Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Kowloon Walled City Park

Let's visit the Kowloon Walled City Park, a small park in north-eastern Kowloon, Hong Kong. It's named after the Kowloon Walled City, a densely-populated city block that existed on the site until it was demolished in 1994. During the 1980s around 40,000 people lived there, in a thirteen-storey shanty town that had the footprint of a couple of football pitches.

The walled city was famous for its narrow alleys and its unusual political setup. In 1898 the British Empire took over Hong Kong's New Territories, but the walled city remained part of China. It was a little Chinese island within Britain's Hong Kong. The Chinese authorities pulled out after a year and the British never tried very hard to police it, so it became a magnet for ne'er-do-wells and businesses that wanted to avoid regulations. It also attracted refugees who were prepared to put up with tiny apartments and poor-quality infrastructure in exchange for cheaper rents than the rest of the Hong Kong. In the 1960s and 1970s the almost total lack of building regulations meant that it expanded upwards, leaving the lower levels shrouded in darkness.

The walled city is generally portrayed in documentaries as a sci-fi dystopia that resembled something from Judge Dredd or the Fallout games. I have no idea what it was like for the people who lived there. By the time I visited in late 2019 it was long-gone.

North-east Kowloon was originally under the flight path of Kai Tak airport, and until Kai Tak was closed in 1998 there were no high-rise buildings. The approach was such that pilots had to make a sharp right turn just before reaching Chequerboard Hill, which is slightly west of the walled city; they didn't go directly overhead, but planespotters brave enough to climb to the top of the city had a great view.

Of television antennas. Antennae. They had a great view of television antennae. Nowadays north-east Kowloon is covered in tower blocks - the former residents of the walled city had to go somewhere - so the park is a little low-rise island in a high-rise world.

The park from the north-east; many years ago there would have been a huge shanty town across the road.

The walled city of the modern popular imagination had a relatively brief history. The original late-1800s-early-1900s shanty town was demolished at the end of the 1930s, and after the Japanese beat away the British at the very end of 1941 the rubble was used to expand Kai Tak airport. In the 1950s thousands of refugees from the Communist regime moved to Hong Kong from mainland China, and in the post-war years the walled city again became a lawless, tax-free magnet for refugees, Triad gangsters, and unlicensed dentists. Mao's Communists continued to uphold China's claim on the walled city, although they didn't push the issue very hard. China's Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s sparked off another wave of refugees.

Such were the extreme living conditions that the walled city became infamous across the world as a hive of scum and villainy. This parliamentary debate from 1974, recorded in Hansard, captures some of the flavour of its reputation at the time:
"LORD KENET: ... Throughout the 6½ acres, the streets or alleys are nowhere more than 3 feet wide. Mostly they are 2 feet wide, in some places they are only 18 inches wide. This in itself is perhaps not too remarkable in an Asian slum, but what is remarkable about the Walled City of Kowloon is that the buildings standing on these 18 inch-wide alleys are 10, 11 and even 13 storeys high.
No wheeled vehicle can get in there - not a lorry, not a car or even a bicycle. Nothing can get in except a pedestrian. The alleyways are unpaved and of earth. Down the middle of each runs an open drain with the sewage running down it, because the site is on a slope; and in the sewage you see very large rats."
Lord Kenet went on to point out that the walled city was popular because average rents were one-third lower than the rest of the Hong Kong. He batted away the suggestion that rents in the rest of Hong Kong were too high, because as a British Lord the suggestion that rents should be made lower was anathema to him.

Hitomi Terasawa, you did a good job.

In 1984 the governments of Britain and China formalised the handover of Hong Kong. This sealed the walled city's fate. The British didn't want to hand over a slum and the Chinese authorities wanted nothing to do with it, so in 1991-1992 it was cleared out and in 1994 it was demolished. The people who lived there had no say in the matter. They might have resisted, but it would have been futile. The walled city wasn't large enough to sustain agriculture and even a small fire would have been disastrous.

A park was built in its place. Chris Patten officially opened it in December 1995. Did it smell? I have no idea. When I was there it didn't smell of anything. It's still hard to think of Chris Patten as a major world figure, but there you go.

When I think of the walled city I think of a maze of wonky corridors, lit by neon, but that version of the city only existed for a few decades. Until the 1960s the walled city was no more slummy than the shanty towns surrounding it; construction didn't really get out of hand until the 1970s. The Hong Kong police greatly reduced the power of the Triads in the 1970s, so by the 1980s its reputation as a cesspit was over-exaggerated. It turns out that all those Hong Kong action films of the 1980s and 1990s with Triad assassins dual-wielding pistols were fiction. The Killer was not an accurate picture of contemporary Hong Kong. I feel betrayed.

I'm not a local and I have no idea what modern-day residents of Hong Kong think of the place. British society exists to benefit landowners and landlords, and throughout British history there have been numerous waves of slum clearances. Every few years a generation of anonymous, voiceless poor people are made homeless, while their former homes are demolished in order to make room for exclusive properties aimed at the wealthy, and if the McMansions fail to sell they are subdivided into houses of multiple occupation. By this process a new set of slums are created.

In contrast the clearance of the walled city seems to have been relatively benign. The residents were offered compensation and were assigned new social houses managed by the Hong Kong authorities. Were they glad to leave? Here in the UK tower blocks tend to be associated with crime and decay, but residents who had been rehoused in tower blocks in the 1960s spoke highly of having plumbing, and heating, and not having to go outdoors to use the toilet. I can't even begin to understand England's history, I am completely out of my depth when it comes to Hong Kong.

What about the park? It has a couple of audio-visual displays that show some of the walled city's history, but this aspect is very low-key - it's more a functioning park than a monument. It has a pleasant bonsai display and in general it's a lovely place to relax. Location-wise it's set back a block from the main road, so it's not too noisy.

I went late in the afternoon and the people were greatly outnumbered by birds. The park also has a baseball court and a sports area off to one side. I saw a turtle and a woman performing tai chi. I photographed the turtle because it asked me to; I didn't photograph the woman because people aren't props.

The turtle.

There is a woman performing tai chi behind that tree.

They have spunk, the people of Hong Kong. They have spunk.

In the streets surrounding the park I saw a golden Range Rover:

It dawned on me that it probably wasn't a good idea to photograph golden Range Rovers in Hong Kong. That street - Hau Wong Road - was full of cars parking next to each other, so either the shopping was good or a bunch of gangsters were torturing someone to death in a back room somewhere, or perhaps it's just that parking is difficult in Kowloon.

Google Street View reveals that Hau Wong Road is always busy, so perhaps it was the shopping after all. Perhaps they just had nowhere to park. The nearest underpass was full of protest stickers:

"Wave upon wave of demented avengers march cheerfully out of obscurity into the dream"

How do you get to the walled city park? North-East Kowloon is an MTR desert where the underground line doesn't go. I popped along to Kowloon Tong MTR in north-central Kowloon and took the 22 bus to Kai Tak airport. The bus goes down Prince Edward Road, which passes the park.

There is a McDonalds a couple of roads along from Hau Wong Road. As mentioned elsewhere in this series of posts the Big Mac Index is very favourable in Hong Kong, so for the entirety of my trip I gorged on Big Macs, sometimes eating three or four in one sitting. It dawned on me that the more Big Macs I ate, the more money I would save, until perhaps I could pay for my trip to Hong Kong by eating Big Macs.

McDonalds does not serve beer in Hong Kong. The local speciality is an unbreaded chicken thigh burger called a GCB, which I think stands for "grilled chicken burger". It was vile. The mouthfeel was like eating internal organs. McDonalds serves breakfast all day long in Hong Kong, but that's probably because Hong Kong is a very busy place, and for people who work the night shift the afternoon is the morning, the end.