City of Darkness: Revisited


A policeman makes notes  on the 11th floor landing of an apartment block.
A policeman makes notes on the 11th floor landing of an apartment block.

Even today, more than 20 years after the Walled City was demolished, the myth that the police never entered the Walled City persists. Many people, it seems, are drawn to the idea of a community that exists totally beyond the reach of the law. Imagination takes over and a romanticised vision quickly evolves that is difficult to dispel. A story that evokes a shiver of excitement or disbelief, however outlandish, will always outdo mundane reality.

This is certainly true of the Walled City, even though the reality could hardly be more different. The police were, in fact, patrolling in the City from the beginning, and while it is true that there was a considerable amount of illegal activity there during the 1950s, after that time the City was little different to many other parts of working class Hong Kong. Here below are the recollections of a police officer with several years experience of patrolling the City. He spoke to us in 1990, without authorisation, and asked that we not identify him, so the accompanying photographs are of other police patrols met by chance in the City.

“I joined the Police seven years ago. I was first stationed in Tai Kok Tsui, then I became a Blue Beret and was transferred to Kowloon City. The Walled City used to come under the Mobile Police Unit assigned to the area, but now it’s under the Task Force. It was a sensitive area, of course, but it’s been a long time since the City was out of bounds.

I was posted to City in 1985, and have patrolled there now for five years. I adapted to the place quickly. I was older and quite used to having contact with the sort of people you come across inside. In fact, police work in the City was similar to our work elsewhere. There used to be a rule that two or more policemen would have to go on patrol together, and there had to be memo from the Regional Command Centre stating the names of those going in, but now that’s changed and any policeman can go it alone.

When the Sai Tau Tsuen settlement next to the City was being demolished, in 1985, there were just six of us responsible for the Walled City area – two people on each of the three beats a day. Now, with the clearance under way, there are more. When we went on patrol, we had to sign 11 report books, while on a normal beat outside the City you’d sign just two or three.

When I first took up my assignment, the City was still thriving and everything was very much out in the open. It’s become so quiet these days! There were prostitutes soliciting on the streets; they usually had their regular spots. There were child prostitutes as well. Now only the older ones are left. Yes, there were quite a few goings-on then that are probably best left untold. For example, a colleague arrested some men for possession of bombs brought in from China; no one seems to have heard anything about this!

Policemen patrol one of the cleaner ground-floor alleys.
Policemen patrol one of the cleaner ground-floor alleys.

The City has never been that much different from other areas, though. In some ways it’s actually quieter and less sophisticated. One special feature about the place is that roof-tops on the buildings are connected to one another, so you can just ‘fly’ here and there! The unusual conditions mean that there are few car thefts of course, but there are more burglaries and robberies. We are aware of the black spots for crime and patrol them more often. The incidence of theft is high; the most troublesome time to be on shift is between 3pm and 11. There are regularly three or four reports of theft during that shift.

At one time there was also a lot of drugs – all completely open again, both in terms of selling and manufacturing. Packets were sold in the streets. I believe there’s still some of that going on. As policemen, we can’t just barge into people’s premises, but we pass on information that we hear and leave it to the Narcotics Bureau to sort out. They operate there as well.

There used to be close contact between the police and people inside the City, including those who had special connections. The younger policemen nowadays don’t have much of a clue about this. The people who hold the power in the Walled City are the Chiu Chows. There was this one guy in particular, Chan Sup, the ‘big brother’ of the Sun Yee On Triad. He died recently and there have since been lots of fights between those carving up his interests. I quite respected Chan; we knew each other and he was kind of loyal to his friends and those he knew well.

Things used to operate differently in those days. When a problem needed sorting out, we asked for the ‘big brother’ and he would promise to do something to fix the matter. Working with some of the criminal elements in the City, we could usually settle quite a few problems. Occasionally we didn’t even need to go into the City to get things done. Take, for example, some of our drug-busting. Whenever it became necessary, we’d inform people inside that things needed to be done and the police would get their guy. At other times, we’d feel quite helpless. Methods that worked outside the City might not always apply inside.

You could say that some Triad groups had their origins inside the Walled City – groups like the Sun Yee On and 14K. It’s true also that some policemen were on the take, but since the setting up of the ICAC [Independent Commission Against Corruption] that’s pretty much stopped. The City had fabulous pieces of what we call ‘fat pork’ and, in the past, the police did things very differently. They had their own groups and factions that were responsible for the area. There might still be a little of it going on. I can’t tell for sure.

We used to find quite a few illegal immigrants working in the factories. Like the criminals, they tried to claim the Walled City was Chinese territory and that they were immune from arrest. At times, the factory owners themselves informed us of such immigrants so as to avoid paying them. That’s human nature, I suppose!

It took 36 hours for Government officials to register all the residents and housing units following the announcement of the clearance. Actually, on the evening after the announcement, dozens of lorries brought furniture and other things back to the City and some people tried to offer us a pay-off to testify that they had been a resident for a certain length of time! But by then the City had been sealed off.

How did I like working in the Walled City? I have to admit I enjoyed my time there – I got to see and understand things you don’t find elsewhere in Hong Kong, like opium dens with people lying on the floor smoking. I saw them but couldn’t do anything. I also got on well with the residents – I even played mahjong with them sometimes.”

Contrary to popular belief, the City has been patrolled since the early 1950s.
Contrary to popular belief, the City has been patrolled since the early 1950s.

The patrols traversed every part of the City, even the rooftops.
The patrols traversed every part of the City, even the rooftops.