City of Darkness: Revisited




Thoughts of producing an all-new edition of our book about life in Kowloon Walled City first emerged towards the end of 2011. It has been a source of constant surprise to us that interest in the Walled City has continued to flourish over the years. Books of this kind appear, sometimes to considerable acclaim, but inevitably time moves on and even the best may slip out of print, often within a few years.

But not so City of Darkness. When it was first published in 1993, in a small print run of 1800, we had no idea whether it would sell. We hoped to cover our production costs, but for both of us the book had very much been a labour of love we were determined to publish at whatever the cost. Many of our Western friends were convinced it would sell, but among our Chinese friends the signs were far more equivocal. Just why would you make a book about such a bad place, they would ask.

And certainly in those first few years, our main sales base was Western residents and tourists in Hong Kong, backed by a loyal, though by no means large, band of interested designers and architects worldwide, who had either heard of the place or seen photographs of it in some magazine or other. Indeed, sending pictures out to newspapers and magazines was just about our only attempt at publicity. It is difficult to imagine now, but this was a world before the World Wide Web.

Happily, interest proved great enough to warrant a reprint after 18 months or so (another modest run of around 3000), which continued to sell in dwindling numbers for the next or year or so. And that, we thought, was that. Ian moved back to the UK in the interim, but on a return visit to Hong Kong at the end of 1998 – after the territory’s handover to China – he was surprised by the number of people approaching him to ask what had become of the book and whether they could buy a copy.

Intriguingly, many of those asking were Chinese friends and acquaintances whose interest in the Walled City, now that it no longer existed, had taken a new and unexpected turn. Thinking another reprint might be worthwhile, we began putting out feelers, in particular around Hong Kong’s architectural community which Ian knew well. And in a very short space of time we had elicited enough orders to ensure that a new printing – now in a softback edition with a cover designed by Evelyn Hwang, a good friend of Greg’s – would at the very least pay for itself.


Evelyn Hwang’s cover for the softback edition of the original book.


And so, in February 1999, another 1800 copies went out to bookshops, after which the book remained in print until the end of 2012. Responding to the vagaries of the worldwide economy, sales fluctuated over the years, sometimes rising to more than 100 a month and at others falling to below 500 a year, to the point that we thought the book might have run its course. But then the orders would pick up again, and in recent years they have achieved not just earlier levels but have seen a noticeable rise in interest. Indeed, the final reprint in late 2011 surprised us by selling out far more quickly than we were expecting – hence, in part, the longer than intended break before the arrival of the new edition.

Realising that interest in the Walled City was only continuing to grow (as even a cursory search on the internet will attest) and aware that the 20th anniversary of both the City’s demolition and the original book’s publication was just over horizon, in 2013, the thought took hold that perhaps it was time to return to the Walled City and produce an entirely new edition, bringing the story up to date and filling in the gaps.

As explained elsewhere, the original edition, partly out of consideration for residents’ feelings and partly owing to lack of funds, deliberately concentrated on the lives of those living and working there. Contrary to popular belief, certainly the belief of most Hong Kong residents, Triad activity in the Walled City at that time was negligible – actually less than in some other parts of Hong Kong – but most residents were still looked down upon. The Triad connection was a highly sensitive subject among many of those we met and we chose not to confuse the issue by including extensive accounts of Triad activity or drug use.

Not that this would have been easy. Obtaining reliable facts and figures in the early 1990s proved to be very difficult. The police force had been completely overhauled after the introduction of the Independent Commission Against Corruption in 1974, but the endemic corruption that had infiltrated the force throughout the 1960s and early ’70s was not something people were willing to talk about. And it was assumed that any story about the Walled City was bound to dwell on that. Indeed, as we have since found out, it does to this day.





The new edition will include extended new sections on the history of the Triads in the City, the City’s peculiar legal status, its architecture, and how it is has become part of popular culture.


And finding out about the political situation was no easier. By its very nature the Civil Service is a secretive organisation and the administration of the City had long been a particularly thorny issue. The whole issue of the negotiations with the Chinese government that led to the City’s clearance and demolition was out of bounds, and the 20 years rule meant that most government papers that might have offered a few clues were unavailable as well, and would remain so for the foreseeable future.

Surprisingly, too, despite Ian’s architectural background, the story of the City’s architectural development also seemed secondary to the story of those that lived and worked there. It struck us it would have muddied the waters, with the danger that the book would be seen as a purely architectural one, which was not our intention at all. Happily, a good deal has changed in the past 20 years. A vast amount of new material has come to light and people on all sides, both former residents and those who were responsible for maintaining a degree of authority in the City were happy to talk.

And so, as well as many of the photographs and interviews found in the original edition, the new book will include several new sections: on the City’s architecture, how it grew and evolved over time, and on the City’s peculiar legal status under two jurisdictions but effectively administered by neither, and how this unique situation coloured every stage of the City’s development. Another essay will explore the myths and realities of the Triad’s activities there, and how the police tried their best to keep up with each new development. Contrary to one of the City’s most enduring myths, the police conducted daily foot patrols within the City virtually from day one – and usually in pairs, not in groups of 40 or more as another persistent myth would have us believe.

Finally, other essays will explore how perceptions of the Walled City have changed over time, from being shunned by most Hong Kong residents during its lifetime to now being seen, almost with pride, as part of the territory’s rich cultural heritage – while internationally it has been appropriated by numerous cultural and popular commentators as a tabula rasa onto which they can layer any number of meanings and arguments. The Walled City’s rich history just continues to grow.

The final design of the book is now coming together and the book will be going to print in April, with phased publication dates over the summer to allow for shipping and distribution to different parts of the world. Appropriately, the book will first appear in Hong Kong towards the end of May with further launches in Europe and the USA following in early July. It will be possible to pre-order books at a reduced rate Via a Kickstrater campaign which is due to be launched soon. Go to the ‘ORDER BOOK’ section for further information.



A sample spread from the new edition.