They'd tried to clear Kowloon's Walled City many times. The first attempt was, apparently, easy enough. That was in May 1899, less than a year after the June 1898 Convention Between Great Britain and China, Respecting an Extension of Hong Kong Territory - usually known as the Second Convention of Peking - which had leased the New Territories to the British.
Like a careful landlord, the Chinese had wanted to keep one room locked within the house, inaccessible to the tenant, to make sure everyone knew whose place it really was. They had a fort, which had originally been an administrative dot on the empire's southern coast. After the first opium war, however, when the British had been granted official possession of Hong Kong Island in 1842, the Chinese authorities had reassessed the significance of that tiny outpost. Among other upgrades, they'd built a wall around it.
So the 1898 convention had its famous clause, the one that stated "the Chinese officials now stationed there shall continue to exercise jurisdiction except so far as may be inconsistent with the military requirements for the defence of Hong Kong". The fact of it lasted 11 months. The impact lasted for the 99 years of the lease.
When those inhabitants of the Walled City were kicked out in 1899, and sailed off on their junks without putting up much of a fight, the colonial authorities hoped there'd be no need for further expulsions. Just to make sure, however, an Order in Council at the end of 1899 made it perfectly clear - to the British, at least - that the Walled City was now "part and parcel of Her Majesty's Colony of Hong Kong". A Colonial Office minute stated, firmly, "The matter is at an end".
Gradually, squatters filtered back into the Walled City, with their livestock, creating what the government deemed to be an unsanitary and unhygienic environment. The second clearance began on June 10, 1933, when the government issued a notice stipulating resumption of land (i.e. compulsory acquisition) by the end of 1934. By then, land reclamation meant the six-and-a-half-acre enclave no longer sat picturesquely near the sea. The residents, 436 of them, turned to China for help. But by 1940, the only private dwelling was blamelessly occupied by a Reverend Kwong, a Church of England minister. Strike two to the colonial authorities.
After that, in the world beyond the walls, much bloodier spats over land were about to begin. By 1947, refugees from China's civil war were heading for Hong Kong, and about 2,000 of them had moved into the one area where China was still insisting it had rights. These new squatters were given notice to quit. They refused.
On the morning of January 12, 1948, a police party approached the Walled City through a narrow alley. According to the China Mail's front-page eyewitness account, a pitched battle, lasting 30 minutes, ensued: "The police were forced to open fire with revolvers." Women and children ran about picking up stones which could be hurled by their menfolk, and "seven tear-gas bombs were used". Six people suffered gunshot wounds.
The colonial authorities backed off, brooding. By late summer 1949, as the Nationalists and Communists were reaching their endgame for control of China, the Hong Kong government, aghast at what was happening on its doorstep, contemplated, yet again, clearing out the cuckoo's nest in its midst. They sought advice. On August 27, the British representative in Nanking, Sir Ralph Stevenson, sent a telegram ("of particular secrecy") to the Foreign Office.
Perhaps, he mused, trouble could be evaded if the British sought the agreement of the Chinese Nationalist government in Canton, on the grounds that it was to everyone's benefit if the Communists were prevented from exploiting "this convenient site for underground activity".
He also had a suggestion: how about placing the Walled City under temporary, but indefinite, quarantine on a health pretext? Barbed wire could be placed around the perimeter, and the residents could be given reasonable notice to gather their belongings and offered free alternative accommodation, plus transportation to take them there.
Stevenson was, clearly, a pragmatic man. "Such an expediency would, of course, deceive nobody [repeat nobody]," he concluded, "but might provide the appropriate formula which various Chinese interests of the neighbourhood might be prepared to accept tacitly at this critical stage of the war in the South."
Exactly five weeks later, on October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong declared the founding of the People's Republic of China. Three months after that, on January 11, 1950, the Walled City was almost reduced to ashes by a massive fire that left 17,000 homeless. Although it must have seemed, to Hong Kong bureaucrats, the perfect opportunity to obliterate a troublesome corner of history, the authorities managed to save life, limb and sufficient property for the Walled City to survive.
Not only that, it thrived - if success can be measured by the thousands of inhabitants who squeezed into its cracks and crevices, and who began to fashion strange accretions of architecture around themselves like a gigantic caddis fly encased in rock and twigs at the bottom of a deep, and exceedingly murky, pond.
In March 1962, the colonial government announced that it had plans to demolish the Walled City under Stage II of the Tung Tau resettlement scheme. A Kowloon Walled City Anti-Demolition and Anti-Removal Committee was immediately formed, and expressed its determination "to fight the government order to the end". The committee, being composed of both rightists and leftists, carefully divided its paperwork: the rightists appealed to Taipei, the leftists to Beijing. As the Nationalist government had no diplomatic relations with Britain, however, it was left to the Communists to lodge a serious protest with London.
On January 1, 1963, the British charge d'affaires in Peking was summoned by the West European Affairs Department of the Foreign Ministry, and told of its deep concern. And that, thought the Chinese (rather as the British had on a previous occasion), was that.
The Walled City leftists were informed that the matter had been dealt with. Great was the chagrin, therefore, when the stubborn Resettlement Department began to serve clearance notices, complete with deadlines (February 8, 12, 14, 19 and 20) for demolition.
China was furious. "The flagrant announcement … of a time limit for the demolition and resettlement, in spite of the warning of the Chinese government, is a gross violation of China's sovereignty and is intolerable," thundered the New China News Agency, China's de facto embassy in Hong Kong.
The story made international headlines; a mass rally and strikes were called; the police patrolled the Walled City; there was a climbdown. The government agreed, in the interest of good relations, to suspend its plans until further (unspecified) discussions could took place.
When London wondered if Prime Minister Edward Heath, who was planning his first visit to China in 1974, should discuss the Walled City with Premier Zhou Enlai, the succinct advice from Hong Kong's governor, Sir Murray MacLehose, was: better not. And when, in 1973, the Hong Kong government officially listed its increasing supply of services (water, electricity, sanitation) within the Walled City, the Resettlement Department was terse in its summary: [this agency] does not conduct clearance activities within the Walled City.
The Joint Declaration of the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of the People's Republic of China on the Question of Hong Kong was signed in Beijing on December 19, 1984. It had eight paragraphs, three annexes and two memoranda. None mentioned the Walled City.
In March 1986, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, who was then the deputy secretary in the General Duties Branch (and would, in 2005, become the Hong Kong's second chief executive), organised a meeting with Gordon Jones, district officer for Kowloon City, and Richard Margolis, the deputy political adviser. He told the men that the governor, Sir Edward Youde, wanted to clear the Walled City. There was now enough housing in the area to resettle the residents and, perhaps more to the point, Youde didn't want the appalling conditions to provide convenient post-handover propaganda for China as an example of how shambolic British administration had been.
So a paper was to be prepared on a potential clearance operation. Jones would look at the logistics, Margolis at the political dimension. After analysis and tweaking in Hong Kong, it would be sent to Beijing for further discussion with the Chinese government.
The mission was so top secret it couldn't actually be labelled secret; that could have given away the exceedingly sensitive game to both China and any wily residents of Hong Kong who might have moved into the Walled City to get compensation. This correspondence, therefore, was merely "confidential". The following month, April 1986, the paper was finished, a meeting was held in Government House and, on the colonial side, it was agreed that the clearance would proceed.
"This might sound corny," said Margolis, in an interview 26 years later, "but there was an extraordinary degree of pride in what the colonial administration had done here, and a very powerful desire to leave Hong Kong in good shape. The temptation to say, 'Here's an eyesore you helped to perpetuate so why don't you deal with it?' never really crossed anyone's mind."
Youde suddenly died of a heart attack on a visit to Beijing in December 1986, but secret plans continued to be made with extraordinary speed and diligence.
The Housing Department had been making furtive forays, led by an assistant director of housing, Gregory Chan Tak-ping (who went deep undercover by removing his tie and asking his government driver to drop him off a few streets away), but the authorities still weren't entirely sure what they were dealing with.
Early on the fine, sunny morning of Wednesday, January 14, 1987, therefore, 360 staff from the Clearance and Squatter Control sections of the Housing Department gathered for their day's duties. Only at 7.30am were they told their destination. As they went inside the Walled City, its 83 entrances were cordoned off. Then the 60 teams of six, each accompanied by a plainclothes policeman, systematically fanned out to gather statistics from within those caverns, formerly measureless to man.
At the end of that first day of door-to-door interviews, 19,606 people from 5,116 families had been registered; 22 families had refused to reveal anything about themselves; no illegal immigrants had been found.
The following day, a special committee, to advise on the clearance, the rehousing and the compensation arrangements, was established by the Housing Authority. This committee would eventually deal with 28,200 occupants in 8,800 structures.
Lamentations immediately began. The response of one shopkeeper, Cheung Mak-ching, had a grimly confident ring about it: "We'll see what China says to this. We have been through many clearance plans. Let's see what will happen this time."
What happened this time, however, was that the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a gracious statement: "Bearing in mind the prosperity and stability of the entire Hong Kong [sic], we wish to express a full understanding of the decision made by the British Hong Kong government to take appropriate measures to clear the Kowloon Walled City and build it into a park. Like other parts of Hong Kong, the Kowloon Walled City is a question left over from history."
And that, in terms of worrying about China, was that.
Compensation packages were drawn up of such variety and flexibility that, six years later, the director of audit would calculate the government had overspent by HK$210 million on them. In May 1993, as the City was being pulverised into dust, a member of the Special Committee, Leung Wai-tung, would tell the Executive Council, "I believe our approach was pragmatic while political as well. From day one, we knew our compensation was on the generous side."
So, it seemed, did everyone else. Amid that fevered pre-handover (and, after June 1989, post-Tiananmen) atmosphere, in a place where political accounting was measured to within a hair's-breadth but actual bookkeeping was almost non-existent, claims and counterclaims flourished.
Canny landlords made a killing. Chang Kat-kong was paid HK$34.6 million as compensation for about 100 flats. When the South China Morning Post eventually located him, he explained that he'd persuaded his Chiu Chow friends to pool their resources to construct his first 12-storey block of flats. Consequently, he claimed his share of the compensation only boiled down to HK$5 million. ("If I could choose," he remarked wistfully, in 1993, "I'd rather still be running my air conditioner-repair business at my Walled City shop and leading a happy and stable life.")
Businesses came up with fabulous, if unverifiable - certainly by the Revenue Department - claims. As the Post's Kevin Sinclair observed, in a 1992 column, "You would have thought they were all doing more business than Jardine Matheson". And it was usually these tenacious taipans - the fish-ball merchants, the herbalists, the noodle makers - who refused to budge.
By the beginning of 1991, the year the actual clearances were due to start, 96 per cent of residents but only 51 per cent of businesses had agreed to the government's compensation (although residents who'd voluntarily moved out had a tendency to nip back to their vacated flats to make tea and play mahjong with their friends).
Still, there were protests about compensation. Completion of the first phase began on November 28, 1991, and by 8pm that night about 30 protesters had set up camp outside Government House. In the following days, they would move on to the New China News Agency in Happy Valley, to the Star Ferry and to the Government Secretariat in Central; they would also, less obviously, write to Britain's Labour Party requesting assistance. None was rendered. They then moved to Tung Tau Tsuen Road, next to the Walled City, where they pitched tents, illegally, on the pavement.
The last day of the second phase - March 3, 1992 - began with an unexpected bang. Experts from the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Bureau were called in. The detonations came from four large, home-made firecrackers in an empty flat. A Union Jack flag (also home-made) was burned and a Chinese flag (ditto) was used to beat the police. Wisely, no arrests were made.
A month later, however, during completion of the third phase, on April 7, a resident wielding a chopper bloodied a clearance official, his assistant and two policemen. These were the first, and only, serious injuries of the entire clearance project. At 6am on July 1, 1992, 200 police, including Police Tactical Unit officers with helmets and riot shields, barricaded the last uncleared area. At 4.30pm, a middle-aged couple surrendered their flat.
It wasn't entirely the end, however. By this stage, the evicted residents' camp on Tung Tau Tsuen Road had morphed into a mini-shantytown. One hut contained six bunk beds, a black-and-white television set, three folding tables and a portrait of Mao. The authorities, anxious not to have one slum replaced by another, dismantled it on July 2. The area was then, finally, declared a restricted zone. The last clearance had taken from January 14, 1987, until July 2, 1992 - or, to calculate it another way, a strangely prescient 1,997 days.
This is an abridged version of an essay featured in City of Darkness: Revisited (left), a book by Ian Lambot and Greg Girard, which will be released on Wednesday. An accompanying exhibition will be held at The Space, 210 Hollywood Road, Sheung Wan, from Thursday to Saturday.