I have a confession to make. On my very first visit to Kowloon Walled City Park, I thought it was nothing more than a man-made garden. However beautiful it may be, it felt fake and commercial. Compared to the streets across, where old buildings and memories of the old Kai Tak Airport remain, Kowloon Walled City Park did not seem to be a place that was worth spending time on.
It was not a well-planned trip as I had no idea what to expect and hence did not know what to look out for. As ignorant as I could be, I knew absolutely nothing about the history on Kowloon Walled City, apart from the fact that it used to be a Chinese Fort, following British’s occupation of Hong Kong Island.
I took a walk around the park and saw a few historical remnants, which include the foundation of the former wall, foundations of the South and East gates, a drainage ditch and old cannons. I wondered briefly in my head if containing all these in a park was actually the Government’s best way to tell the story of Kowloon Walled City.
Then I saw a model, made to scale, which depicted the old Kowloon Walled City before it was demolised in year 1994. A few steps away was a small exhibition hall that shared on the history and daily lives of residents of the walled city.
I peered over, trying to make sense of what was in front of my eyes. So was this THE walled city? Wasn’t it supposed to be an old Chinese Fort? Why were there tall buildings? It was clear that there were big gaps in my understanding of Hong Kong’s history when I could not synchronized the flow of events with my then-knowledge of Hong Kong. I was missing a big part of Hong Kong history. What was it? To make matter worse, it was difficult, if not impossible, for me to visualize how the scenic park today used to be the place where high-rise tenements mushroomed.
The flood of questions left me perplexed. I went home hurriedly and did my research online. Plenty of articles, images and videos later, I leaned back on my chair and took a deep breath. I was in total disbelief.
The Kowloon Walled City used to be a Chinese fort which later became an enclave when Britain leased New Territories. The politically sensitive area was not governed by China nor Britain. As such, squatters grew, especially when Chinese refugees crossed the border and settled in Hong Kong. It did not take long before the walled city became one of the darkest place on earth.
By year 1987, 33,000 people live within its 6.5-acre (0.03 km2; 0.01 sq mi) borders. Some houses (if you can call them that) are only 4 squared metres. The crazily dense area meant that it was difficult for sunlight to reach most of the residents. There were also a lack of water supply and proper sewage system. Crimes were more than common, with nothing less than presence of triads, hardcore gamblers, prostitutes, drug dealers and unlicensed doctors.
Nonetheless, as it seemed, the residents built a close and peaceful community. They had a life of their own, which was very different from the rest of Hong Kong. They moved from places to places via ladders resting in between buildings or simply by crossing rooftops. There were schools, temples, dentists, restaurants, nursery, factories and production facilities. To call it a city, it could not be more appropriate.
Quite frankly, I did not know how to feel about these findings. Random thoughts went through my mind, dwelling particularly on the strong survival skills of these people. Despite poor living conditions, these people lived on. What gave them the strength? It puts me to shame, for I have been brought up in a life of comfort, taking almost every resource (natural or not) for granted.
The videos below help to put to words into perspective. The Kowloon Walled City may be gone, but the lessons it gives, are thought-provoking. They should not be forgotten. Perhaps, there should be more coverage on this piece of history, so that it makes a visit to the Kowloon Walled City Park so much more meaningful.