The Hong Kong government had attempted to clear and demolish all or parts of the Walled City in 1947 and again in 1963, but had been rebuffed both times – on the latter occasion with a formal response of disapproval from China who had made it abundantly clear that their policy with regards the City was unlikely to change in the near future.
Up until that point, the Hong Kong authorities’ approach had largely been one of minimal involvement, to the point of making life for the residents there as difficult as possible. The police made regular patrols and, following a murder in the City in 1959 that forced a change of policy, arrested and prosecuted criminals caught there – without, it should be noted, a word of protest from the Chinese government – but all other services were withheld or severely restricted.
Refuse wasn’t collected and drainage was virtually non-existent. Following the huge fire at the Shek Kip Mei squatter settlement on Christmas Day 1953, that left 53,000 homeless, the electricity company was allowed access to reduce the reliance on kerosene for cooking and lighting, but the service remained severely under-powered due to a lack of sub-stations in the area. Fresh drinking water was only available from a handful of standpipes, all located outside the City itself.
As the City grew, however, and the population rose to an estimated 20,000 by the end of the 1960s, it became clear that such an approach was unsustainable and from the mid-’60s onwards the Hong Kong authorities – working in association with the recently establish Kai Fong Residents Association – began operating in the City, tentatively at first but soon with an increasing confidence. An official government report from 1969 gives a clear account of the government’s involvement at that time:
Police activity in the Walled City is the same as everywhere else except that certain licensing laws are not enforced. This is not satisfactory from the Police point of view but a change of approach may not be justified and, in any case, crime and vice are controlled. It is not considered that Police policy in the Walled City has any effect on the Police task elsewhere.
Normal action is taken regarding offences discovered as a result of fire, and legislation regarding the storage of dangerous goods is enforced. The Department takes all the normal measures to put fires out but does not carry out preventative measures. The most significant change since the 1960 recommendations has been the development of the Walled City from a fairly typical squatter are to one containing a considerable number of multi-storey buildings. Most of these are of sub-standard construction and lack any form of fire protection. The lack of access roads makes it impossible to get fire appliances close to many of the buildings.
The USD provides daily collection and removal of refuse and of nightsoil, maintenance of public latrines, removal of the dead, pest control, daily chlorination of the wells, investigation of infectious diseases. No food premises are licensed and no health legislation enforced. Residents are generally co-operative but the area nonetheless remains a potential focus of diseases whilst it lacks proper paved surfaces, drainage, piped water supply, ventilation and open space.
The Labour Department enforces legislation regarding the employment of women and young persons and undertakes periodical surveys of factories and industrial premises. Factories are tolerated which would not be allowed elsewhere. Closure orders have been made where there is a serious fire hazard but none have been enforced in recent years.
The Education Department neither registers nor inspects regularly schools located within the Walled City, but it is prepared to act in any case where a blatant disregard for the safety of schoolchildren is brought to light. Sufficient primary school places exist in the immediate vicinity of Kowloon Walled City for children living within and without the Walled City.
The Resettlement Department does not conduct clearance operations within the Walled City and was instructed in July 1967 to suspend demolition of structures in the ‘sensitive zone’.
The PWD’s Buildings Ordinance Office do not take action against illegal structures or extensions to existing buildings. Observations have shown that the methods of construction of many new buildings in the Walled City are rudimentary and quite unsafe (but) to exercise supervision over buildings would imply Government approval of that which is illegal.
The Medical & Health Department do not take action against the unregistered doctors or dentists who operate within the Walled City and are of the opinion that these should continue to be tolerated except in blatant cases involving risk to life.