PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 October, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 October, 1993, 12:00am

IT was a truly extraordinary, nightmarish place. A teeming twilight world. A jumble of unreal images springing out of the gloom at every step. Barbie-doll legs stamped out in their thousands by a hissing, clanking machine supervised by a seven-year-old boy.

A dozen chefs in singlets and shorts would stand in a filthy, dingy room preparing an endless stream of shiny white fishballs. Around the corner, rows of ready-to-munch false teeth grimaced through the window of an unlicensed dentist's shop. Overhead, a creeping vine of water pipes and power cables hung suspended, sometimes drooping to shoulder height, entangled and entwined in an unruly dripping mass, and laden with years of rubbish jettisoned from floors above.

That was the Kowloon Walled City, Hong Kong's city of darkness.

It's all gone now, of course, but into that strange lawless place, the oddest historical anomaly of colonial times, ventured two men with a mission - photographers Ian Lambot and Greg Girard.

Day after day, week after week in the late 1980s, they braved the dirt and the gloom, and the indifference, not to say antagonism, of the city's inhabitants to make a record of the place which, it had been announced, was about to become one of the biggest demolition jobs ever undertaken.

The result is the book The City of Darkness.

Lambot originally trained as an architect but later turned to photography and publishing. His was the definitive photo book of the building of Sir Norman Foster's new Hongkong Bank building, with the Bank's blessing.

'I quickly found that what was interesting about the Walled City was not so much the building as how many people were living in it,' he said. 'What was actually a single structure was home to 35,000 people.' By chance Lambot came across Girard, a photojournalist whose imagination had first been caught by the Walled City in 1986 when he had visited it as a sound recordist with a BBC film crew. 'I started going back right away, but when the clearance was announced in 1987 I started shooting more earnestly,' he said.

Lambot saw the project as a book, an 'honest record', which led to the idea of letting the people themselves tell their stories through a series of transcribed interviews. Emmy Lung, a young history graduate working for the Hong Kong Museum's oral history department, was brought in. 'She turned out to be fantastic at talking to people and was vital in persuading them to let themselves be photographed,' Lambot said.

At this stage neither man had thought much about finance. In 1989, Lambot went to the Frankfurt Book Fair, the publishing world's biggest annual forum, 'expecting people to fall over themselves'. But recession had already set in, and there was no money forthcoming. Yet they had to continue because time was running out.

Lambot's mind turned to sponsorship, but no business wanted anything to do with the Walled City, especially local business. 'They wanted to turn their backs on it, pretend it wasn't there. They thought it was incredibly weird that someone should want to make a book on it. At the same time they knew nothing about the place,' he said.

'The reality was that it was peopled by perfectly ordinary folk just trying to get by.' Finally, Po Chung, the founder of the couriers DHL, who has a strong interest in photography, came forward with enough funding to at least complete the research, and the two men diverted $500,000 from other work into the project.

Two years later the Urban Council, through the Hong Kong Museum of History, agreed to purchase the archive of the material, a selection of photographs and the transcripts for a permanent collection. 'This was just enough to print the book,' said Lambot.

'In a sense, the Walled City was no different to other areas of working-class Hong Kong, just more condensed - a defined slice of life within fixed boundaries. And what marks out the stories is the drive to move up the ladder. In the great migration of people from China in the 1950s, the city represented the first rung.' City Of Darkness, published by Watermark at $295, tells the stories of 35 of these people, along with essays by British journalist Peter Popham and Leung Ping-kwan, a lecturer at Hong Kong University and social commentator in the Chinese press.