Greg Girard’s photograph of children playing on a rooftop amidst antennae and laundry offers a glimpse into the hidden world of the Kowloon Walled City
Since 1989, Girard and British architect Ian Lambot spent five years taking documentary photographs of the Kowloon Walled City and its ‘seedy magnificence’ up until its demolition in 1994. They published their work in 1993 in the book City of Darkness: Life in Kowloon Walled City, which was later followed by City of Darkness Revisited in 2014.
Lambot recalled how, when he said he had been spending his time in the Kowloon Walled City, his Hong Kong friends half-jokingly cried, ‘We might never see you again.’ Contrary to the popular collective memory (or impression) of this ‘city of darkness’ as a den of vice, this image, titled Children on Rooftop, shows that the city was also a playground for its younger dwellers.
The city was composed of buildings of similar heights, and the connected rooftops were an oasis for its residents. It was a place where they could relax, away from the dimly lit, claustrophobic living quarters downstairs. Strewn with fish bone-like antennas and junk, the rooftop was also scattered with the residents’ drying laundry. Peter Popham, a contributor for the two books, wrote in City of Darkness Revisited that ‘every ten minutes or so another jumbo jet descended on Kai Tak Airport—heading straight for the Walled City and, skimming so low, it was surprising that it did not make its final descent festooned in laundry’.
Although colloquially known as 九龍城寨 by locals today, the city’s official name is 九龍寨城 (both translate into ‘Kowloon Walled City’), as inscribed on the stone plaque that was excavated on-site after the city was demolished. Constructed in 1847, the Kowloon Walled City was a former Qing Dynasty coastal fortress with Chinese-style defensive walls. Over time, its walls were torn down, and the city developed into a gigantic maze of living quarters and pathways. Its labyrinthine layout inspired the visual design of numerous video games. In 1984, it also became a filming location for the showdown scene of the Hong Kong crime thriller Long Arm of the Law (1984). The city was even partially recreated as a gaming arcade in Kawasaki City, Japan—but that is a story for another time.
In 1898, when the New Territories—the area north of Boundary Street—was leased to Britain by the Qing government for ninety-nine years, the Kowloon Walled City was exempt. It remained under the control of the Chinese government. A year later, the British troops occupying the New Territories faced resistance from local inhabitants, resulting in the Six-Day War of 1899. Suspecting that the Chinese army was involved, the Hong Kong government sent troops to expel Chinese officials and troops from the Kowloon Walled City. As the colonial government lacked popular legitimacy and faced protests from the Qing and succeeding Chinese governments, it never assumed control to plan and develop the Kowloon Walled City, leaving it in anarchy. After the Qing soldiers withdrew, the deserted place became a tourist attraction for foreigners to glimpse old China. During the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong from 1941 to 1945, the Japanese army tore down the city’s walls to use its stones to expand Kai Tak Airport.
Left largely ungoverned, many refugees settled in the Kowloon Walled City after the Second World War. Before the 1960s, the city had some eight hundred traditional stone and wood houses. As the population increased, the buildings developed vertically to accommodate its residents, sometimes reaching six to eight stories high. By the late 1970s, some of the buildings had grown to be fourteen stories tall. With very little work done to reinforce its foundation, the assemblage of evolving buildings appeared unstable. Popham fittingly described the city’s buildings as ‘tightly packed together [...] like strangers squashed together on the subway’. In the 1980s, the city, which only covered 2.7 hectares of land, reached its peak estimated population of forty thousand.
Popham also pointed out that for all of the city’s ‘horrible shortcomings’, its builders and residents’ succeeded in creating what modern architects, with all their resources of money and expertise, have failed to: the city as organic megastructure, not set rigidly for a lifetime but continually responsive to the changing requirements of its users’. From interviews with the city’s inhabitants, Lambot and Girard learned that the residents remembered the city as a safe place. They could play in the alleys and travel to and from school without feeling any danger. Criminals and outlaws mostly kept to themselves.
For the children in this photograph, 1847 was too remote to evoke an emotional connection, and the politics behind the walled city’s past too complicated to understand. To them, the city of darkness was not at all dark—it was simply their neighbourhood.
The Chinese version of this article was originally published on 3 August 2022 in Ming Pao. It is presented here in edited and translated form. Originally authored by Lap-wai Lam, translated by Erica Leung, and edited by Julee Chung and Jacqueline Leung.
Image at top: Greg Girard. Kowloon Walled City—Children on Rooftop (detail), 1989, printed 2015. Inkjet print. M+, Hong Kong. © Greg Girard
Peter Popham, ‘Kowloon Walled City – the Reality’, in City of Darkness Revisited , ed. Greg Girard and Ian Lambot (Lopen, Somerset: Watermark Publications, 2014), 12.
Ian Lambot, ‘Myth and Reality’, in City of Darkness Revisited, 268.
Popham, ‘Kowloon Walled City ’, 7.