City of Darkness: Revisited


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With the original edition now out of print and unlikely to be resurrected (apart possibly from a specially produced limited edition, but more on that elsewhere), there was a danger that Peter Popham’s beautifully elegiac introduction to that edition might disappear. This would be a shame as it is, perhaps, the best written description of what it was like to encounter and walk through the Walled City in its heyday. A long-time resident of Japan with a strong interest in the built environment, his early feature articles appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines around the world, while his interest in the genesis of Japan’s urban architecture culminated in his book ‘Tokyo: City at the End of the World’ (Kodansha, 1985). For the past 25 years he has been a feature writer and foreign correspondent without portfolio at the The Independent newspaper in the UK.

Peter has kindly agreed to write the introduction for the new edition, which no doubt will appear on this website in due course, but without further ado here is his introduction from the original edition.

“Hak Nam, City of Darkness, the old Walled City of Kowloon has come down. Many people in Hong Kong, both Chinese and foreign, for whom it was never more than a disgusting rumour, believed it went years ago. Not so. Almost to the end it retained its seedy magnificence. It had never looked more impudent, more desperate, more evil to some eyes, more weirdly beautiful to others.

For many years its limits were blurred by a dense undergrowth of squatters’ shacks that spread outward from it. As the first step towards clearing the whole site, these were swept away and replaced on two of the City’s four sides by a dusty park where the landscaping is only now taking hold. The City now reared up abruptly from the bare ground, 10, 12 and in some places as many as 14 storeys high, and there was no mistaking it: six-and-a-half acres of solid building, home to some 33,000 people, not the largest, perhaps, but certainly one of the densest urban slums in the world. It was also, arguably, the closest thing to a truly self-regulating, self-sufficient, self-determining modern city that has ever been built.

The City in its final, massive high-rise form went back barely 20 years. In origin, however, the magistrate’s fort and the neighbouring Kowloon City were much the oldest parts of Hong Kong, and one of the few areas in Kowloon populated when the British first arrived in 1841 to claim Hong Kong Island and the southern-most tip of the Kowloon Peninsula for their own. It was a proper Chinese town, laid out with painstaking attention to eternal principles. The Chinese believed that a town should face south and overlook water, with hills and mountains protecting its rear, and in these terms the City was very happily placed, with the great Lion Rock just to the north of it and Kowloon Bay immediately to the south.

What the geomantic sages could not control were the infringements of the barbarians. When the British sought to expand their hold on Hong Kong in 1898, with a 99-year lease covering the whole of Kowloon Peninsula and all the nearby islands, most of Kowloon City was subsumed under the new jurisdiction. Under the terms of the lease, however, it was agreed that the small, walled magistrates’ fort to the north of the town, the Walled City, would remain Chinese territory. The situation was far from ideal and a year later, in 1899, the British government issued an Order-in-Council announcing that British jurisdiction was to be extended over the Walled City as well.

But the Order-in Council remained unilateral, and a diplomatic stalemate ensued which was only ended in 1987 in discussions following the Thatcher-Deng agreement on the colony’s future. Throughout the previous 90 years of British rule, the Walled City had remained an anomaly: within British domain, yet outside British control. The Chinese officials had left for good in 1899, but whenever the colonial authorities tried to impose their will, the remaining residents threatened to turn the attempt into a diplomatic incident. And so it remained until the Second World War, when the invading Japanese delivered the first body blow, tearing down the huge granite walls and using them to extend Kai Tak Airport in the shallows of nearby Kowloon Bay. The former harmony was destroyed: the creation of the airport had driven away the Yin spirit provided by the water and Kowloon City and its magistrate’s fort was largely abandoned.

The City may have effectively ceased to exist, but the area’s status as a diplomatic black hole was not forgotten, and in the chaos of the War’s aftermath it proved the perfect place of asylum for many of the hundred thousands of refugees pouring south to escape famine, civil war and political persecution as the Communists gained control in China. Surrounded now only by walls of political inhibition, the City became the place where they could get their breath back; where they could live as Chinese among other Chinese, untaxed, uncounted and untormented by governments of any kind.

And so, the Walled City became that rarest of things, a working model of an anarchist society. Inevitably, it bred all the vices that the enemies of anarchism denounce. Crime flourished and the Triads made the place their stronghold, operating brothels and opium ‘divans’ and gambling dens. Undoubtedly, these Triad few (and it always was a small proportion) kept the majority of residents in a state of fear and subjection, which is why for many years outsiders trying to penetrate were given the coldest of shoulders.

But for most, the main priority was survival and their needs were little different from anyone else’s: a life without interference with water, light, food and space. Of these water was the most indispensable and in the early years the only way to get it was to go down. And so that’s what they did, sinking some 70 wells in and around the City, to a depth of some 300 feet. Electric pumps shot the water up to tanks on the rooftops from where it descended via an ad hoc forest of narrow pipes and connections to the homes of subscribers. Only in the last 20 years were Government stand-pipes installed around the City to provide safe drinking water.

To run the pumps and to light up the City’s many alleys required electricity and initially this challenge was tackled in a similarly robust fashion: it was stolen from the mains, often by Hongkong Electric employees who lived within the City boundaries. Only in the late 1970s, after a serious fire (much the most terrifying hazard in the City), were the authorities allowed in with their meters.

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Thus was the substructure of urban life roughly but workably banged into shape. And out of all the chaos and apparent lack of real organisation, a sort of society began to flourish. Soon, there were factories of every description, small shops and even schools and kindergartens, some of them run by organisations such as the Salvation Army. Medical and dental care were no problem, as many of the residents were doctors and dentists with Chinese qualifications and years of experience, but lacking the expensive licences required to practice in the rest of the Colony. They set up their clinics on the edges of the City and charged their patients a fraction of what they would pay elsewhere.

For the moments of relief from toil, there were many restaurants on the City’s fringes and embedded deep in its heart were a temple and a ‘yamen’, relics of the City’s distant past. And so life went on. Every afternoon the alleys were alive with the throb of hidden machinery and the clacking of mahjong tiles, while up on the roof, in cages not much smaller than some of the City’s homes, cooed hundreds of racing pigeons, joined there by children playing after school.

And here, in this richness and diversity, lies what was truly fascinating about the City. For all its physical shortcomings, and there were many, its residents had succeeded in creating a true community. For anyone who has wandered, enchanted and appalled, through the working-class back streets of Hong Kong or Macau, the photographs here will readily evoke the feel – and more importantly the smell – of the interior of the Walled City. But no images can do full justice to the experience of having been there. There were no thoroughfares and, except for a few bicycles, no vehicles – only hundreds of alleys and lanes, each different. From the innocuous, neutral exterior you plunged in. The space was often no more than four feet wide. Immediately it dipped and twisted, the safe world outside vanished, and the Walled City swallowed you up.

It was dark and incredibly dank. It was impossible to stand upright because the roofs of the alleys were lined with a confusion of plastic pipes carrying water, many of them dripping. Immediately you were in, the symphony of smells commenced: the damp, first of all and underlying all the others, then, as you progressed, of incense burning outside the homes, of charcoal and sweet-and-sour cooking, of raw and probably rotting fish, of burning plastic from a factory, of some sort of polish, of incense again and mildew.

The light was dingy at best, deep green; there was the endless spatter of water leaking on to stone. One particularly ghastly little ‘ginnel’ – spongily wet underfoot, a big rat hopping off – brought you to a gate of the Tin Hau temple. Its courtyard had been shielded from the rubbish routinely heaved out of upstairs windows by wire netting which, as a result, was liberally spotted with bits of ancient filth, through which a little daylight occasionally filtered down, just like the light that dapples through leaves in a forest.

All this intensity of random human effort and activity, vice and sloth and industry, exempted from all the control we take for granted, resulted in an environment as richly varied and as sensual as anything in a tropical rainforest. The only drawback was that it might be toxic. And then, there were the endless flights of stairs. Who would have been a postman in such a place? Yet there was an official postal service, and because the alleys and blocks often had no names or numbers, the postmen had devised their own system, roughly daubing complicated numbers at alley corners and building entrances to guide them.

You kept climbing and gradually it got a little better. The smells were diluted. Something like oxygen made its presence felt. The light brightened and finally you emerged at roof level, the only part of the Walled City where there was any space to spare. From there the awesome size of the place, which was essentially a single lump of building, became apparent.

The blocks were built at different times, of different heights and materials. Some were quite sophisticated: one of the largest, for example, was a copy of an early public housing block, ‘designed’ by housing authority architects in their spare time. Some had home-made annexes of brick or iron or plastic fastened on to the roofs, but all were jammed up flush against each other, so that an agile cat could circle the place at roof level without difficulty. The roof had various functions. One of the municipal services the Walled City never really got to grips with was rubbish collection. Most organic waste was taken away, but the inorganic – old television sets, broken furniture, worn-out clothes and the like – was lugged up to the roof and abandoned. In among these unaesthetic piles of junk, village life continued.

Washing was strung up between the thousand television aerials. Small children played something like hopscotch under the eyes of old ladies. Pigeons cooed sonorously. And every 10 minutes or so another jet descended on Kai Tak Airport – heading straight for the Walled City and, skimming so low, it was surprising that it did not make its final descent festooned in laundry.

What fascinates about the Walled City is that, for all its shortcomings, its builders and residents succeeded in creating what modern architects, with all their resources of money and expertise, have failed to: the city as ‘organic megstructure’, not set rigidly for a lifetime but continually responsive to the changing requirement of its users, fulfilling every need from water supply to religion, yet providing also the warmth and intimacy of a single huge household.

As the sun finally sets on this vast slum, there is perhaps cause enough to don rose-tinted spectacles and praise it.”

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