Sunday, May 6, 2012

Once Upon a Time in Kowloon

We've all seen the looming, oppressive metro-jungle that symbolizes oppression, poverty, hopelessness, and survival. In addition it makes a setting for a neat story. Once upon a time this place did exist in Hong Kong. It was called Kowloon or just " The Walled City." You may have seen it in 1988, when Jean Claude Van Damme starred in Bloodsport or again in 1993, when Jackie Chan made Crime Story

Kowloon began way back in the Song Dynasty as an outpost that aided the salt trade. When the British took over the region in the early 19th century the outpost became a fort. At first the city remained in Chinese hands although the British raided the city looking for resistance fighters in 1899. After that the British mostly left the city alone save for church missionaries and curious Britons who viewed Kowloon as suburbanites view a nature preserve. Kowloon was then taken over by the Japanese in World War II until their surrender in 1945. After at refugees poured into the city and come 1947, the population had reached about 2,000 people (squatters actually). Again, the British left it alone and it wasn't until 1959, that the Hong Kong authorities accepted responsibility for the city. The population expanded again from the 1950s to the 1970s however the city was ruled by the Triads criminal gangs. The Triads opened many brothels, opium dens, and the city was a haven for criminals. In the early 1970s increased police attention and raids lowered the crime rate. After that while criminals and drug addicts were prevalent the majority of the people were able to live their lives in peaceful squalor. Some businesses managed to operate as well as numerous unlicensed doctors and dentists without the burden of government regulation as well as the threat of prosecution. In 1993, the government demolished the city (after an arduous eviction process). The city is now a park. Tourists now walk where Triads once ruled, where junkies got high, where prostitutes sold their bodies, where children played, and where people struggled day to day. Now the once walled city can be visited via photographs, via video, and via books such as City of Darkness by Greg Girard with Ian Lambot
Here are some pictures of Kowloon as it was.

The urban jungle at dusk.

A mailman forced to deliver mail here.

Children play on the roof tops.

Displeased with the government's "compensation" while evicting the people of Kowloon.

Smoking while handling meat. Can't be sanitary but without regulation who cares!

Running his business from home.

The home life in Kowloon.

A man and his cats in his store.

I know a complex of businesses that were modeled after this.

TV antennas strewn along the rooftops.

Part of the park as it is today.
News article featuring Girard and Lambot's work.
Wikipedia article here.