City had developed alongside the rest of Hong Kong and is arguably a key part of its history; its role around the time of the Opium Wars; its role as a refuge during the influxes of migrants from China; its role as a shadow economy to the city. Despite its historical lineage, the heritage value of the Kowloon Walled City was never a consideration. However, when this situation is placed in its cultural context and within a particularly unique cultural space as theorized by Ackbar Abbas, the lack of resistance towards the Walled City’s demolition can be explained.

It is said that there is a distinct lack of any sense of national identity in Hong Kong19 and this is partially due to colonial tactics where political expression is purposefully subdued and hence providing no outlet for political idealism. In the case of Hong Kong, this resulted in the attention being directed towards the economic realm. Engaging in the free market gave a freedom to those blocked from democracy by allowing them an alternative context from which to improve their own situation, albeit at the individual level rather than the collective level of citizenship. The focus on the individual fragmented the need for the imagined community of the nation. This lack of a collective identity is also due to Hong Kong’s primary role as a facilitator. Existing as a far eastern entrepôt, it facilitated the meeting between the east and west which made a floating identity desirable.20

However, this malleable identity that Hong Kong created for itself became increasingly problematic during the period of uncertainty between the initial discussions of the sovereignty question over Hong Kong and its handover to China ten years later. The resumption of sovereignty represented a threat to Hong Kong’s way of life with many fearing that it will be subsumed into a politically alien China. It redirected the trajectory of Hong Kong from a place content with the status quo to moving down an unknown path. A path that threatened to return the Hong Kong people back to a communist regime that they themselves or their immediate ancestors had once fled. The anxieties of the time was compounded by the events of the Tiananmen Square Protest where clashes between the public demanding liberal reforms and the People’s Liberation Army ended with thousands dead and many more injured.

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Walled City rooftop with Kai Tak Airport in background, 1990. © Greg Girard.

The imminent threat 1997 posed was expressed in the increased attention to define a Hong Kong culture in order to develop a more resilient identity able to distinguish itself from China. “The imminence of its disappearance,” Abbas argues, “was what precipitated an intense and unprecedented interest in Hong Kong culture.”21 He believes that the reason why Hong Kong seems to lack a culture was due to the import mentality under colonialism.22 This gaze saw culture along with everything else as coming from elsewhere, whether it is the modernist architectural styles from the West or Chinese traditions from the mainland. This was not because Hong Kong did not have any culture as the popular term of Hong Kong as “a cultural desert” may suggest, but rather that Hong Kong did not recognize it as being their own culture. This “reverse hallucination”23 of not seeing what is actually there was what existed prior to the Sino-British Joint Declaration. After which the sudden intense awareness of culture produced a special form of culture, what Abbas calls the “Culture of Disappearance.” A culture in which its appearance is stimulated by the imminent threat of its disappearance. This “Culture of Disappearance” does not mean a non-appearance but rather a misrecognition. The pressure to build a cultural identity leads to the acceptance of readily available images and identities such as the use of the old binaries of East and West that mask the complexities of space. This “Space of Disappearance” was the unique cultural space that Hong Kong found itself in between 1987 and 1997.

It is within this volatile context that the lack of protest over the Kowloon Walled City’s demolition can be situated. It is clear that under colonial rule the area was neglected in some respects such as the physical appearance and infrastructure whilst other provisions were maintained by the government such as postal services, basic health measures such as vaccinations, and social welfare.24 One can speculate that this soft approach to government services maintains the colonial agenda of utilizing the area to legitimize colonial rule. Rather than concentrating on expressed infrastructures, there has been greater emphasis on tactics that are less perceivable to the outside. This selective neglect maintained the poor physical environment in which the image of vice and illegality continued to be expressed, long after it had reached irrelevance.25 The consistency in its physical appearance and its place within Hong Kong’s “Space of Disappearance” meant that the dominant image readily grasped by the Hong Kong people was the one the colonial enterprise had promoted throughout their rule. This further embedded the reading of the Kowloon Walled City as a place isolated and incompatible with mainstream Hong Kong.

In exploring the Kowloon Walled City through multiple viewpoints, a new understanding of the informal settlement begins to appear; a reading that shows it as porous rather than isolated, affected Hong Kong as much as it was affected by Hong Kong, and a place that was an accepted part of society until the public housing program. The spatial account revealed the countless links it had with the rest of the colony and in doing so further highlighted the government’s attempts to isolate the Walled City. Meanwhile, the cultural account showed that the negative image the British created in their attempts to marginalize the area throughout their time in Hong Kong, became the only image that was consistent and readily graspable as a result of the unique cultural landscape at the time. It can be seen through these viewpoints that the imaginations of the Hong Kong people were controlled under the colonial government. However, these subtle assertions of control can be foreseen in the future by avoiding a reductive portrayal of space. In particular for Hong Kong, the problematic of the image within a “Space of Disappearance” and the significance of a spatial reading in both portraying and examining a historical subject should be given added attention. Only then can we avoid another piece of Hong Kong being considered as merely “a problem left over from history.”

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Walled City mail delivery, 1987. © Greg Girard.

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BBQ Meat Factory, 1990. © Greg Girard.

1 Girard, Greg and Ian Lambot. City of Darkness: Life in Kowloon Walled City. (Chiddingfold: Watermark, 1993), 9.
2 Ibid, 71.
3 Walled City: The Rise and Fall” South China Morning Post, 15 January 1987. (File: HKRS 545-2-350).
4 Wesley-Smith, Peter. Unequal treaty, 1898-1997: China, Great Britain and Hong Kong’s new territories. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 3.
5 Steinhart, John. “Overcoming the Wall of Confusion.” South China Morning Post, 20 June 1987. (File: HKRS 545-2-350).
6 Harte, Sa Ni. “Another dividing wall falls before ‘97.” South China Morning Post, 13 December 1987. (File: HKRS 545-2-350).
7 Bradbury, Patricia. “Hong Kong’s Lost City.” Asia Magazine, 5 May 1992. (File: HKRS 545-7-385).
8 Fearns, J. W. “Kowloon Walled City demolition.” The Structural Engineer 73, no.17 (1995): 288.
9 Foucault, M. “Of Other Spaces.” Diacritics 16, (1986): 22-27.
10 Ibid.
11 Girard, Greg and Ian Lambot. City of Darkness: Life in Kowloon Walled City. (Chiddingfold: Watermark, 1993), 95.
12 Foucault, M. “Of Other Spaces.” Diacritics 16, (1986): 22-27.
13 Geddes, Philip. In the Mouth of the Dragon: Hong Kong – past, present, and future. (London: Century Publishing in association with TVS, 1982), 83.
14 Smart, Alan. The Shek Kip Mei Myth: Squatters, Fires and Colonial Rule in Hong Kong, 1950-1963. (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2006), 14.
15 Geddes, Philip. In the Mouth of the Dragon: Hong Kong – past, present, and future. (London: Century Publishing in association with TVS, 1982), 79.
16 Smart, Alan. The Shek Kip Mei Myth: Squatters, Fires and Colonial Rule in Hong Kong, 1950-1963. (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2006), 2-4.
17 Castells, Manuel. “Four Asian Tigers with a Dragon Head: A Comparative Analysis of the State, Economy and Society in the Asian Pacific Rim,” In States and Development in the Asian Pacific Rim, ed. Richard P. Applebaum and Jeffrey Henderson (London: Sage Publications, 1992), 48.
18 Harter, Seth. “Hong Kong’s Dirty Little Secret: Clearing the Walled City of Kowloon.” Journal of Urban History 27, 1 (2000): 92-113.
19 Mathews, Gordon, Eric Kit-wai Ma and Tai- Lok Lui. Hong Kong, China: Learning to Belong to a Nation. (London: Taylor & Francis, 2008), 1.
20 Abbas, Ackbar. Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearence. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 4.
21 Ibid, 7.
22 Ibid, 6.
23 Ibid.
24 Secretariat for Chinese Affairs to Mr H.K. Chan (A.S.C.A). MEMO: Water Supply in Squatter Area, 18 October 1967 (File: HKRS 742-15-18).
25 Guterres, Halima. “Walled City Dwellers not so Badly Off” South China Morning Post, 4 January 1976. (File: HKRS 545-1-512).