Vancouver is loaded with summer attractions! Inevitable time conflicts will force you to choose one over others. Saturday was one of those days and I opted for photographer Greg Girard’s exhibit at the Richmond Art Gallery (RAG) entitled Richmond/Kowloon (ending Sun. June 28) over (a) Granville Art Walk and (b) Car Free Day in the West End/Kitsilano. I am decidedly happy with my choice.
Girard’s show was meant to be more about the contrast and similarities between Richmond and Kowloon. However, for me, it immediately became about the legendary and now demolished Kowloon Walled City (KWC).
Made famous as the most densely populated place on Earth, it was a lawless labyrinth frighteningly unstable, exceedingly and oppressively dark and dank, yet impressively engineered throughout with creative, hideous, and wildly dangerous make-shift solutions. As a squatter community, it was a slum that never fully came under British control and was never really meant to be yet continually grew without government regulation for decades. And despite the absence of municipal services, namely waste removal, and being a Triad stronghold for years and a haven for drug abuse, prostitution, gambling and other vices, most of the as many as fifty thousand residents lived peacefully running their own little, unofficial operations numbering some 700 that included dental clinics, factories, schools, hair salons, restaurants and a host of others.
KWC has become a key interest of mine. I am drawn to Hong Kong history and life and nothing has captured my interest in human behavior quite like the Kowloon Walled City. It speaks to the organic nature of communities. It was alive and it evolved because of the human energy that swirled within. And interestingly, because of its unique circumstances, it would eventually bear no resemblance to its early days becoming messier and more shocking while simultaneously more intriguing, more important. Like a raging tumor that consumes the face rendering the host unrecognizable, while many recoil at the sight of KWC, others are fascinated by it and want to know everything about it.
KWC is an unrivaled source for stories you just can’t make up. I came upon it last year after someone posted a curious picture of a bunch of old buildings densely packed even by Hong Kong standards. At the time, I thought there is no way any city would deliberately allow the construction of something like this. It was clearly a bizarre architectural and historical anomaly and something that had to be explored in depth. KWC got backlogged along with dozens of other topics until today. After seeing Girard’s exhibit and digging deeper into what this KWC was about, I felt that something so significant to human history, that can so captivate one’s imagination, commands respect. I had to do my part to tell others about it.
When I first walked into the gallery, I saw two books, a thin one and a very thick and heavy one. The thin one was about the Richmond/Kowloon show. The big one was about solely KWC and came highly recommended by the attendant. It also came with a $100.00 price tag. I don’t do impulse buys very often, but my purchase of City of Darkness Revisited was an investment I could not miss. This is not a book you can borrow from the library and return. It’s something you keep, read through multiple times, show to others, pore over nuances in language, pass down to future generations, revisit photos to glean new meaning, discover new angles and find inspiration. If you get a chance to pick this up and you have found what is here interesting, do it. As I advance through the book and draw on the web for supplementary content, I will post thoughts on what I find.
-For years, KWC grew larger and larger within the confines of a single city block with negligible involvement by government. It was the Wild West set in a concrete jungle.
-Has roots dating back to 1898 as a military post. Demolished in 1993.
-With Britain’s power shrinking and the extent of Mao’s power largely unknown, Britain had a hands-off policy fearing unrest.
-500 buildings built into 2.7 hectares (126 metres wide and 213 metres deep)
-300 buildings were interconnected but without architects, engineers, and building/sanitation regulation.
-Inhabitants = 50,000 at its peak in 1990
-Hong Kong’s population density per square kilometer = 6,700; Kowloon Walled City = 1,920,000 (Yes. “One million nine hundred twenty thousand”)
-Rent in the 1980s was about $150 a month
-No municipal services meant no garbage collection. Bulky items like old TVs and broken furniture were carried to rooftops and abandoned. Other rooftops were used for exercise, playgrounds, even pigeon racing.
Exterior of the Kowloon Walled City
The People | Image Credits – Greg Girard
According to those who interacted with residents, life was not as hopeless as one might assume within KWC. The city functioned in many ways like society at large. It had schools, people did business, kids played and did their homework.