A 'Strange, Vertical Village' in the Heart of Hong Kong
"It wasn’t an ideal playground but that never seemed to bother anyone — which was, of course, very much the spirit of the Walled City: making the best of, and even enjoying life in, a situation most other people would be horrified by." These words from Greg Girard's iconic book "Walled City, Tung Tau Tsuen Road" encapsulate the unique essence of Kowloon Walled City.
In 1986, while on a shoot near the airport, Girard stumbled upon this peculiar place squeezed into a mere 0.01 square miles. Despite its unconventional existence, the city thrived with approximately 350 buildings towering up to 14 stories high. These structures, constructed without proper foundations or regard for safety codes, formed a "strange, vertical village." Its remarkable story unfolded.
A Historical and Political Quirk
Contrary to all expectations, Kowloon Walled City persisted due to a historical and political anomaly. Situated within the bustling city of Hong Kong, it remained in a gray area of legal jurisdiction. Neither Hong Kong nor China claimed full responsibility for the enclave, leaving it to develop its own vibrant community.
A Photographer's Encounter with Urban Chaos
Girard's photographic journey within the Walled City commenced when he found himself on the rooftop of one of its many illegally-built high-rises. Amid a maze of television antennas, he captured an extraordinary moment that encapsulated the spirit of this enigmatic community.
"I thought (the image) captured the kids' indifference to the potential danger ... of the rooftop, while at the same time sort of owning their territory and confronting me while goofing around," Girard remarked, describing the mesmerizing photograph. The juxtaposition of playful children against the harsh concrete and jagged antennas epitomized the spirit that defined Kowloon Walled City.
The rooftop served as an escape for residents, a place where private and public spaces blurred. Navigating the narrow gaps between buildings, children fearlessly roamed among laundry lines and satellites, playfully engaging with their surroundings. Remarkably, no guardrails or safety measures existed, yet the community embraced their rooftop haven as a refuge.
A Captivating Legacy Lives On
Despite its demolition in 1993-1994, Kowloon Walled City continues to captivate the imagination of many. The City's demolition birthed a transformation, and what once stood as a symbol of disorder has become a serene public park. Open-air chess pavilions, banyan-shaded ponds, and remnants of the 19th-century Chinese garrison city now occupy the site.
Girard's evocative photographs immortalize the vibrant community that once thrived in the Walled City. Today, within the confines of the old yamen building stands an enlarged image of Girard's rooftop photograph, accompanied by the sounds of children's laughter and the roar of airplane engines.
Kowloon Walled City's enduring appeal is evident through its impact on popular culture and architectural discourse. It has inspired fictional dystopias in video games and films, symbolizing a place where traditional rules no longer apply. Additionally, the city's unregulated and resourceful construction methods have sparked interest among architects seeking innovative design solutions in limited spaces.
Girard's documentation of everyday life within the Walled City aimed to demystify the misconceptions surrounding this unique community. He aimed to paint an authentic portrait, breaking away from the prevailing black and white images that only portrayed the city's worst aspects.
In essence, Kowloon Walled City remains a testament to the remarkable human ability to adapt and thrive, even in the harshest conditions. Its allure endures, forever captivating the imagination with stories of resilience and unconventional urban life.