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City of Darkness: Surreal photographs of day-to-day life inside Kowloon Walled City

Photographers Ian Lambot and Greg Girard’s unique exploration of the, now demolished, Chinese walled city, once the densest urban environment on the planet

First visiting Kowloon Walled City over 25 years ago, Greg Girard and Ian Lambot’s 1993 book City of Darkness: Life in Kowloon Walled City quickly became its definitive visual record. Now, with their Kickstarter campaign recently clearing its goal, an updated version of the book with new photographs, documents and drawings is due to be published in July.


An aerial view from the south. On a site measuring just over 220 x 110 metres were crammed some 200 individual tower blocks, rising on average to 14 storeys in height. The only open area was a small courtyard at its centre, which was itself lined with several two- and three-storey buildings, including the yamen, the last remaining remnant of the original military fort built by the Chinese in 1846, and newer blocks housing an old people’s centre and, at one time, a primary school. At the Walled City’s height in the early 1980s, it is thought that well over 40,000 people lived there, and over 33,000 were officially registered as part of the clearance in 1987.


Part of the south elevation, illustrating in the narrowness of its buildings how the Walled City had evolved from a squatter settlement. Individual huts had been redeveloped over time, rising to four or five storeys in the 1950s, then up to nine storeys in the early 1960s and reaching a maximum of 17 storeys in the 1970s. They would have built higher, but a height limit set by the proximity of Kai Tak, Hong Kong’s old international airport, was the one (and only) building code that the Building Ordnance Office actually imposed.


The east elevation rose behind a narrow strip of no-man’s-land, itself overbuilt with nominally illegal two- and three-storeys shacks. Unsurprisingly, the apartments lining the City’s perimeter were the most desirable and were usually up to the standards of public housing anywhere else in HK. They were small, however, rarely more than 20 to 25 square metres, so those who could afford to added a small caged balcony of a kind once seen all over HK but now sadly long gone, torn down in a push against illegal structures.


A detail of the south elevation showing two of the older buildings that were still just one room wide. In the early days, redevelopment was negotiated between a developer and the original building owner, the developer building a new and taller building, returning the same space the owner had previously occupied and selling off the extra floors for his profit. As the buildings grew taller, developers would often ‘buy’ two or more adjacent buildings, while stairs were squeezed into the spaces between buildings or, where possible, simply ‘borrowed’ from the building next door.


Lung Chun Back Road, one of the City’s main thoroughfares and certainly one of the cleanest, though in the context of the Walled City this is a largely relative term. As with every other alley in the City, it is lined overhead with water pipes installed by private water suppliers linking tanks on the roof to individual premises. Occasionally the water tanks were filled via illegal connections from the mains, but more usually it was ground water supplied for the suppliers’ own boreholes and not fit for drinking.


A more typical alley. Though it is widely assumed the City was entirely autonomous, the HK authorities were fairly active there. Refuse was collected daily from central collection points and the Fire Department made regular inspections of factories, usually offering advice though with powers to remove dangerous material where they thought there was a risk to the public. Similarly, the Health and Education Departments also operated in the City and electricity was supplied professionally from the mains and metered – though illegal connections continued to be made wherever someone could get away with it.


Fresh drinking water for the whole City was supplied from just eight standpipes, seven on the periphery and just this one actually inside the City’s confines. Unsurprisingly, many of the Walled City’s food factories tended to choose premises nearby and the myriad of hoses allowed tanks to be filled directly, rather than by bucket as most of the residents had to do, even those living on the upper levels. There were only two lifts in the entire City, so most people had to walk up with one or two buckets-full every day.


Mr Lui the postman worked in the City for over 15 years and was generally acknowledged as about the only person who knew his way around the whole City. Most people worked out the most direct way from their premises to one of the main alleys or the exterior and stuck religiously to that one route. Photographing there was a constant adventure.


The alleys were not just thoroughfares. Materials were stored in their narrow confines and many were lined with open drains on one side or the other, demanding you tread carefully, not always easy when they were particularly badly lit. And where space allowed, factories would spill out of their small workshops, as here with a small family-run candy-making business.


Unsurprisingly most of the factories were on the ground or first floors, where access was a little easier, but in the heart of the city space was always at a premium and working conditions could be grim, with no daylight and only minimal air circulation. This noodle maker and his family owned a small apartment on one of the floors above where they would eat and sleep, but during the rest of the day they spent their time in the factory, the children doing their homework or playing wherever they could find space.


There were some 90 dentists and around 30 doctors operating in the City, for the most part trained in China but unable to operate in Hong Kong without taking more exams. The City provided a handy alternative and they were allowed to operate there without oversight from the authorities. Many were actually very good at their job and attracted patients from a wide area – including a number of policemen to our knowledge – the best of them with smart premises along Tung Tau Tsuen Road that ran along the north side of the City.


The stairways frequently linked two, three or more separate buildings and a secondary network of corridors at the higher levels allowed much of the City to be traversed without once going down to ground level. None of these routes was formally planned, but they were developed over time by the building’s owners and the residents as a necessary way of allowing easy circulation and access for those living at the higher levels. Usually far cleaner than the ground-floor alleys, such junctions as the one shown here acted as communal meeting places where neighbours could stop and chat.


Very few buildings actually stopped at the height the original developer might have planned, more usually being topped by another one, two or even more storeys of ‘illegal’ additions, though as the entire City was illegal such an idea held little credibility. And ownership of a building’s site had little meaning as the buildings rose, with developers happy to allow their new taller building to spread over the rooftops of lower adjacent structures if they could get away with it. In all the chaos, though, numerous routes were maintained across the rooftops, with a ragtag of roughly built bridges and ladders being installed by the residents where necessary.


For residents of the upper levels of the City, the roof was an invaluable sanctuary: a ‘lung’ where they could breathe fresh air and escape the claustrophobia of their windowless apartments below. It was usually busiest during the late afternoon when whole families would make their way there, a grandmother to keep an eye on her own grandchildren as well as the children of her neighbours, while her daughter prepared dinner in the apartment below. An exciting playground, the roof thronged with children out of school hours, either playing noisily or sitting quietly to one side doing their homework.

City of Darkness Revisited

View the Kickstarter campaign

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