Millions go to their jobs each day in commercial buildings all over the world and hardly notice the places they work.. Office buildings, museums, stores, apartments, and similar places seem so mundane and ordinary, but they too have stories to tell, stories that are sometimes hair-raising.
The Kowloon Walled City: The building that made NYC look like the wide open spaces
Architects like to speak of buildings that are “organic”. By this they usually mean a building that seems to be growing naturally out of its site as opposed to one that was simply imposed. Although this is a popular term, it is doubtful that what they had in mind was the Kowloon walled city in Hong Kong. The Kowloon and walled city has been demolished, but it was about as organic as they come. The entire place appeared as if it grew and metastasized somehow from the surrounding streets and, in a sense, it did. The Kowloon walled city was not just the most densely populated place on earth but probably the most densely populated place that has ever been on earth. In a space just a little bigger than a city block lived 33,000 people, giving the walled city a population density of 1.2 million people per square kilometer. New York City which most people consider a fairly crowded place has a population density of 2700 people per square kilometer. The people occupying the space not only lived in the building but operated over 1000 different businesses, everything from tailor shops to small stores, to light manufacturing, to food preparation. Most corridors in this maze of attached buildings were little more than passageways several feet wide. Interior spaces of the Kowloon walled city would make the interior of a submarine seem spacious by comparison. In many places several families lived in a single room and not a very big room at that. Only the relatively well-off could afford a room on the exterior of the building with access to light and air and possibly even a view of sorts. The others either overlooked a litter-strewn interior courtyard or had no exterior windows at all.
The walled city began life as a small fort on British-occupied Hong Kong. Over time a number of residents were built within the fort and the walls remained. When the Japanese invaded Hong Kong in World War II they tore down the exterior walls and used the rubble to expand the Kai Tak airport. When the British reclaimed the territory after the war there was a dispute regarding whether the British or the Chinese had jurisdiction over the walled city. A few years later on the communists took over mainland China and a flood of refugees caused a building boom within the walled city as refugees and entrepreneurs frantically built and expanded buildings to absorb the influx.
The result was the massive crazy quilt structure that became famous for its incredible overcrowding, its opium dens, its prostitutes, and its unlicensed dentists. The British government and later the Chinese gave up trying to control the place, leaving it to organized crime and the Triads. Most residents however were simply trying to live their lives as best they could. A trip through the narrow corridors was like a trip through some apocalyptic video game with its noise, smells, and the darkness all around. Water dripped constantly from leaky pipes and overflows, and mold flourished in the sticky air. Rats and roaches roamed freely. Although most of the buildings were eight stories high only two buildings had elevators. Most of the electricity provided was illegally tapped from other lines and water was provided by 67 different wells.
When the Housing Authority finally moved to demolish the walled city in 1993, many residents objected since they were so used to living there and some still look back on the place with nostalgia. Most visitors however remember only the appalling conditions in the unlikelihood of anyone surviving there, let alone flourishing.
The Kowloon walled city is no more and has been replaced by a park named after it and a portion of the foundation of one of the original buildings. While there is no longer any concentration of squalor on this scale in Hong Kong, there are still places where people live crammed into tiny, airless rooms with little hope of getting anything better. At last report, Hong Kong was building housing units at the rate of 15,000/year, but had a backlog of about 100,000.