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Hak Nam: a real life dystopia?

Chatteris’ own Jack Salmon walks us through the history of Hong Kong’s infamous Kowloon Walled City.

Original Yamen Building (built in 1847) | Image by Luke Athow
Original Yamen Building (built in 1847) | Image by Luke Athow

It is tempting to think when you’re nestled claustrophobically within the overwhelming crowds of Mong Kong that it is the most densely populated place to ever have existed. Whilst it is certainly up there on the violations of your personal space per minute chart, let’s imagine a place where a perpetual disregard for any kind of breathing space was the prerequisite to your very existence. 

Now demolished, Kowloon Walled City began life as a military outpost, constructed by the Qing government from 1843 to compensate for the growing and invasive colonial presence of the British in Hong Kong. Less than two decades later, following the loss of the Second Opium War, China ceded control of the whole of the Kowloon Peninsula, rendering the Walled City an isolated Chinese enclave within a sea of foreign power. 

Despite being just 2.7 hectares (the equivalent of roughly 5 football fields), a dichotomous struggle for administrative control of the City ensued, yet neither China nor Britain succeeded in establishing any palpable governance over the enclave. This political ambiguity facilitated the conditions in which the Walled City gradually degraded into what locals came to know as Hak Nam, the City of Darkness. 

From above, the Walled City appears as a kind of solid trapezium. The compact and seemingly impenetrable external shell conceals a network of dissecting alleyways, tunnels and stairwells. The City protrudes into itself, bulging inelegantly as it grows virtually unregulated by all authority but that which is physically imposed by the walls that contain it. At street level, the world is dark and damp. The structures embrace each other tightly, exhaling all natural light from the lungs of the City, and leaving behind a thick and suffocating air which is pierced only by the falling droplets of leaking pipes and jumping sparks of exposed electrical wires.

After sunset, the City juxtaposes itself. Light radiates from the windows which litter the cityscape so densely that the whole block appears to gently hum as one unified pocket of electrical energy. It was this kind of striking imagery that helped to inspire the cyberpunk aesthetic which remains influential today. 

The dystopian element was not limited to the physical composition of the City. For several decades in the 20th century, the Walled City was under the tight grip of local triads. The de facto lawlessness which prevailed inside the walls aided the establishment of gambling parlours, opium dens and brothels. The absence of regulation and licensing laws within the City also facilitated the rapid development of other industries, ranging from medical practices to manufacturing. One notable example of this is Tung Tau Tsuen Road, also known as “Dentist Street”, distinguishable by the cluttered pattern of neon signs fiercely competing for the precious space available immediately above the streams of people below. 

Yet, we should not dismiss Kowloon Walled City simply as an unregulated hotbed of crime, darkness and hardship. The paradoxical nature of life on Hak Nam’s rooftops is just one indicator of the City’s stark duality. Under the cover of darkness, their corners harboured the flickering candle flames of drug addicts and their heroin. During the day, these same scenes emerged as important social spaces. Offering light and comparatively fresher air, the canopy represented an alternative vision of life in Hak Nam – that of laughter, playing children and conversing adults.

South Wall Street Road - the streets around the park are still bustling with activity | Image by Luke Athow
South Wall Street Road – the streets around the park are still bustling with activity | Image by Luke Athow

Prior to its demolition, Kowloon Walled City was home to an estimated 33,000 people, making it the most densely populated place on the planet. In its place you can now find a park which remains home to the Yamen – the only remaining Qing dynasty building. Some other remains of the Walls and Gates can also still be found, as well as exhibitions and informative plaques which offer a fascinating insight into the lives of the residents who once called the City their home.

Furthermore, the difficult living conditions forged a close-knit community among the thousands of residents, and helped to establish a unique cultural memory which distinguished itself from that of Chinese or British Hong Kong. Generations of inhabitants had become woven into the fabric of the Walls and the passageways that sliced through it, and when the City was eventually demolished in 1994, so too were many of the stories that the City had helped to nurture. 

Interested in exploring the history-rich region of Hong Kong, like Jack? Apply now to become a Chatteris Tutor.

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