Kowloon Walled City Once Was the Most Densely Packed Place on Earth

By: Dave Roos  | 

Kowloon Walled City,
Kowloon Walled City, Hong Kong in 1991. It was pulled down in 1994. Staff Photographer/South China Morning Post via Getty Images

Most visitors to Hong Kong in the 1970s or 1980s only saw the fabled Kowloon Walled City from the air as their 747 performed a hair-raising 45-degree banking turn on its approach to Kai Tak Airport. As overcrowded and haphazard as much of Hong Kong seemed in those days, Kowloon Walled City, as viewed from above, stood out starkly as a claustrophobic island of densely constructed chaos.

On the ground, Kowloon Walled City's reputation as a lawless opium den run by gangs kept most tourists away, but for locals and the rare gutsy outsider who ventured in, they found an otherworldly urban enclave buzzing with life.

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The Most Densely Populated City on Earth

At its peak, an estimated 50,000 people lived in Kowloon Walled City confined to an area covering one-hundredth of a square mile (0.026 square kilometer). That made Kowloon Walled City the most densely populated city on Earth with the equivalent of 1.9 million residents per square kilometer compared to Hong Kong's overall density of just 6,700 residents per square kilometer.

Known to locals as Hak Nam, the "City of Darkness," Kowloon Walled City partly deserved its dark reputation. At street level, no sunlight penetrated the narrow, snaking passageways lined with dripping, makeshift plumbing lines and dangling bundles of electrical cables. And gangs like the infamous Triads did operate opium dens and prostitution rings in the shadows, both literal and legal.

But according to those who actually knew Kowloon Walled City, the teetering high-rises were also home to a tight-knit community of hardworking families, countless cottage industries, kindergarten classrooms, rooftop pigeon races and some of Hong Kong's best fish ball soup.

We spoke with Fiona Hawthorne, a London-based artist who spent eight years of her childhood in Hong Kong and returned in her adventurous 20s to sketch life inside Kowloon Walled City. Her drawings and memories of the now-demolished city are the subject of two books, "Drawing on the Inside: Kowloon Walled City 1985" and a children's book called "The Extraordinary Amazing Incredible Unbelievable Walled City of Kowloon."

illustration of life in Kowloon Walled City
Fiona Hawthorne illustrated this image of life in Kowloon Walled City.
(c) Fiona Hawthorne 2021

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A Walled Fortress Becomes a Squatters' Paradise

First, an abbreviated history. In 1842, after losing the first Opium War, China ceded a portion of Hong Kong to the British, but built a walled fortress across the Kowloon Bay to keep a close eye on the enemy colony. The Chinese fort, measuring only 700 feet long and 400 feet wide (213 meters by 122 meters), was called Kowloon Walled City.

Suffering another loss in the second Opium War in 1860, China was forced to give up all of Hong Kong to the British, but refused to hand over the symbolically important speck of land within Kowloon Walled City. When the two sides signed an 1898 treaty giving the British control of Hong Kong for 99 years, the Chinese insisted on maintaining control of just one place — you guessed it, Kowloon Walled City.

Abandoned by the Chinese military, Kowloon Walled City became a magnet for refugees and squatters in the early 20th century. During World War II, the occupying Japanese tore down the city's walls for material to build the nearby Kai Tak Airport. After the war, when the British regained control of Hong Kong, the government tried in vain to clear out the squatters inside Kowloon Walled City, which numbered several thousand, but was met with resistance and even rioting.

The uncertain legal status of Kowloon Walled City — not technically part of British Hong Kong, but ignored by mainland China — made it a squatters' paradise. In the 1950s and '60s, there was a construction boom inside Kowloon Walled City with buildings rising within the footprint of the old fortress. Wood dwellings were sandwiched between brick and concrete apartments like a game of Jenga, stacked higher and higher until a maximum limit of 14 stories was enforced to prevent landing airplanes from scraping their wings on rooftop TV antennas.

By the time Hawthorne and her family arrived in Hong Kong from Northern Ireland in 1970, Kowloon Walled City was a solid block of buildings that once began as individual structures but had evolved organically into a single, labyrinthine megastructure with tens of thousands of residents.

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Life Inside Kowloon Walled City

Hawthorne had heard of Kowloon Walled City as a child in Hong Kong — mostly about how dangerous it was — but didn't step inside the imposing city until she was an 18-year-old art student in London.

In the early 1980s, young people could get paid gigs as couriers on international flights, and Hawthorne jumped at the chance to fly back to Hong Kong. A friend there knew Jackie Pullinger, a Christian missionary working with drug addicts in Kowloon Walled City and invited Hawthorne to see the "City of Darkness" for herself.

"As soon as I walked in, I just knew I had to draw it," says Hawthorne. "I found it visually so compelling and unlike anything I'd ever seen."

Hawthorne admits that architecturally, Kowloon Walled City is literally "dark," with apartment buildings leaning against each other and blocking light from the "streets" below, which are more like narrow, crooked lanes.

"There was no built-in plumbing or electricity, so you have these 'Blade Runner'-style pipes and tubes and electric cables running in all directions, water dripping from air conditioners and clothes hanging out to dry," says Hawthorne. "A lot of Hong Kong had a crowded, chaotic feel to it back in the day, but Kowloon Walled City was all of that to the extreme."

But within those claustrophobic confines was a vibrant neighborhood. Street stalls hawked dim sum, fish ball soup and roasted meats. Machinery clanked and hummed from apartment-sized factories specializing in metal fabrication or molded plastic doll parts. Unlicensed doctors and dentists set up shop beside cafes and brothels. And up on the rooftops was another world entirely, a patchwork of gardens and garbage dumps where children played among a forest of TV antennas.

boy flies a kite in Kowloong
A boy flies a kite among the TV aerials on the rooftops of buildings in Kowloon Walled City, Hong Kong circa 1979.
Nik Wheeler/Corbis via Getty Images

That first quick visit left Hawthorne hungry to experience more of life inside Kowloon Walled City. Two years later, she won a scholarship from a local TV station to spend three months in Kowloon Walled City drawing and even filming with a bulky 1980s-style VHS camera.

During those three months, Hawthorne lived outside of Kowloon Walled City, but spent most days inside sketching the portraits and street scenes now featured in her books. A young man named Sam, who worked with Jackie Pullinger, was Hawthorne's unofficial guide, taking her inside factories and introducing her to local families. Even with her limited Cantonese, Hawthorne felt welcomed and never witnessed a hint of the criminal activities and violence for which Kowloon was notorious.

"It was considered a 'no go' area run by the Triads full of crime and danger," says Hawthorne. "There are endless salacious stories about Kowloon Walled City, which seem to have increased now that it's gone. I find that frustrating, because my experience there was very different."

Decades later, disappointed by the negative legacy of Kowloon Walled City, Hawthorne sought a way to use her drawings to "bring back the joy" that she felt among the families who live there and the children who played there. That was the genesis of her children's book about Kowloon Walled City.

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The Walled City Is Now a Park

In 1987, just two years after Hawthorne's visit, Hong Kong authorities announced that Kowloon Walled City would be demolished and turned into a public park. Residents protested, but as China prepared to regain sovereignty of Hong Kong, government officials performed a census of Kowloon's residents and provided them with money and resources for relocation. In 1993, the wrecking balls started reducing the once-infamous Walled City to rubble. The demolition was completed in 1994.

Today, if you visit Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong, you'll find a sprawling green space filled with pagodas and ponds, and a table-size scale model of what once was the most densely populated spot on the planet. Hawthorne would be disappointed that the Hong Kong Tourist Board describes the site as "a beautiful garden featuring preserved artefacts from the former Kowloon Walled City — a Chinese garrison which became a lawless enclave for fugitives and criminal gangs through the 20th century."

Remnants of the South Gate of Kowloon Walled City, Kowloon City, Kowloon
The remnants of the South Gate of Kowloon Walled City, are now part of Kowloon City Park in Hong Kong.
Mk2010/Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0

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