Shady deals colour walled city's past

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 August, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 August, 2001, 12:00am

Not so long ago, there was a district in Hong Kong that had the reputation of being a place where the government held no sway.

Despite Kowloon Walled City's official status, mid-way through the last century, within a relatively short time the neighbourhood had slipped into disrepute.

Law and order were in short supply, and crime, drugs, and vice flourished in the maze of dank, dark alleyways.

It was a place where - as many said - 'once you enter, you will never exit'. Today, the squatters are long gone, the outlaws are history, and Kowloon Walled City is an historical preserve with a much friendlier face.

The walled city was conceived five years after Hong Kong Island was ceded to Britain in 1841. Qi Ying, the Governor of Guangdong and Guangxi, proposed that Kowloon Walled City be constructed as the headquarters for both the general commanding the Depeng Brigade and the assistant magistrate of Kowloon.

The fortified city was intended to serve as a secure position that would strengthen the Kowloon region.

Construction was funded by donations from officials and local gentry, and the walled city was completed in May of 1847.

Originally, it was built in the shape of a rough parallelogram measuring 210 by 110 metres.

There were four gateways and six observation towers. The main gate was on the south, surmounted by a stone tablet bearing four Chinese characters signifying 'Kowloon Walled City'.

There were 32 cannons on the eastern, southern and western walls, and an additional wall was later constructed along the hill to the north of the city.

The enclave contained offices for the major-general and the assistant magistrate, the Wudi Temple, a parade ground, a store of military equipment and uniforms, a gunpowder factory and 14 barracks.

The southeast and southwest quarters of the city were used as residential areas.

The original garrison numbered 150 soldiers in 1847, but by 1898 this number had increased to 544.

In 1898, a 'convention respecting an extension of the Hong Kong territory' was signed between China and Britain, and the New Territories was ceded to Britain for a term of 99 years.

To acknowledge Chinese sovereignty over the leased land, it was mutually agreed that the walled city would remain under Chinese jurisdiction.

In 1899, Britain sent soldiers to occupy the New Territories but were met by armed resistance. The British suspected Chinese troops were involved and used this as an excuse to occupy the walled city. Attempts to negotiate with the British ended in failure.

Although the Government insisted China had jurisdiction over the area, by May of 1899 the Qing soldiers were withdrawn. No British troops were stationed there either, however.

In any event, by late 1899 the Qing Government had its hands full with the Boxer Rebellion which had broken out in the north of China and no further negotiations about jurisdiction over the Walled City were undertaken with the British.

An army of squatters soon took the soldiers' place, and the new, civilian inhabitants cultivated crops and raised pigs to earn a living.

The Hong Kong Government allowed churches and charitable organisations to use the area's buildings on short-term leases.

In 1933, claiming it had to do something about deteriorating conditions, the Hong Kong Government announced it would demolish houses and redevelop the area into a park - a plan which provoked vigorous protest from residents.

This in turn led to prolonged diplomatic negotiations over the city between China and Britain.

With the Japanese invasion in 1941, the issue was put aside. During the occupation, the Japanese demolished the old walls to obtain materials for extending the airport at Kai Tak.

Only parts of the east gate and a few towers were spared, but some of the buildings survived in relatively good condition, including the Almshouse (Elderly House), Eyre's Refuge, Lengjin Free School and the house of Zeng San (which was civilian property).

After the war, China wanted to regain jurisdiction, but the Hong Kong Government decided to evict the squatters with an eye to making use of the land.

The start of evictions in 1948 evoked a wave of anti-British demonstrations throughout China, and the question of jurisdiction was raised again.

Negotiations between China and Britain yielded no compromise. Because of this, long-term city planning and proper administration were difficult to implement.

Rapid population growth was accompanied by the illegal occupation of land and unauthorised construction of residential dwellings hastily thrown up within the area.

A dangerously unsanitary environment was badly in need of improvement.

Following the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984, the problem was finally solved. In 1987, the Hong Kong Government said it would begin restoration work to create the Kowloon Walled City Park.

Construction was completed in 1995.

Jacky is a summer intern

from Hong Kong Shue Yan College.

Graphic: oldhkglo