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By: Pamela Owen
Inside the Kowloon Walled City where 50,000 residents eked out a grimy living in the most densely populated place on earth.
Once thought to be the most densely populated place on Earth, with 50,000 people crammed into only a few blocks, these fascinating pictures give a rare insight into the lives of those who lived Kowloon Walled City.
Taken by Canadian photographer Greg Girard in collaboration with Ian Lamboth the pair spent five years familiarizing themselves with the notorious Chinese city before it was demolished in 1992. The city was a phenomenon with 33,000 families and businesses living in more than 300 interconnected high-rise buildings, all constructed without contributions from a single architect.
Kowloon Walled City was notorious for drugs and crime but many of its 50,000 residents lived their lives peacefully until it was demolished in the early 90s.
Canadian photographer Greg Girard and Ian Lambot spent five years getting to know the residents and taking pictures of the densely populated buildings.
Mir Lui was assigned to work in the city as a postman in 1976 and had no choice but to go. He was one of the few people who knew the ins and outs and wore a hat to protect him from the constant dripping. Ungoverned by Health and Safety regulations, alleyways dripped and the maze of dark corridors covered one square block near the end of the runway at Kai Tak Airport.
‘I spent five years photographing and becoming familiar with the Walled City, its residents, and how it was organised. So seemingly compromised and anarchic on its surface, it actually worked and to a large extent, worked well,’ said Mr Girard on his website.
Dating back to the Song Dynasty it served as a watch post for the military to defend the area against pirates and to manage the production of Salt before eventually coming under British rule.
However, during the Japanese occupation on Hong Kong in the Second World War parts of it were demolished to provide building materials for the nearby airport. Once Japan surrendered from the city, the population dramatically increased with numerous squatters moving in. Eventually it became a haven for criminals and drug users and was run by the Chinese Triads until 1974.
The shrieks of children playing on rooftops were frequently drowned out by the sounds of jet engines as aircraft powered through their final 100 meters on the runway at Kai Tak Airport.
For many residents who lived in the upper levels of the city, ion in particular, the roof was an invaluable sanctuary: a ‘lung’ of fresh air and escape from the claustrophobia of the windowless flats below.
The city, lit up during the night, was the scene of the 1993 movie Crime Story starring Jackie Chan and includes real scenes of buildings exploding.
A Kowloon Walled City resident who is dissatisfied with compensation payouts from the government sits on a pavement in protest as police start the clearance operation.
Food processors admitted they had moved into the city to benefit from the low rents and to seek refuge from the jurisdiction of government health and sanitation inspectors.
A workplace during the day would turn into a living room at night when Hui Tung Choy’s wife and two young daughters joined him at his noodle business. The children’s play and homework space was a flour-encrusted work bench.
By the early 1980s it was notorious for brothels, casinos, cocaine parlours and opium dens. It was also famous for food courts which would serve up dog meat and had a number of unscrupulous dentists who could escape prosecution if anything went wrong with their patients. The city eventually became the focus of a diplomatic crisis with both Britain and China refusing to take responsibility. Despite it being a hotbed of crime many of its inhabitants went about their lives in relative peace with children playing on the rooftops and those living in the upper levels seeking refuge high above the city. The rooftops were the one place they could breathe fresh air and escape the claustrophobia of their windowless flats below.
Eventually, over time both the British and Chinese authorities found the city to be increasingly intolerable, despite lower crime rates in later years. The quality of life and sanitary conditions were far behind the rest of Hong Kong and eventually plans were made to demolish the buildings. Many of the residents protested and said they were happy living in the squalid conditions but the government spent $2.7billion Hong Kong dollars in compensation and evacuations started in 1991. They were completed in 1992.
Law Yu Yi, aged 90, lived in a small and humid third-floor flat with her son’s 68-year-old wife off Lung Chun First Alley. The arrangement is typical of traditional Chinese values in which the daughter-in-law looks after her in laws.
Grocery-store owner Chan Pak, 60, in his tiny shop on Lung Chun Back Road. He had a particular passion for cats and owned seven when this picture was taken.
This hairdresser puts curlers in a customer’s hair at a salon in the city. Many people continued to live their lives normally despite drug and crime problems.
A child with a grazed knee sits on a counter top in a tiny shop which sells essentials like toilet paper and canned foods. Cigarettes are also on display in a cabinet.
The area was made up of 300 interconnected high-rise buildings, built without the contributions of a single architect and ungoverned by Hong Kong’s health and safety regulations.
Thousands of people went about their lives daily with many making do with what space they had to grow plants or hand washing on balconies above the busy shops and streets below.
A rooftop view of the city at night which shows just a few of the thousands of TV aerials which sit on the buildings.
Over time, both the British and the Chinese governments found the massive, anarchic city to be increasingly intolerable – despite the low reported crime rate in later years.
Workers – not restricted by health and safety regulations – prepare their fish for sale.
A wall in a home adorned with clocks and pictures of relatives.
Daylight barely penetrates the rubbish-strewn grille over the city’s Tin Hau Temple which was built in 1951 on an alley off Lo Yan Street.
The government spent around 2.7 billion Hong Kong dollars in compensation to the estimated 33,000 families and businesses. Some were not satisfied and tried to stop the evacuations.
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