Thursday, September 15, 2005

Memories of the Walled City, Part I

Back when I worked at an investment bank, and my expat colleagues found out I lived in Kowloon, they were amazed. "But why?" they asked. I developed the nickname "Dave from Kowloon." Of course, expats and locals alike that are used to the more Anglophone Hong Kong Island still venture over the harbour from time to time. Some particularly enjoy the culinary delights (mostly the Thai restaurants) of Kowloon City, which stands near what was once the Kowloon Walled City, and the seat of Chinese government in this district. The old stone yamen in fact still remains, preserved when the anarchic slum of the Walled City was torn down at last in the 1980s in the name of hygiene and common decency.

The reason for the anarchy was simple - when the Qing government deeded over Kowloon in 1860, there was a misunderstanding about whether or not the Walled City would also be included - the British thought yes, the Chinese no. Naturally, the British would not tolerate an explicit Chinese authority within one of their domains, but they also decided at the same time that it should govern itself. That effectively meant that in the absence of Chinese imperial control, the place was ceded to local authority. As the place grew (blocking out natural light with multistorey buildings) the triads and to other dubious associations that had the muscle to control it, did so, turning it into an adult amusement park of gambling dens, opium divans, pornography and strip shows and brothels. I highly recommend this account of a drug addict named Lee Fai Ping, from the book Hong Kong Remembers by Sally Blyth and Ian Wotherspoon:
I started going to the Walled City in 1960 when I was a young teenager. I wasn'’t a drug addict then, I was just attracted to the area. I found the place very special because it was fully of contrasting and, I suppose, very exciting things for a young man. There were pornographic movies, live strip shows, and opium dens. It was an infamous den of iniquity. Many organized groups from other areas in Kowloon used to come on tours of the area, just to see the strip shows and the other things on offer.

In those days there were still a lot of wooden structures in the Walled City, and old-style Chinese houses with tiled roofs. There were no high rises, and the buildings were so tightly packed together that hardly any daylight could shine through. It was just a maze of tiny dark alleys, but, if you knew where to look, you could even find parts of the old city wall still standing. The risk of fire was a real danger in such a confined area. I remember there was a man who struck a gong every hour to let people know the time, and he was also responsible for giving the alarm when fire broke out.

The city was at a lower level than the surrounding urban area so when it rained there was always a lot of flooding. There was no sewage system, and sewage had to be taken away from the public latrines and buildings each night but bucket and truck. There were rats everywhere, and even they seemed to be addicted to the drugs, just from the fumes! That'’s an indication of the amount of drugs used in the city!

It wasn'’t until 1956 that the police actually started to patrol the Walled City, but the place was effectively run by the triads who were all powerful. Law and order didn't exist inside the city walls. It was a dangerous place to go on your own, and if you wanted to enter the Walled City, you really had to be escorted by a triad.

I became a member of the 14K triad society when I was thirteen years hold. The older members made sure you had free lunches and free dineers, and that you had money to spend. In return I had to carry out orders from my big brothers. These involved gang fights, protection rackets, and many other criminal activities. But I felt like a real macho guy. I knew a lot of the younger kids looked up to me, so I'd recruit them.

Then I started to get involved with drugs. The triad bosses used to smoke opium, and I felt my status would be elevated if I did so too. By the time I was sixteen years old I was a heroin addict. Then I started selling opium as it was very profitable. When you sold drugs at that time, it was just like selling vegetables. I had to pay off the police but, despite this, it was still a good trade. In the early 1960s I had to pay $5,000 a month to the police on each shift,– so that was $10,000 a month in all. It was a great deal of money, but it was worth it for the police protection. If a rival started up, the police would quickly squash him.

More on the past history of the place tomorrow, including massacres and revolutionaries...and how they in fact resulted in the British claiming Kowloon in the first place.


Madame Chiang said...

The Walled City was amazing...I was lucky enough to see it just before the demolition process started.....there is a good book (sort of a coffee table book) called "The Walled City"....some great photographs. Definitely a fascinating part of Hong Kong's history.

Dave and Stefan said...

Yes I agree, that book has some wonderful photographs. I had it at home but it seems to have disappeared during my last move - I shall have to find it again at the library...

the Bromgrev said...

There's also a great book called "City of Darkness". To my everlasting regret, I didn't find out about KWC until it was too late to see it for myself. An interesting case study in anarchy.

Dave and Stefan said...

Yes, the one you speak of has some great black and white photographs and some very evocative quotes that set the mood and ambience for that nest of gangsters...great stuff.

Anonymous said...

Who wrote the books, "The Walled City" and City of Darkness"?

Anonymous said...

i use to go to the international school right around the corner from it.
the history of it is facinating -- as well as hearing the stories from people who actually lived lives in there.