When my father was about 10 years old, he lived in an area in Kowloon City. He told me stories growing up there, where he and his friends would wonder around and most interestingly, into Kowloon Walled City. The Walled City was a military outpost built in the Song Dynasty. In 1842, Hong Kong was ceded to Britain and the Qing Government boosted up defences of the Walled City in light of British encroachments into China.
The Walled City was excluded from land leased to the British
In 1898, the New Territories was leased from the Qing to the British for 99 years. The lease, however, excluded the Walled City, where Qing officials remained to monitor British presence in Hong Kong. But the British suspected the Qing were raising troops to attack British settlements within the Walled City. British troops attacked the Walled City on 16 May 1899, only to find there a Qing official and 150 residents. The fort was empty.
After the Qing was overthrown, the Walled City became a limbo
The Qing Dynasty was overthrown in 1911, upon which the British formally declared sovereignty over the Walled City. However, the British never actually occupied it. Since the Walled City was not included in the lease to the British, it was arguable that the Republic of China (1912-1949), which replaced the Qing Dynasty, and later, the People’s Republic of China (1949-present), assumed sovereignty over the Walled City.
The Walled City was a community in its own right
About the Walled City, my father had spoken of the unlicenced dentists from mainland China and how the community was run by triads. By some people’s standards, the Walled City was considered “lawless.” This was far from the truth. The people who lived within the Walled City ran their homes together as a community. The Walled City supplied services to those who would otherwise be unable to afford them outside the compound.
Many residents of the Walled City were illegal immigrants
Many who entered Hong Kong illegally lived in the Walled City. The unlicenced dentists were among those looking for a new life in Hong Kong. They had no other way to support themselves but to continue practicing their trade, which was not recognised in Hong Kong. But they could do so in the Walled City. These immigrants had no choice but to flee their homes in China at times of turmoil, and their stories form the very fabric of Hong Kong.
In the 1950’s, going to the dentist was a luxury to be had. At the time, the unlicenced dentists in the Walled City provided services to the locals which would otherwise be denied. As such, the Walled City formed very much a part of Hong Kong’s collective memory. The Walled City can be seen as a mirror to Hong Kong whereas it also rejects the norms outside the informal settlement. The Walled City was an ambiguity that continues to define Hong Kong today.