The Dark City: Hong Kong’s anarchist society

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Words by Rhys Mather, features sub-editor

Before 1994, if you went to the Kowloon City district of Hong Kong, you could find a series of 300 interconnected towers, some as high as 14 floors, crammed into the space of about 4 football fields. The narrow lanes were overshadowed by makeshift drainage, which meant that daylight could barely penetrate the lower levels, and the 33,000 residents took to using umbrellas to constantly drip water from decaying pipes. . New structures built on top of the old one created a labyrinthine network of stairs and alleys, once the most densely populated place on Earth; it was the walled city of Kowloon – also known as Hak Nam, “the city of darkness”.

The town began life as a military fort in the 19e century, near the British border of Hong Kong to defend China from a new conflict – as the First Opium War ended in devastating losses for the Qing Dynasty. The fort was occupied by British forces in 1899 and was left largely abandoned until the Chinese Civil War following World War II, which led Mao Zedong to officially declare the People’s Republic of China – refugees fleeing the war went to Hong Kong and many settled in Kowloon. fortified town. Several thousand settlers began construction on what would become Hak Nam. Originally, the city was mostly made up of rudimentary wooden huts, but underwent considerable development in the 1960s, when the city’s signature skyscrapers first appeared. Neither China nor Britain ever established effective governance within the city, and it became a stronghold for various triad gangs who operated dozens of illicit businesses within the walls of Hak Nam.

This is where Hak Nam is often twisted – the city is generally viewed as a lawless haven for crime and depravity, but it’s important to recognize the vibrant community of thousands of people who have called the city of darkness their home. . The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) writes:

“Despite a reputation for anarchy, the walled city was a remarkably functional and self-sufficient society that embodied the political ideology of anarchy.”

Indeed, the walled city was governed by a collective of residents called “Kowloon Walled City Kai Fong Association”. architecture should be managed to accommodate the growing population. The facilities and buildings inside the walled city included: schools, temples, factories, even a retirement home and a youth center. The city had no way of generating electricity, but creatively siphoned electricity from outside. Remarkably, Hak Nam had only one letter carrier for the 33,000 inhabitants, Lam Po-chun worked as a letter carrier for 12 years in a town with two elevators – one hell of a paper trick.

Despite the work of the Kai Fon association, the city was still plagued by problems with inadequate sanitation and unregulated construction – rats were rampant due to the lack of large-scale waste disposal and buildings were lacking. often windows or adequate ventilation. There was an unmistakable criminal element within Hak Nam – with triad gangs like the 14K running a massive drug trade and operating illegal casinos and brothels; dentists and unlicensed physicians ran offices with neon signs. The triad’s presence was drastically reduced after a series of thousands of raids between 1973 and 1974, but crime remained rampant throughout Hak Nam’s history.

That being said, Hak Nam was home to various legal, albeit unregulated, businesses and the majority of residents were not involved in any criminal activity. The city had an impressive manufacturing industry, producing everything from noodles to rubber – one factory supposedly produced 10,000 golf balls a day! The City of Darkness had another curious export: fish balls. It sounds odd, but according to the WSJ, Hak Nam has already supplied 80% of Hong Kong’s fish balls, which is particularly impressive considering they are one of the specialties of the region. The walled city also had a large candy factory, writes The Industrial History of Hong Kong Group:

“Located at 12 Sai Shing Road since the early 1970s, it produced a wide range of candies that were sold locally to wholesalers in Hong Kong and also shipped to Macau. The candies were also delivered to toy factories where they were placed inside some of the toys. The factory was operated by Lee Yo Chan. At its peak, it employed ten full-time workers and twenty temporary candy wrappers. Many of these were children who worked after school for as little as half an hour.

Photographers Ian Lambot and Greg Girard spent 5 years exploring the walled city and meeting its inhabitants. Their work resulted in a book: “City of Darkness: life in Kowloon Walled City”. The book paints a picture of the more subdued side of Hak Nam – they write about everyday life in the city and what residents would do to pass the time:

“Every afternoon, the alleys came alive with the clicking of mah-jong tiles. On the roof, in cages not much smaller than some houses in the city, cooed hundreds of carrier pigeons. A part-time Chinese orchestra met twice a week, and the melancholy, sinuous notes of old instruments filtered through the aisles.

While Hak Nam is certainly impressive, it’s important not to romanticize a place where conditions were tough and life was tough. Water contamination and illnesses caused by poor air quality were common, sanitation became such a problem that many residents moved. Whether it was health concerns or whether they simply saw it as an eyesore, the British and Chinese governments announced a joint plan to demolish Hak Nam on January 14.e, 1987. The eviction process was arduous, despite the poor conditions, Hak Nam sheltered thousands of people. The government distributed about 2.7 billion Hong Kong dollars (US $ 350 million) in compensation to the 33,000 residents, and by the end of 1991 there were fewer than 500 households left. The residents who remained were forcibly evicted from their homes between 1991 and 1992 – it is not known whether they were ever compensated. The city was demolished in 1994 and redeveloped into a park.

Many remember Hak Nam as a den of vices, a place where the law was absent and crime was rampant – in reality, Hak Nam was a community of underprivileged people simply seeking to survive. For all its flaws, the walled city was a very unique political and architectural phenomenon – a city built and ruled by its citizens, an anarchist experiment that could very well be the most extraordinary housing project in history.

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