Walled City still haunts

Weekend Glitz | Lisa Kao 15 Nov 2019

The younger generation may not know there was a forbidden city in Hong Kong from the 1950s to the 1990s.

Kowloon Walled City was a place where the Chinese government could not rule, the Hong Kong government did not dare rule and the British government did not want to rule.

"There was only a little known about the life in the Walled City before the resettlement," said photographer Greg Girard. "Because of drugs, prostitution and gambling, parents made their children stay away from the area."

The press did not pay much attention to the area until its demolition in 1987.

However, Girard and architect Ian Lambot found it attractive. The two started photographing before 1987, packaging the stories in 1990 and publishing them in the book City of Darkness in 1993.

By accident, two foreigners produced the most comprehensive record of life in Kowloon Walled City.

When Girard and Lambot talk about the Walled City now, the scenes still come to mind. "It has always been interesting," said Lambot. "When I was giving a talk in Hong Kong recently, half of the audience were from the older generation who remembered the place, and the other half were younger ones who had heard about the myths."

Back in the late 1980s, the two started taking photos of the Kowloon Walled City. But instead of aiming for a book, they started taking photographs just out of interest.

"The architecture was unusual. I wanted to record it," said Lambot. It was the community that appealed to Girard, who had just started his career as a photographer.

Many of the photos Girard took were close-ups of people and interiors. It is hard to believe the Canadian was actually unable to take any photos on his first visit.

"I started with the shops, which were more open to the public," said Girard. "And it may have been easier for a foreigner, as the people would think the locals knew the rules but not a foreigner."

The visits got easier after the demolition announcement in 1987, as more people went to take pictures.

"After we started to organize a book seriously, we went to explain to the kaifong associations, and I think the word got out about these crazy foreigners," said Girard. "I would also print the photos to show them."

Lambot said the adults just ignored them when they were taking photos, while the children were curious.

The two foreigners did not think the area was as dangerous as it was rumored to be.

"In the 1950s and 60s those things were there; by the 1980s they were everywhere in Hong Kong," said Girard.

It was the ordinary details of the place that impressed them.

in particular, Girard cannot forget one postman's story. "He knew all the routes. He knew the whole place," he said.

It may not be a big deal for a postman to know a district well nowadays, but it was exciting for a postman who worked in the world's most dense district.

"The man had been doing his job for almost 20 years, and the post office realized that he was the only person who could do it," said Lambot.

For the British architect, the buildings were extraordinary. " People could walk from one side of the city to the other through the seventh floor," said Lambot, because the buildings were all connected.

"The developers talked to each other. If there was a staircase next door, they would just build the floors and reserve space to link to the staircase of the other building."

The unique architecture formed a shop community on the seventh floor.

The stories of Kowloon Walled City still provoke discussion even after two decades.

"I am getting weekly interview requests from students doing papers, or young people asking for pictures," said Girard. He said a former citizen even described the book as the "bible of Kowloon Walled City."

The book is still selling well, even in foreign countries, and Lambot has even received requests from Norway, Australia and Argentina.

Recently, the Blue Lotus Gallery invited the two to have a photo exhibition of the Walled City at the gallery in Sheung Wan for the first time. It runs until December 8.

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