But time has moved on; the immediacy of our time in the Walled City has dissipated and both of us have been able to go back and sort through our photographs more dispassionately, with new eyes and clear minds. We wanted to keep the best of the interviews and inevitably – with the City long gone – many of the photographs will be the same. But in other ways, City of Darkness Revisited will be quite different. Both of us have come across images either omitted or used in a minor way that make us wonder now, what were we thinking? The new book will allow us to make amends, adding new images here and there, and giving due prominence to others previously hidden away.
New images have been included and the emphasis placed on existing photographs has changed. And, of course, there is also a considerable amount of new material not included in the earlier book, not least a whole series of photographs of the City from the 1960s and’70s that have never been published before, as well a numerous new drawings of the City’s buildings and a broad range of images showing how the Walled City continues to influence popular culture –in the form of art, books, movies and computer games – to this day.
I first visited Hong Kong in 1974. I heard stories about the Kowloon Walled City on that visit but it wasn’t until I moved to Hong Kong years later that I saw the Walled City for myself. I came across it one night in 1986 when photographing near Hong Kong’s old international airport, Kai Tak. At that time the Walled City was partially surrounded by a two-story squatter village, and to enter the City you had to make your way past the hostile stares of village residents. At night the massive 12- and 14-storey facade glowed from the interior lighting of hundreds of apartments, and hummed to the sound of air conditioners and fans and television sets tuned to evening programmes.
Centered on a common pasture, a village could consist of a meetinghouse, land and multiple family homes that support the whole group or a “city on the hill” (Brinkley, 2010, p.
The City may have effectively ceased to exist, but the area’s status as a diplomatic black hole was not forgotten, and in the chaos of the War’s aftermath it proved the perfect place of asylum for many of the hundred thousands of refugees pouring south to escape famine, civil war and political persecution as the Communists gained control in China. Surrounded now only by walls of political inhibition, the City became the place where they could get their breath back; where they could live as Chinese among other Chinese, untaxed, uncounted and untormented by governments of any kind.
They are completely different people because Okeke wants to become a very famous doctor in the big city and Veronica wants to stay in the village to get married, become a mother and live a quiet life....
But that is for the future. For now, I am happy to show off the book Greg and I, not forgetting our wonderful designer Susan Scott, have managed to produce in this new edition. As explained elsewhere, the book includes, as well as many interviews from the original edition, a number of new essays and numerous new images on topics not covered before: whether about the City’s architectural development in the 40 or so short years of its existence; the truth behind its many myths as ‘a den of iniquity’; the politics that allowed it to develop in the way that it did; and how it has been transformed through the power of popular culture, both in Hong Kong and around the world.
Charity Edson: I do agree with the motion because city life is much more comfortable. There are more opportunities for people to develop in their lives and make money. Also, children who live in the city have access to good education, because there are better schools in the town than in the village.
Nabiha Rasool: Living in town is better village life because in town we meet people different kinds of people; mingle with them and learn a thing or two from them. As a result, our view of life changes as we begin to see things in a different light.
But for most, the main priority was survival and their needs were little different from anyone else’s: a life without interference with water, light, food and space. Of these water was the most indispensable and in the early years the only way to get it was to go down. And so that’s what they did, sinking some 70 wells in and around the City, to a depth of some 300 feet. Electric pumps shot the water up to tanks on the rooftops from where it descended via an ad hoc forest of narrow pipes and connections to the homes of subscribers. Only in the last 20 years were Government stand-pipes installed around the City to provide safe drinking water.
And here, in this richness and diversity, lies what was truly fascinating about the City. For all its physical shortcomings, and there were many, its residents had succeeded in creating a true community. For anyone who has wandered, enchanted and appalled, through the working-class back streets of Hong Kong or Macau, the photographs here will readily evoke the feel – and more importantly the smell – of the interior of the Walled City. But no images can do full justice to the experience of having been there. There were no thoroughfares and, except for a few bicycles, no vehicles – only hundreds of alleys and lanes, each different. From the innocuous, neutral exterior you plunged in. The space was often no more than four feet wide. Immediately it dipped and twisted, the safe world outside vanished, and the Walled City swallowed you up.
The blocks were built at different times, of different heights and materials. Some were quite sophisticated: one of the largest, for example, was a copy of an early public housing block, ‘designed’ by housing authority architects in their spare time. Some had home-made annexes of brick or iron or plastic fastened on to the roofs, but all were jammed up flush against each other, so that an agile cat could circle the place at roof level without difficulty. The roof had various functions. One of the municipal services the Walled City never really got to grips with was rubbish collection. Most organic waste was taken away, but the inorganic – old television sets, broken furniture, worn-out clothes and the like – was lugged up to the roof and abandoned. In among these unaesthetic piles of junk, village life continued.
It was only on entering the maze of alleys that I realised that this was significantly different from anything I might have come across before. And like many Hong Kong residents, I was already well versed in the stories of murder and mayhem that surrounded the City at that time. Indeed, I remember well many of my local Chinese friends warning me not to enter; I was bound to be mugged or worse. I am usually sceptical of such claims, but it is difficult to work out now whether the cold shoulder I felt emanating from everyone I came across in the alleys was real, or just my imagination fearing the stories might be true.