Mar 12 2015

Kowloon Walled City Revisited

by Billy Kung

More than two decades have passed since the book “City of Darkness: Life in Kowloon Walled City” had first been published in April 1993, a month after demolitions began to wipe away the infamous walled city. The book is an excellent collaborative effort by two creative individuals, Canadian photographer Greg Girard and UK-based Ian Lambot, previously an architect and now a book designer and publisher. To mark the occasion, the two have decided to revisit their first effort and have henceforth worked with American graphic designer Susan Scott to publish an all-new edition called “City of Darkness Revisited” in the fall of 2014.

The new edition includes–as well as many interviews from the original edition–a number of new essays and numerous new images on topics not covered before: the walled city’s architectural development; the demythologizing of its reputation as “a den of iniquity;” the political history that drove its development over the years; the walled city’s influence on film, architecture, urbanism and even video games; and a collection of materials published by others. Apparently inspired by this legendary enclave, British-American director Christopher Nolan had his design team build a scale model called “The Narrows” as part of a section of Gotham City for his film “Batman Begins.” There is now a dedicated website on the book, where one can also find  a large volume of information on the history and background of the walled city.

Originally a Chinese military fort, the Kowloon Walled City was by far the most densely populated place on earth. Home to over 33,000 people in an area of 6.4 acre borders, some 350 buildings rising no more than 14 stories stood tightly packed. Within is a mesmerizing warren of narrow and interconnected alleyways, stairways and corridors. For the most part, the main alleys were relatively well-lit and were kept clean and tidy, but conditions deteriorated rapidly once you start venturing into the side alleys. However, this architectural monster has provided stable homes as well as shop spaces to generations of locals in a tight-knit community.

For Girard and Lambot, the project took almost five years to complete. Right in the beginning in 1986, Girard had decided to photograph the city in color and along the way, he adhered to the traditional documentary form of telling the story as it evolved. Over countless visits, he was eventually accepted by and gained the trust of the community, and thus he was able to gain access to their quarters and businesses.

To those who have not seen the Kowloon Walled City during its heyday, I highly recommend this historical document. The new edition is much richer in content compared to the first edition, and the layout is spacious and the pictures are bigger. While the first hardcover edition is now out of print, a paperback version is still available.

Greg Girard resides in Vancouver. Monte Clark Gallery, which represents him, is also based there. Girard has spent over thirty years working as a photographer in Asia.

Southwest corner of Walled City. Copyright Greg Girard.
Southwest corner of Walled City. Copyright Greg Girard.

Billy Kung is photo editor at ArtAsiaPacific.