There are a lot of famous slums out there, exceptionally densely populated regions of a city characterized by squalor and extreme poverty. I recently came across an article about one of the most legendary and amazing of slums, the Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong. Until its demolition in 1994, it was the most densely populated region in the world, with 33,000 people living in one single city block. It was made up of hundreds of little houses stacked on top of each other, connected by staircases snaking under dangling wires. Many buildings in this little area had no access to outside light or air, and the corridors in-between buildings were so dark that even the police were said to be afraid of them.
Before its demolition, photographer Greg Girard worked with Ian Lambot documenting this unique area. Girard recalls being completely shocked by the slum. Previously a fortress of the Qing dynasty, Kowloon never completely came under the regulation of the British colonial government in Hong Kong. Because of this hands-off approach, residents were able to build their dwellings however they wanted. They frequently ignored both health and safety codes, and houses were built by building onto the next building, punching out walls to use staircases.
In the depths of the Walled City were a variety of prosperous small businesses, such as meat factories with no health regulations to speak of. While this must seem like a horrendous place to live that takes away any semblance of humanity, according to Girard, the people inside the Walled City lived just like people anywhere else. They were all perfectly ordinary, despite living in such a bizarre and unusual place.
Girard wasn’t the only person fascinated by the Walled City; it also captured the imagination of architecture student Aaron Tan. He wrote his thesis all about the Walled City as it was being torn down. What Tan found really amazing was the Walled City’s water system. Residents dug extra wells and built thousands of pipes twisting through the area. But because pumping water to the roof tanks in the Walled City required plenty of power, the residents took turns conserving electricity so that water could successfully be shared.
After its demolition some 20 years ago, the area that made up the Walled City was made into a park. However, its legacy lives on. Its complex, winding alleys with no light have inspired both video game levels and movie locations. Girard and Lambot are currently working on finishing a book of their photographs, called “City of Darkness: Revisited”.