Whether you call it chance or whether you call it destiny, sometimes the most tenuous of coincidences have a profound impact on our lives.
I was browsing through the annual street fair in our suburb of Sydney, Australia, one year when I picked up a book that had caught my attention. It was called Chasing the Dragon, the auto-biographical account of an English Presbyterian missionary who’d worked in Hong Kong, trying to rehabilitate gangsters and drug addicts in the Kowloon Walled City. That this particular book had caught my attention was not so surprising really, because I had recently returned from my second visit to Hong Kong, which had confirmed my opinion that this was one of my favourite cities in the world. So I bought the book, took it home and began to read it – and couldn’t put it down until there were no more pages for me to read.
I had never heard of the Walled City, where much of the action in the book took place; but as I read on, burrowing deeper and deeper into its twisted entrails, I was overtaken by a compulsion to see it for myself.
My next visit to Hong Kong came only a year later, during the course of which I had loned the book to someone and didn’t get it back; so I had to search for and buy another copy. It was 1988 and my companion and I passed through Hong Kong on our way to China. But it wasn’t until our return that the opportunity for me to visit the Walled City presented itself.
We were staying with a classmate of my companion on Hing Fat Street, in her apartment overlooking Victoria Park and offering the most magnificently panoramic view that stretched from The Peak to Tsim Sha Tsui, with all the constant comings and goings of the harbour in-between. On our last day, my companion and her classmate planned to go shopping – an activity that I despise with a passion – so I told them that I’d “go exploring” on my own. I took a tram to Central, then the Star Ferry to TST and a bus to Kai Tak Airport and walked the remaining distance through the streets of Kowloon. Although I had never seen a photograph of the Walled City, I recognised it the moment I saw it, on the other side of an open lot, thrusting up out of the ground like a seismic eruption.
Approaching from the south, I searched for an entrance but failed to find one. There were narrow gaps between some of the buildings but nothing that struck me as a public access point. The buildings clung together like a bunch of drunks, with only their proximity to each other holding them up.
I walked to the western end of the pile of buildings, then north again, and east along the northern perimeter marked by Tsung Tau Tsuen Road until finally, I saw someone slip from the street into the narrowest of fissures and disappear into the darkness. A way in, I thought. So I followed.
In Chasing the Dragon, Jackie Pullinger describes the innards of the city far better than I could; but since I have not sought permission to reproduce her words, I will have to rely on my own.
The moment I left the main street I felt as though I had entered another world. The sun was instantly eclipsed. The persistent noise of traffic, vehicular and human, was silenced, and replaced by the sounds of this different world; sounds that seemed darker and distant. The hot, humid air of the street was replaced by an atmosphere that seemed hot and cold at the same time. The air was stale and smelled of decay; and in the absence of direct sunlight, it was much cooler than that of the street, but I had the feeling that it had already been breathed and exhaled several thousand times before my turn to breathe it came. Day had become night the moment I entered the alleyway, which was just wide enough for two people to pass without turning. Slowly, my eyes became accustomed to the darkness and my nostrils grew attuned to the stagnant, rancid air. There was a pervading sense of dampness and the sensation of water dripping from the inscrutable darkness above. The floor was quite uneven and very slippery, as though covered by a slime that my eyes were yet unable to see.
I was afraid to penetrate farther into the darkness because of the City’s reputation for crime and lawlessness; the ruthlessness of the Triads and the desperation of the drug addicts. The stories I’d read in Chasing the Dragon filled my head and fuelled my fear. This was a real place for me now; not just words on a page; and it looked and felt exactly as Jackie Pullinger had described it, suggesting that all the other things she had described were equally accurate. But I had come too far to falter at the threshold; so I pressed on, into the darkness, down the slippery slope of the alley, as it seemed to descend into Hell.
There were tiny little workshops, dimly lit by bare bulbs that hung from the ceiling, barely illuminating a web of electric cables that wove their way across the darkness and interrupted the drips of water that fell from who knows where. And there were people working in the shops, crammed into their dingy corners, crafting things with the precision and meticulousness of a watch-maker, too engrossed in their tasks to notice me as I picked my way carefully, deeper into the darkness. Only one person passed me on the alley; head bowed, eyes lowered, each of us minding our own business. So I continued, unchallenged, until I came to an intersection.
The transverse alley was even narrower than the one I was on, but it ascended from the point of intersection so I took it. The darkness drew closer and the ambient sounds more distant. Like any city, the streets leading off the main thoroughfare seemed less safe; the shadows, more threatening.
I had not brought a camera tripod with me and I feared drawing attention to myself by using a flashgun; and without either of these devices, photographing this darkened labyrinth was impossible. Jackie Pullinger’s description of the crime, addiction, prostitution and extortion in the Walled City coloured my perception of every movement and every shadow I saw. The deep, sinister darkness felt as though it hid a multitude of evils. At the time, I did not know that the decision to demolish the Walled City had already been taken by the British and Chinese authorities; and that the palpable dangers which had existed there in the depths of its notoriety had largely been eradicated by then. Although the place I stood in was in the present; the place I imagined myself standing in was of the past.
I continued my exploration; but what I saw was only a repetition of what I had seen and I began to fear that I might never find my way out of this fetid maze. So I retraced my steps and eventually, to my most profound relief, found what looked like the alley by which I had entered the darkness; and at the end of it, the most welcome slivver of light I had ever seen.
— oo O oo —
By my next visit to Hong Kong, the Walled City had been completely razed; and on my most recent visit, the Walled City Park filled the space once occupied by the most notorious slum in Hong Kong. My wife wanted to visit it so we took the MTR to Lok Fu and walked down Junction Road to Tung Tau Tsuen Road. I had the strangest feeling as we walked along the road I’d taken eleven years earlier, searching for a way to gain access to the Walled City. The drunken buildings, lurching together for support in that precarious huddle were no longer there. The wall that had given the city its ironic name had been restored and now it was the “City” part of the name that had become ironic; and approximately where I had found the alley by which I had penetrated the city, now stood the North Gate. In a selfish, nostalgic way, I felt sad to think that this extraordinary place, certainly a place of crime and addiction, exploitation and deprivation, had been swept away like the tiles at the end of a mah-jong game
As we explored the park and its beautifully constructed Chinese garden, two feelings invaded my consciousness. The first of these was a gnawing regret that I had no photographs of the interior of the old Walled City to remind me of where I had been on that day in 1988. And the second was a feeling of thankfulness that a chance discovery of a book in a street fair in Australia had lead me to this place before it disappeared forever. I found it difficult to comprehend that this tranquil place of recreation had once been a seething ants’ nest where more than 30,000 had people lived and worked and struggled to survive. I wanted to shake my head and chase away this fantasy to find the old Walled City again. I wanted there to be some recognition of the people who lived here. Across the world and all through time, people have struggled and endured great suffering simply because of where and when they were born. Many of the residents of the Walled City were no more than victims of circumstance; and to erase their memory from the landscape as one would cut out a bad spot from an apple seemed to me to be the final injustice. But as we wandered through the park, approaching the South Gate, my concerns were answered for there, behind a Chinese wall facing the gate, was a model of the Walled City as I remembered it.
Hopefully, the former residents of the City were now enjoying proper sanitation, decent plumbing, safe electricity and clean water. Hopefully, wherever they were now, they were able to come and go without being accosted by drug addicts or threatened by gangsters; and the children were able to go school instead of being forced into crime or prostitution; and the streets in which they lived were filled with light and joy instead of darkness and fear. But the model and the park that housed it would always be there to remind the world of how they had once lived, what they had endured and what they had survived.
I was no Jackie Pullinger. I didn’t work in the Walled City; I didn’t save any souls; I didn’t convert any Triad members to the paths of righteousness or help any drug addicts escape their addiction; or free any child prostitutes from the clutches of those who exploited and shamed them. I was only there for a short time; an unseen observer; a ghost, for all the material difference I made to the inhabitants of the Walled City that day. But I was there; and I saw; and I remember; and nothing will ever be the same. I hadn’t approached the Walled City as an entertainment, like Disneyland or Ocean Park. I had sought it out as an education, where I learned about experiences that were very different from my own. And just as the residents of the Walled City had little choice but to make the best of the cards fate had dealt them; we should not turn away from the plight of those less fortunate than ourselves, pretending that it doesn’t exist, basking in the exclusivity of our privilege. If a butterfly, flapping its wings in Tokyo, can change conditions in New York, surely my brief experience in the Walled City will make a difference somewhere, somehow.
— oo O oo —
Prior to its demolition in the 1994, The Kowloon Walled City was a 6.5 acre site where more than 30,000 people lived cheek by jowl. You read (above) what the old Walled City was like. Below, you can see how it has been transformed. You can read more about the history of the city here.