Inside Hong Kong's lawless 'walled city' — the most crowded place on Earth for 40 years

Greg GirardKowloon Walled City was 119 times as dense as New York City.

Slightly north of Hong Kong Island there once stood one of the most densely populated places on earth.

From the 1950s until 1994, over 33,000 people lived and worked in Kowloon Walled City, a massive complex of 300 interconnected buildings that took up a city block.

Caught between China and the British-run Hong Kong government, the city was essentially lawless, equally known for its opium dens and organised crime as its dentists’ offices.

Photographer Greg Girard spent years investigating and documenting the strange place before it was demolished. Girard collaborated with Ian Lambot, another photographer, on a book about Kowloon, titled “City of Darkness Revisited,” available here.

Girard shared a number of photos from the project with us in 2015, and you can check out the rest at the book’s website.

Kowloon Walled City was a densely populated, ungoverned settlement in Kowloon, an area north of Hong Kong Island. What began as a Chinese military fort evolved into a squatters’ village comprising a mass of 300 interconnected high-rise buildings.

The city began as a low-rise squatter village during the early 20th century. After World War II, Hong Kong experienced a massive influx of Chinese immigrants. This led to a lack of housing in the city. In response, entrepreneurs and those with “squatter’s rights” in Kowloon built high rise buildings on the space to capitalise on the housing demand.

At its peak, more than 33,000 people lived in the 6.4-acre city. It was considered by many to be the most densely populated place on earth.

While located in Hong Kong, the Walled City was legally a Chinese military fort. This put the settlement in legal purgatory as both China and the British-run Hong Kong government ignored it.

Laws, regulations, and building codes were not enforced.

“There was never any top-down guidance or planning about how the place should be. It grew as an organic response to people’s needs,” says Girard.

The only regulation enforced at Kowloon was the height of the building. Because the airport was so close, the building was not allowed to be taller than 13 or 14 stories.

The Walled City was controlled by the Chinese mafia, called the Triads, from the 1950s through the 1970s. It gained a reputation as a haven for prostitution, gambling, and drugs.

But by the time Girard explored the city in 1987, it had become considerably safer. “The city normalized, but the reputation stayed until the end. It was a place your parents told you to never go to,” says Girard.

The streets and alleyways of the Walled City were narrow. Most were barely wider than six feet and some were so narrow that one had to walk sideways through them. A massive network of passageways in the upper levels also made it possible to travel the distance of the city without walking on a ground level street.

The Walled City was not the kind of place that you wanted to wander around, especially at night. Most residents stuck to the roads or alleys that they knew best on their way to work and home.

Mr. Lui, the city’s postman, was assigned to Kowloon in 1976. By the time that Girard met him, he was one of the few people who knew all the ins and outs of the city. He wore a hat to protect him from the constant dripping from the ceiling.

Because regulations and licenses weren’t enforced in the city, it was easy to set up a business. Rents, primarily controlled by those with “squatter’s rights,” were low compared to the rest of the city.

Many businesses took advantage. Ho Chi Kam ran a hairdressing salon with his wife in the city until 1991. After Ho was forced out of the Walled City, he had to go back to working for others because he could not afford the rent elsewhere.

Doctors, dentists, and other accredited professionals who emigrated from China found that their licenses were not valid in Hong Kong. Many took up offices in the Walled City because laws were not enforced there.

The city became known as a place where Hong Kong’s working class went to the doctor or dentist. Appointments were cheaper because the doctors and dentists could not practice anywhere else in the city.

Wong Cheung Mi was one of the many dentists in the Walled City.

The lack of regulations was even more important for the many meat processors in Kowloon.

Food was a big part of the Walled City’s culture. Hong Kongers often visited to eat at one of the city’s many dog-meat restaurants. Dog-meat stew, traditionally made from six-month-old Chow puppies, was a popular dish in Hong Kong until it was banned by the British.

Hui Tuy Choy opened his noodle factory in 1965. He chose the Walled City because the rents were low and you didn’t need a licence to open a store. In Hong Kong, shop owners had to get licenses from the labour, health, and fire departments.

Kowloon was a major manufacturing center for many businesses in Hong Kong. One of its biggest products was fishballs, which were sold to restaurants around the city.

This rubber factory was run entirely by two men.

Often, commercial spaces like this grocery store would double as a living room or a space for the children to do homework after the working day was over.

According to Girard, the Walled City had a village culture because of the tight living and working quarters. 90-year-old Law Yu Yi lived with her son’s wife in a cramped third-floor apartment. It is typical for women to look after her in-laws.

The Walled City had its own micro-climate, according to Girard, due to the massive amounts of tubing, wires, and open gutters snaking through the building. The lower levels were constantly hot, humid, and damp.

Because of the smelly, humid conditions down below, the rooftops of Kowloon would turn into a communal hangout during the afternoons and evenings. People would hang out, do laundry or homework, or practice instruments.

“It was like a strange, urban garden. There was tons of household refuse. It was a bit of an eyesore, but compared to the area below, the air was light and breezy. It was nice to come up there after living and working on the lower floors,” says Girard.

Despite a reduced crime rate, neither the British nor the Chinese found the city tolerable. In 1987, the two governments agreed to tear down the city.

After evicting the 33,000 residents over the next five years, demolition began in 1993. Residents were given monetary compensation, but many protested that it was not enough.

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