Part of Hong Kong is an island in the Pacific Ocean called Hong Kong Island, and on this island there was once another another island…of sorts—The Walled City of Kowloon.
At its peak it was the most densely populated place on earth. 1/10th of a square mile, or about 6.5 acres. Yet there were at least 350 buildings and 50,000 people. It looked more like a hell-bound cruise ship than a city. The city had a single very overworked postman.
It evolved from a Chinese military fort that was erected in the early 19th century as defense against the British and Americans who were determined to make dope addicts out of the Chinese, which resulted in the Opium Wars. This was no vague plan. They were forcing the Chinese to buy opium. Such a dick move. Ironic isn’t it that the fort meant to combat the opium epidemic ended up as the center of the Chinese drug trade. Mainland China held on to the real estate until the 1898 when it became part of British Hong Kong. At the time, it was a typical Hong Kong slum with only about 2,000 residents. It soon evolved into a lawless nightmare having no police, building codes or public services.
In Kowloon there where at least 8,500 businesses including small noodle makers, discount ‘doctors’, dog meat restaurants and sex toy manufacturers. Neighborhood mini-warlords ruled over slices of the place peddling opium and heroin, which was so rampant that even rats became addicts and could be seen vibrating wild-eyed in the oily gutters in the throws of withdrawal, along with the human addicts. Prostitution including children was widespread, as was the incessant trash and sewage. Between buildings wire floors were strung and these paved with the refuse. The hastily installed water and waste pipes were in such a dilapidated condition that it constantly rained on the lower floors and one traversed the narrow alleys with an umbrella. Touch the wrong iron rail and you could meet your maker with a 110 volts surging through your smoking hand gripped tightly until your heart exploded.
This was an experiment in communal anarchy and was the prototypical post-apocalyptic scenario from which Blade Runner took inspiration. It would be fun to think that that some of the locals got their act together and became Singapore, but there was just too much money coming from dark side. In fact, it was called the Dark City because in its lower reaches the sun never penetrated—and I imagine the smell was quite remarkable.
After several attempts, the government of Hong Kong came up with a plan to knock the place down. They offered the residents an average of $380,000 for individual flats, though there were few takers at first. Clearing everyone out ended up costing $2.67 billion dollars in 1993. Hell, come and kick my house over at that rate.
After the residents left, the place became a public park.
The science fiction writer William Gibson described Kowloon as the “hive of dreams.” He saw it as an embodiment of what he dubbed ‘cyberspace.’ And he may in the end be right as cyberspace seems to be bending toward anarchy, though somewhat bigger than an acre and a half…and of course takes up no space at all.
Oh my, another Easter Egg for those who got to the end of this article. I love this piece. Cab Calloway and the Nicholas Brothers