As we all know by now, the faded black-and-white image—when deployed by an essay to cue its readers into a retrospective reverie—is a trope. Just as much, the people populating it are stock characters (the aproned florist; the coiffed woman; the grandparent squinting grimly into the void). And the buildings register as interchangeable scenic backdrops, too (the stucco row house streaked in grime; the front steps of a municipal building). Inevitably, part of the point will be that the scene fails to capture the extent to which these buildings once teemed with life. The irretrievability of the past—the inadequacy of media—will be part of the point.
But because the point is slightly different here, let us start not with an image, but rather, with a hand-drawn sectional diagram of Kowloon Walled City: a site that once existed in Hong Kong before it was demolished in 1994.
Rendered with obsessive detail, this drawing was produced by a team of Japanese researchers dispatched to Hong Kong, urgently cataloguing the structure’s idiosyncrasies, up until the very night before it was torn down. Even calling Kowloon Walled City a “structure” is misleading, because the word “structure” implies (at least before the theorization of clouds and emergent non-agentic intelligence), that some sort of singular force made decisions not only about how it was built but where it began and ended. There was no such singular force calling the shots at Kowloon Walled City, which extended the logic of a shanty town to the extreme, reaching heights of six or seven stories. Doors were sealed over to build new living quarters in front of them. With no plumbing, water was moved by hand up staircases to the complex’s highest residences.
The site was improvised and emergent, without even a team responsible for its growth, let alone any one architect or urban planner providing oversight. Built first during the Song Dynasty, it first served as a military outpost, and then a walled fort meant to keep out the British. A circuitous history followed, but over time, the complex was occupied by an increasing number of Chinese refugees fleeing civil war for Hong Kong. China exerted a claim on the territory, which Britain half-recognized, and the British Foreign Office eventually recommended that the crown "accept the principle of Chinese jurisdiction over Kowloon Walled City but the Chinese agree not to attempt to exercise that jurisdiction in practice."
Held at arm’s length and suspended in limbo, the complex was a densely populated no-place, its design organic and crowdsourced, its buildings constructed at staggered heights, sometimes one on top of the other. Its uneven skyline and dark ground-floor alleyways came to embody the effects of control and power moving out from under state control. Architect and author James Saywell writes:
Because there was no master-plan to follow—or regulations to adhere to—unconventional circulation routes starting to weave through the city, rising and descending through adjacent structures. Existing staircases were co-opted, windows in adjacent buildings were ignored and walled over, floors were cantilevered over alleys, sometimes until they touched those across the way. The roofscape of the Walled City became its own public realm, with potted gardening, playing children, reposing adults, and where lateral circulation occurred (even by the postman).1
Far from being an enlightened anarchic experiment, Kowloon Walled City, falling under the control of Hong Kong triads (the equivalent of mafia syndicates), grew infamous for its vice, to the point that police supposedly only dared enter in large groups. The South China Morning Post writes of Kowloon Walled City, “A historical accident of colonial Hong Kong, it existed in a lawless vacuum until it became an embarrassment for Britain.” (To avoid a blinkered fetishization of the vices it hosted, we ought to also acknowledge that Kowloon was often remembered as a place whose inhabitants could be—or were forced to be—enterprising, self-fashioning, and resilient.) A peculiar soundtrack punctuated life in Kowloon Walled City, which sat under the path of the Kai Tak airport, so at regular intervals, airplane traffic overhead eclipsed all other noise.
The architectural document created by these Japanese researchers is remarkable because, beyond the detail of its draftsmanship, one sees the result of hybrid intentions: attempts to clinically document an architectural site, on the one hand, and on the other hand, to conjure a world of people who retrofitted, repurposed, and DIY’ed their environment in service to their daily needs. Each human figure is an outline, colored with washy orange ink, crowded into communing. Often when such figures appear in architectural diagrams, they exist alone or in sparing groups of two or three. Given nondescript attire, they perform unremarkable activities, their sole functions to show scale while hinting at the general engaging livability of a proposed development. Never do these figures do anything so distracting as to draw attention away from the construction being depicted.
In this drawing, however, they are anything but demure. The diagram’s residents cook, stretch outside, and gather around tabletops and in bars. In one room, audience members appear shoulder-to-shoulder in orderly rows, as one seems to perform a dance on stage. At the very bottom of the alleyway created by two adjacent towers, a parent seems to carry a baby in one hand, an umbrella in the other. Laundry hangs above them, story after story. You realize how many of these rooms did not have windows.
It might be worth pointing out that this diagram was drawn by a territory’s former colonizers. And while their hand-drawn, erstwhile colonial subjects are all rendered in a single orange shade, traces of other colors do seep in: the green tints used to represent staircases, doors, and potted plants. Still, opting for a reduced color palette, the illustrators apparently sought to evoke the chaos and overwhelming lived-in-ness of the space through an abundance of pen-marks and outlines. A closer look—ninth floor apartment, overlooking the alley—reveals one resident, in fact, in the midst of performing a handstand. Did the researchers observe this activity? Or had it been imagined? And what are we meant to learn—about the space, and about the person—when we are told that these acrobatics occurred?
The handful of actual Hong Kongers (as opposed to diasporated descendants of Hong Kongers, like myself) with whom I’ve discussed Kowloon Walled City have seemed to respond above all with matter-of-fact disinterest. It feels like trying to talk to a French person about the Eiffel Tower. At some point, the site’s significations in world imagination exceeded its contemporary impact on its actual immediate environs. Kowloon Walled City ascended to the status of an essentialized symbol, the bulk of its significance currently being manufactured and imagined abroad, in music videos and video games, anime and cyberpunk, not to mention texts like this one.
Take the five-story indoor amusement park, “Warehouse Kawasaki” in Kawasaki, Japan, which was built to recreate the experience of being in Kowloon Walled City complete with neon signs, narrow passageways, windows that looked out into other rooms. (Whichever entrepreneur was behind Warehouse Kawasaki in some sense made a good business decision: maintenance costs must have been minimal on an intentionally decrepit, crumbling building complex.) Images of this theatrically restaged, simulacral Japanese version of Kowloon Walled City were in turn multiplied and propelled around the globe, for instance in music videos by groups like J-pop group Sakurazaka46 (here subtitled in Vietnamese). Warehouse Kawasaki closed in 2019. Simulation faced the same unceremonious end as its referent.
Anime fans will know that Kowloon Walled City served as the inspiration for the backdrop of the 1995 anime Ghost in the Shell. Hong Kong’s vanished site has also appeared in video games nonstop: Final Fight 2 (1993); Kowloon's Gate (1997); Shenmue II (2001–2002); Second Life (2003); Call of Duty: Black Ops (2010); Shadowrun: Hong Kong (2015); Phantasmal: City of Darkness (2016); City in the Void (2019); Paranormal HK (2020). 2 The list goes on and on, long beyond this. A user recreated Kowloon Walled City in Animal Crossing just two years ago.
The infamous, sprawling, emergent space has reared up in contemporary art contexts too. Canadian artist Howie Tsui’s animated video Retainers of Anarchy (2017) uses algorithmically generated content to speculatively picture Song-Dynasty life as unfolding in the unregulated Kowloon Walled City. Hong Kong artist Vvzela Kook has created a science-fiction based series of exhibitions inspired by sprawling, stateless site. Dublin-born artist Yuri Pattinson’s video and mixed-media installation False Memory incorporates footage from Warehouse Kawasaki’s recreations of the city. In Kool-aid Man in Second Life (2008–11), artist Jon Rafman had the affable, juice-filled mascot paying a visit to a virtual rendering of the site. Raqs Media Collective has incisively written about Kowloon Walled City:
The walled city had approximately thirty thousand people living in one-hundredth of a square mile, which amounts roughly to an average population-per-unit-area density ratio of 3.3 million people to a square mile. This makes it the densest inhabited unit of space in world history. If we think of this space as a repository of memories, it would be the most haunted place on earth.
Why do such spaces—sometimes crowded, sometimes empty (but apparently crowded with ghosts)—appear in a manner that is almost viral, such that the trope of empty, but haunted streets, set in the near future of global cities, begins to show the first signs of a cinematic epidemic of our times? Will we remember the cinema of the early twenty-first century as the first intimation of the global collapse of urban space under its own weight?
Or is this imaginary appearance of a haunting, suicidal metropolis more of an inoculation than a symptom, an early shoring-up of the defenses of citizens against their own obsolescence? 3
Just as Raqs envisioned cinematic virality of Kowloon-like worlds expressing anxieties about obsolescence and the “global collapse of urban space,” it is worth pondering the reasons that images of the walled city carry speculative weight for those of us working in contemporary art specifically. It is not a stretch to see how the transnational, lawless, unregulated metropolis might exert a particular hold over our imaginations, given the ways in which the richesse of transnational, lawless, unregulated global players—in spectacular trickle-down fashion—sustain so many of the smaller art nonprofits that are our labors of love. Could an interest in statelessness and transnationalism in particular halls of art worlds be fueled in part by precisely that which indirectly signs many of our paychecks: the self-regulating, supra-national chaos that transcend governmental oversight? By no means is this an indictment of artists whose work might betray a fascination with Kowloon; on the contrary, it seems natural to seek understanding of the forces that underwrite the worlds in which we live and work, even while many of these forces might be partially offshored in ways we’ll never know.
It has been claimed that no such thing as Kowloon would ever exist again. If we take it upon ourselves to think of counterexamples to that claim, disputed areas might spring to mind, for some: like the Western Sahara, in limbo after a history of military stalemate. But the thoughts of others might turn to a different set of labyrinthine alleyways and ad-hoc, emergent warrens: the ones created by abutting national finance laws, offshore accounts and shell companies, anonymous buyers at Sotheby’s auctions, and the physical spaces themselves: freeports. Like Kowloon Walled City, a freeport exists beyond the troublesome logic of nation-states that would otherwise stake a claim on the bric-a-brac contained within them. Observers constantly opine that art markets have the dubious distinction of being some of the oldest in the world, and also the most unregulated. When alleged fraudster and art dealer Inigo Philbrick was apprehended in 2020, he was reportedly found wearing swim trucks and strolling through “artisan markets” at the center of town on the South Pacific island of Vanuatu. 4 Reportedly, he went about his days on the island with little concern, due to what “he believed was the absence of an extradition agreement between the US and Vanuatu.” No one wants to talk any more about how the Eiffel Tower symbolizes romance; certainly not in France—and the rest of us have more or less understood that by now, as well. Meanwhile, Kowloon Walled City looms in imagination as something else, something more vicious—but ultimately a kind of romance, too.
Next from this Volume
Where the Skin Ends
by Quang Truong by Quang Truong
“It’s too easy to be curious, but not optimistic; or optimistic, but not curious.”