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After seeing a lifetime’s worth of Hong Kong films, I decided I never wanted to live there; when I thought about it, even the idea of a visit made me shudder. Part of it was the certainty that I would be caught in the middle of a cop/criminal gun battle on a bus or in the street or at a bar or a convenience store. The other part is that Hong Kong is really, really crowded. It’s an island, after all, one that’s packed to the brim with people. People who sometimes even live in cages because there isn’t room for them all (and they’re poor). And I just don’t like crowds. Or cities. Or people, for that matter.

So Kowloon Walled City would have been my worst nightmare.

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The rundown:

Kowloon Walled City (hereafter known as KWC) was originally a Chinese fort, but in the late 1800’s is became a sort of enclave and people just moved in. After World War II the population increased (basically, a bunch of squatters moved in and the ruling British government gave up trying to throw them out), and by 1987 there were 33,000 people living in this 6.5 acre area.

Got that? Thirty-three thousand people. My father-in-law owns a couple hundred acres, and I can’t imagine fitting 33,000 people in that space, let alone a measly 6 ½ acres. As usually happens when there are too many people and not enough space, KWC expanded up.

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The government didn’t want much to do with this place, so it became a haven for criminals- and as usually happens when law enforcement throws in the towel, gangs took over. From the 1950s to the 1970s Triad organizations were pretty much the only regulators there. In the ’70’s the government finally started raiding the place, which I imagine was something like going into the skyscraper in Dredd. Eventually the Hong Kong government even went so far as to provide water and mail delivery. Talk about spoiling your citizens!

By the late 1980’s Hong Kong had had enough of this eyesore, and evicted the residents and businesses within (shelling out $350 million in compensation), and eventually the KWC was demolished in 1993. It was replaced by this nice park, which incorporates a few bits of the surviving structure.

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While you can’t check out the KWC for yourself anymore, there is this documentary available on Youtube that shows the living conditions: families operating businesses in rooms the size of my desk, ‘streets’ so overhung with added-on construction that they haven’t seen daylight in years, and open sewage ditches running through them. According to the documentary, everyone living in KWC is a criminal gone off the grid for whatever reason- but in truth many of the residents were regular people who were simply too poor to find another place to live.

Even though you can’t visit it anymore, KWC has featured in several films, including the classic Jean-Claude van Damme movie Bloodsport. I’ve never actually seen it, but now that I know where it’s set, I want to. And maybe also just a little because of this picture:

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Kowloon Walled City might be my worst nightmare, but it’s also a pretty fascinating look at how people survive and even thrive in tough conditions, and how they develop a unique culture around their shared hardships.