For the Season Finale of the first season of 80 Days, we’re going to do something a little different and look at a place that no longer exists: Kowloon Walled City. Once the most densely populated place in the planet, this unique, untamable settlement existed in Hong Kong, growing up from a military settlement which was originally built to demarcate the border between the British and Chinese controlled areas in the territory. It grew in size and scope to become a tightly-packed labyrinth of illegal activity and squalor, unregulated by either the Chinese or British governments. At its peak, over 30,000 people lived in the Walled City, resulting in a population density of approximately 1,255,000 inhabitants per square kilometre (3,250,000/sq mi). It was demolished in 1994, shortly before China retook control of Hong Kong, but has since become a cultural touchstone, a fascinating example of what humanity can become when allowed to run unchecked. Your hosts are Luke Kelly @thelukejkelly, Mark Boyle @markboyle86 and Joe Byrne@anbeirneach, in Hong Kong, the UK and Switzerland, respectively. (Theme music byThomas O’Boyle)
Some things you might like to know more about:
- The name Kowloon, given to the peninsula north of Hong Kong Island, comes from the Cantonese pronunciation of 九龍, Chinese for “Nine Dragons” (gau lung, or in Madarin Jiǔ lóng); the name was given to it by the last Song Emporer, the 8-year-old Bing (趙昺), who saw the 8 mountains surrounding the place as “dragons”. A clever courtier pointed out that the Emperor was also a “dragon”, and hence there were 9. The story is told here in HK Magazine
- We drew a few quotes and a lot of insight from Elizabeth Sinn’s article “Kowloon Walled City: Its Origins and Early History” (Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1987, vol 27, p 30); for a more detailed account of this era, this article is recommended reading
- When the Fortified City was built in 1846, giant stone name plaques decorated the main gate to the city (reading 九龍寨城, translated as Kowloon Walled City); they were excavated and can still be seen on the site today
- The Opium Wars led to dramatic changes in this region of Qing China, with Hong Kong and later Kowloon falling into British hands through the Peking Convention. Read further information about the wars from Julia Lovell (Birbeck, University of London) or Encyclopaedia Britannica
- Mark came across a cannon from the ship Nemesis (the British East India Company’s first iron-clad warship) in the gardens of Windsor Castle; it is pictured below. More on the Nemesis from Victorian Web.
- There is a very valuable article to understand the decades leading up to the demolition of the Walled City in the South China Morning Post: “How Kowloon Walled City survived attempts to knock it down for nearly a century” (30 August 2012, Fionualla McHugh)
- In his day job, Luke wrote an article (“Kowloon Walled City: Finding Truth in the ‘City of Darkness“, DigitalRev, July 2016) interviewing photographer Greg Girard about his collection of photographs from inside the Walled City before its demolition (the article includes some of these striking images). Girard and Ian Lambot published these photos in a book called City of Darkness, which has a website full of information and first-hand interviews with people who lived there and also some police reports; a write-up in the British Journal of Photography also features some of the photos, as does the Daily Mail
- Listen to 99 Percent Invisible‘s podcast episode all about the Walled City from an architecture and design point of view, in particular for their descriptions of its enduring impact in popular culture and the Tin Hau Temple
- We mentioned an upcoming computer game where you can explore a world based on the Walled City as a cat
- The Wall Street Journal made a documentary called “City of Imagination: Kowloon Walled City 20 Years Later” (available on YouTube); it features interviews with some former residents
- The music featured in this episode was a clip from Cantonese traditional song Agony in Autumn (妆台秋思) and a recording made by Joe at the nearby Chi Lin Nunnery in 2015
- Recently, Luke visited the Kowloon Walled City Park, which now stands on the site where the City was before demolition; he took some photos while he was there
- Finally, here is some handheld camera footage by Rob Frost from the early 1990s inside the City:
We hope you enjoyed listening to Season 1. We’ll be taking a break for a couple of months to get production of Season 2 under way, but you may hear from us occasionally during the break. If you’ve been entertained by what you heard, then let us know – leave a review on iTunes (or wherever you listen), or get in touch on Facebook or Twitter. We also really welcome feedback about places we’ve explored and recommendations for where we should go next season.