Shinichi Asabe Article Collection

The People of Southeast Asia

Taiwan, Hong Kong, UK & Japan Kowloon Walled City vanished before the handover1989 - 1997

The Kowloon Walled City was an anarchic space that resulted from rivalry between the governments of China, Britain and Hong Kong. Ten years ago the Chinese government agreed on demolition of the Kowloon Walled City, and last year the site of the Kowloon Walled City was built into a modern park by the Hong Kong government. The Walled City came out in British colonial Hong Kong like an abortive flower and vanished like a phantom just before Hong Kong was handed over to her mother country. On the occasion of ‘Hong Kong’s return to China’, I directed a spotlight on the Kowloon Walled City once again.

The wall stone of the Qing dynasty

The imposing bulk of the Kowloon Walled City was profiled against the night sky.

On June 28th 1997 in the Kowloon Walled City Park opened on the site of the Kowloon Walled City last December the members of a women’s association were dancing with yellow and pink flags in their hands to the tune of a popular song in celebration of Hong Kong’s return to China.

Until four years ago, as many as 350 high buildings housing a large number of independent business concerns stood densely on an area only 2.7 hectares. The buildings stood so close to each other that the buildings looked as if it was only one building.

At that time I didn’t notice that there was a sheet of plywood on the ground of Longjin Road in the south, because I was only looking up the imposing buildings. “I’ll let you see something interesting,” Zheng Lingsheng (55 at that time), who ran a dental clinic in the walled city, said and moved the sheet a little. Then, I saw a big water rat jumping aside with surprise from a black square stone in a distance from where we were. Pointing at the stone, he said proudly, “That was the wall built by the Qing dynasty. I saw it when this building was in the course of foundation work. The wall was made of granite and its width extended as far as there.” The width of the wall is almost the same as that of this present sidewalk, which means the wall was fully three meters wide.

The construction of the wall was completed five years after Hong Kong Island across Victoria Harbor from Kowloon was ceded to Britain in 1842. The wall was 9 meters high and 240 meters long east and west and 130 meters long south and north, and there were four gates on all sides including the main gate on the south. At that time there were 64 houses in the walled city and more than 460 government officials and others lived (from a survey by the Hong Kong Cultural Centre).

The wall was remained until World War II, but the Japanese army tore it down to provide building materials for the extension work of Kai Tak Airport. After the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, the refugees from China rushed into the walled city and built barracks there. Since the beginning of the 1960s, they started to build high buildings because the area was very limited. Under the ground of the walled city site, running sewage was washing the remaining foundation stones of the fort and an empty shampoo container was floating on the sewage.


Uncared-for “cultural assets” on the pathway.

The then guidebook menacingly emphasized the eeriness of the walled city, referring to it as ‘a den with no way out.”

It is 10 o’clock in the morning. The weather is fine. I entered the walled city referred to as a maze. The faint light of a fluorescent lamp was almost absorbed into the complete darkness. Above us there were electric wires and water pipes mingled with each other and water was falling in drops from a join of the water pipes. On the pathway whose center had been worn depressed, filthy water was running. In addition to a rotten smell from the ditch and a nasty smell of jet exhaust gas coming from Kai Tak Airport about 800 meters away to the south, smells of foods and medicines hung in the air. Every time I turned the corner of the meandering pathway, stairs appeared. There were not only houses but also factories, shops, restaurants, schools and medical clinics in the walled city, so that people seemed to be able to maintain their lives within the walled city. Five years ago when the demolition was agreed on, there were 870 shops here (from the survey by the Hong Kong government).

On the basement there was a temple. Surprisingly, it even had guardian dogs. Then I went to the first floor. There I saw two cannons more than three meters long left uncared-for on the side of the dim pathway. They were once placed in the fort of the Qing dynasty, pointing at the harbor. When the Hong Kong government tried to keep them in the museum, the residents of the walled city opposed strongly. Suddenly a square clipping of blue sky came into sight. I was standing in the center of the walled city. There was a two-storied house with a tiled roof. The house was used as an old people’s house or a kindergarten.

Since the supply of electricity was cut off in vacant buildings, a flashlight was needed even in the daytime. A pile of bulky refuse discarded by the former residents closed the pathway. The contents of the refuse here were different from that of the cities in Southeast Asia where some people made their living by collecting iron scrap and empty glass bottles. The discarded junk in here included chairs, a cupboard, bedclothes, toys, a fan, a telephone and even a family Buddhist altar. Most of them were still usable but they were waiting to be destroyed together with this building. At that time China was hurrying on ‘the socialist market economy’ line, and serving as its entrance, Hong Kong was very brisk. Some workers in Hong Kong earned 6,000 HK dollars a month (about 120,000 yen at then rate).

I tried to pass through the heap of this junk. But as the heap almost reached the ceiling, I couldn’t go forward. So I turned back the way I had come. Then I could come out of the maze in spite of the exaggerating warning of the guidebook.

Beyond the control of the governments of China, Britain and Hong Kong

I took a short rest at a pub. I could hear some men and women playing mahjong at a confectionery next to the pub.

“We don’t call opium ‘apian’. We call it ‘fushugao (medicine for long and happy life)’,” said Zhen Yaonan (39 at that time). Wearing only shorts, he was serving the customers at the very hot and stuffy pub. He took a can of beer out of a glass-glazed fridge for himself and went on about his risky story. “People were lying sprawled in a row with pipes in their mouths around there.” His Cantonese was a little harsh but its rhythm was similar to that of the vulgar tongue used in the Kansai region of Japan. Young people gradually began to suck heroin instead of opium, because the price of opium rose in the mid-1960s and they had to lie down to suck it for a while. “Now we don’t smoke it openly as before. But if you like,” he said and offered me opium.

When I hesitated, he said, “Do you know ‘tuoyiwu (a strip show)’? The intelligentsia calls it ‘yinwu (obscene dance),’ but it is nothing but an art that a dancer takes off her clothes one by one without a word.” Another name of the Longjin Road I took was Buyetian (Nightless Sky), and in that area there were strip theaters and brothels until the first half of 1970s.

“The prostitutes here were younger and cheaper than those in Miao Street and Shanghai Street. So the outside customers taken by pimps outnumbered the inside customers.” According to him, some of the prostitutes were sold by their parents or boyfriends. There were 12-or 13-year-old girls among of them. They sold their bodies for 4-5 HK dollars (equivalent to about 1,000 yen today) at lowest. At the bottom of the stairs there was a woman who shot me a sticky look. Maybe she used to be a prostitute. Before I heard Yaonan’s story, I hadn’t paid attention to that middle-aged woman, who was wearing hardly any make-up.

The Hong Kong government made many announcements of the plan to demolish illegal buildings, but the government gave up the plan as many times because of pressure from the Chinese government and resistance from the residents. Even the police was stopped from going into the walled city. Since then none of the governments of China, Britain and Hong Kong could control this place. Accordingly, stowaways from China and criminals from Hong Kong came into the walled city for sanctuary and this place became a hotbed of illegal acts such as prostitution, drug dealings and gambling.

A woman of small build with a baby in her arms came into the pub. They were Yaonan’s wife Hu Huixin (35 at that time) and his only daughter Jingmin. As soon as he saw his wife and daughter, he changed the subject and started talking about a serious matter. “One or two years ago a man who fled from China was caught here. When he was tried in court, he said that he had come to the walled city all the way through the tunnel from the other side of the border, so he didn’t invade the territory of Hong Kong, and besides, this place had belonged to China from the Qing dynasty. This is a reliable story, because it was in the paper.” If his story was true, the length of the tunnel must have been as many as 25 kilometers.

A big scar on Yaonan’s stomach was reddening with the beer he was drinking. The scar made me worried, wondering if he was a well known gangster in the black world and had fought hard as a Hong Kong action movie star did. “Oh, this? It’s a scar of the operation for stomach ulcer. I sometimes take medicine.” I was relieved at his explanation, but at the same time I felt disappointed. Thanking him for his long talk, I bought another bottle of juice.


“This is my hometown,” said Meishan.

“This place is not as scary as you think. But even if an outsider comes and does hurt to us, the police will not come to help us. So we insiders have to be on our guard against outsiders,” said Zhen Meishan (21 at that time). When she was in the second grade of an elementary school, a boy in a T-shirt blackmailed her at a narrow pathway, so she gave 12 dollars out of 20 dollars that she had with her. He was about four or five years older than her. She had never seen him before. Her parents said, “There is nothing for it but to give it up.” They didn’t report to the police. She said, “At that moment I thought it was O.K. if I gave him some money, because I could have meals at home unlike him. I was mortified a little bit but I wasn’t frightened.” She must have understood his circumstances in destitution, even though she was only a child. “People who do wrong are badly off, because they can’t find a job. There is no villain by nature,” Meishan said like a girl who was born and bred here.

She speaks English clearly and crisply. She had a nickname MAXINE when she was a student at Yingwen Junior High School, where the lessons were given in English. After she completed the high school course, she became an office girl of a trading company. But she quit the company one year later, because she felt bored with dealing with telephone calls, making copies and keeping the books. Now she is looking for a new job. She already left the walled city and lives in a public apartment building with her family, but she visited the walled city again with me. “I played hide and seed with my friends around here. I was very good at hiding myself in a toilet or an old people’s home,” she said fondly. Indeed this place seems to be the best place for playing hide and seek. She also said she played badminton and Ping-Pong here, but I wonder where on earth she played such sports in this heavily built-up area.

“What caused me inconvenience? Well, we were not allowed to drink tap water because it made us sick. The water was used for shower and laundry. Bringing up well water from the first floor to our place was my duty. The buildings had at least seven floors and some had even 14 floors, but not a building had an elevator. Incidentally her apartment was on the seventh floor. She often helped with cleaning. When she cleaned, she customarily swept the dust out downstairs, and the downstairs dwellers did the same in sequence. Accordingly the dwellers living on the lower floors had to tackle with a lot of gathered dust. But the dwellers on the first floor, which was infested with cockroaches and rats, didn’t complain about it, because their rents were cheaper. All the people she met at the stairs were her relatives or acquaintances. When her parents were busy with their work of making accessories, she used to go in a neighbor house. “I felt cozy, maybe because I was a kid. Anyway, this is a very important place for me because I can see my old friends here.”

It got dark. Most of her friends also left the walled city. I could see only a few lights on. The Kowloon walled city is not lively any longer. According to the survey by the Hong Kong government, 33,000 people lived in the walled city in 1987, but the number decreased to less than 10,000 in 1989 when I met her.

An unlicensed but good dentist

I saw Zheng Lingsheng in an undershirt beckoning me over the glass case, in which artificial teeth were displayed. It was the day before yesterday when he let me look at ‘the stone of the Qing dynasty’. Since he knew I was Japanese, he spoke highly of a Japanese treatment couch.

“I don’t have a license to practice medicine, but… If I were not skilled, I would not have many patients like these. I have treated many patients for decades.” Most of his patients come from the outside of the walled city. They come to Zheng Dental Clinic for treatment at half-fee. In 1941, when the Japanese army invaded Hong Kong, he fled to China with his parents at the age of six, and he returned to his native land Kowloon when he was 15 years old. At that time most of the houses were one-storied and there were still some fields in his neighborhood. After he served his apprenticeship at a dentist’s, he opened his clinic in 1958. There were 83 unlicensed dental clinics in the walled city in January 1987 (the survey by the Hong Kong government), but 20-odd clinics have already moved out.

“I heard a rumor that a Japanese company would buy this site of the walled city. If the rumor were true, the company would pay a large sum of money because it was a Japanese company. But the amount of compensation is too small, so I think the rumor is wrong.” Zheng Lingsheng is also being pressed to move out. He is offered 600,000 HK dollars in compensation. But he has not signed up yet. “The government practically told us to give up our business. They never take account of the money that I need to open a clinic outside of the wallled city. I need two million HK dollars at least.”

The problem is not only the matter of amount of money. The reason unlicensed medical practitioners have been able to treat people here is that this place has not been ruled by a government. Outside the walled city they are nothing but frauds even if they are very skillful. Dentists who had treated people on the street after the war could get license by the recommendation of a “British gentleman” and by paying 30 dollars for the application, and also Chinese doctors who fled from China because of a natural disaster or the Great Cultural Revolution in the 60s could get license if they passed a simple examination. “When I was in training, all licensed dentists were foreigners or rich people who had studied abroad. If a government changes, the license will lose its validity. So I never wanted license.” Saying so, he took a book out of the desk, on which there was a burner, plaster and the like. “I never got a formal education but I have studied Western medicine. Look this.” He handed me the book. I saw HEALTH AND PHYSICAL FITNESS on the cloth cover. It was published in U.S.A. in 1943. However, I never heard Zheng Lingsheng speaking English except “Thank you” and “Good bye.”

His wife brought an album. It contains pictures of their three children. Their elder son works for the Hong Kong government and their daughter works for a German company in Singapore. The other son is a high school student. “I’d like to send him to university. I want him to be a dentist who treats patients after the Western method.” He introduced his youngest child. The boy has a lean build in contrast to his father’s stocky build.

Secret Factory

a fake watch factory. Yin has never seen a finished product.

Letters and postcards whose receivers were missing were scattered on the stairs. As I heard a sound, I looked up. Then I saw light leaking out. There was a half-naked man. He was welding something beside an electric fan. I heard the dirty ventilating fan making a roaring sound. The outside of the building is darker than the inside, because the next building stands only 30cm apart from this building.

“These are watchcases and watchbands made to order from a Japanese company.” Yin Tacheng (42 at that time) said, damping down a gas burner. At the stage of subcontracted work that he is in charge of, the brand name is not marked. He said he had never seen the finished product. That’s why he doesn’t care if he tells his real name and if he has his photo taken, though this place is the very secret factory of fake watches, which are notorious products of Hong Kong. His place is a 20-mat one-room apartment. He is using it both as a factory and a dwelling. It was so littered with tools, materials and daily necessaries. About one-mat space at the corner is used as a kitchen and a toilet, and the washing was hung out there. The rent is 1,500 HK dollars (about 30,000 yen) a month. If you want to rent an apartment of the same size as this outside of the walled city, you will have to pay at least 5,000 HK dollars. He wanted 250,000 HK dollars in compensation for his forced removal, but he has already agreed on 150,000 HK dollars. “I have to earn as much as I could before the year’s end deadline, otherwise I’ll have to give up my business,” he said and resumed working.

“Home manufacturing is prohibited in Hong Kong by some laws such as fire laws, anti-pollution laws. If you want to run a factory, you have to have your business registered. But the procedure for registration is very complicated. I’m not doing such big business at all.” I saw a blue flame creeping on his wooden worktable, which just sits on firebricks. There was a fire extinguisher covered with dust on the wall for mere form’s sake.

Yin Tacheng came to Hong Kong illegally from Dongguan of Guandong Province in 1962. “When I was in my hometown, I thought it was strange that the government took all the harvest away from us, even though I was a mere child. We raised cows, pigs, ducks and vegetables, but we had never eaten anything we had grown. We ate only sorghum.” He was the oldest of four brothers. He gave up school when he was in the third grade and helped his parents with their farming. One day he saw snow-white flour that one of the villagers brought home from Hong Kong. He was very moved at it and decided to smuggle himself into Hong Kong. At the age of 14 Yin Tacheng slipped into the Kowloon Walled City, worked as a welder for 13 years and finally obtained this factory in 1975. It is, however, only until 1983 that the factory had been operated fully by nine workers including part-time workers. Now, there are only two people who work for the factory–the factory owner Tacheng and his worker. “These days our monthly takings are 100,000 dollars at most, 50,000 dollars on average. We are barely making ends meet. We hadn’t had an order for three months from the beginning of the year. We were hard pressed.” As Hong Kong citizens’ incomes rise to a higher level, they try to avoid 3D (dirty, dangerous, demanding) jobs. As a result, the factories are moving to the special economic zones in China.

Yin Tacheng, who is 42 years old now, just got married this year. But his wife lives in their hometown of China apart from her husband. It takes five hours for him to go there by train, so he returns home only once a month and stays for two days. “I made an application for my wife’s identification so that we could live together in Hong Kong. But I think it will take seven or eight years at least to get it unless we give a bribe. A child? Well, I will know it next time I see her,” Tacheng said and smiled for the first time.

Peaceful place to live

Chanxiang is taking care of seven children including the children of her friends who were deported to China.

“Identification is more important for me than money. But living together with my family is more important than identification,” Zhang Chanxiang (30 at the time) said bravely. About six kilometers north from the Kowloon Walled City there is a commuter town named Shatian, where high buildings with about 40 floors are standing together in large numbers. In such a futuristic town there is a temporary residential section where ill-matched terrace houses are standing in a row. I visited Chanxiang living in that section. Oil-stained men came out of a double-decker carrying a big sign of SHARP and then went home, dragging their weary feet.

Very late in the night of two days ago, her husband (34 at that time) got off a bus as those men did. But when he saw a patrol wagon parking in front of his house, he felt as if his heart stopped beating. That was the fourth time that the police came to Chanxiang’s house. She is a ‘mother who doesn’t have identification’. In 1983 they married by arrangement in Chaoyang of Guangdong Province. After they lived newly married life under the same roof only for two years, her husband, who had worked in Hong Kong since 1980 and he had already obtained his identification, came to Hong Kong alone to work. She felt so lonely that she came to Hong Kong illegally after her husband the following year. For three years afterward she kept to the barracks near the harbor for fear of being found by the police, but she was happy because she had three children and they could live all together. In1987 the Hong Kong government announced that identification would be issued to illegal immigrants under an amnesty, so she presented herself. However, being pregnant with her fourth child, she was deported to China in January of the next year together with other 56 mothers who didn’t have identification, though her Hong Kong-born three other children were granted identification. But she managed to get a visa for visiting relatives and came to Hong Kong again with her baby in December 1989. However, a visiting visa is valid only for three months and her visa expired long before.

“My first-born daughter remembered me, but my eldest son cried when I hugged him. My husband told in his letter that our son got a high fever and lost his memory. But I don’t know why he didn’t remember me ?maybe because of my long absence,” she said and pulled her eldest son Ma Linjang (6 at that time), who was gamboling without being shy of strangers, close to her pityingly. Chanxiang also takes care of the children of her friends who were deported to China with her and haven’t returned yet. She lulls seven children with a six-year-old child at the top in this six-mat room. She said the police that must had seen her and the children there left quietly without taking her to the police station.

When her husband first came to Hong Kong, he jumped out of a moving train to avoid a search and injured his head seriously. Since then he suffers with spasmodic headaches that are aftereffects of the injury. For that reason he has often changed his works. He worked as a construction worker, a dishwasher, a garbage man, or the like. But still he earns about 5,000 dollars (about 100,000 yen at the then exchange rate) a month. A factory worker of a Hong Kong company in Guandong Province earns only a fifth of this amount, about 600 yuan. So his income is not so bad.

It was raining outside, and the rain became heavier. The low floor less than 20 cm above the ground got wet. “We can manage to keep body and soul together even in our hometown, but. ..,” she answered my question intermittently, chasing the children with a cloth to clean up the drops of ice cream I gave them. She couldn’t receive higher elementary education than the second grade because of poverty. Even such poor women like her, had to attend the weekly workshops of the Communist Party. In enlightening months they had to attend the workshops three times a week. When she didn’t attend the workshop, she got a terrifying warning from the party.

She looked puzzled at this sort of topic. Her expression reminded me of a legal immigrant whom I asked for an interview with. She had been an actress in China, but she came to Hong Kong and worked for the Hong Kong office of a Japanese trading company. When I asked for an interview, she said in English, “I’m sorry but I can’t. We have visitors from Japan and I’m tied up in attending to them even at night.” “Then, could you meet me on Sunday?” I asked her pressingly. “When I left China, I pledged that I would not tell anything that might bring disgrace on China wherever I was.” She refused my interview in a strong tone. In 1981, when I asked for an interview with the former actress, 27,500 immigrants from China to Hong Kong were accepted legally. However, there are always some people who are not chosen by lots or who don’t have money to bribe with or a pull with the bureaucracy, so they smuggle themselves into Hong Kong. Illegal immigrants from China never stop. The Kowloon Walled City, which used to be a safety place for illegal immigrants who are always frightened of deportation including Chanxiang, didn’t exist any longer.

The young

I strolled about the east street on the north side of the walled city, where some stores and restaurants stood side by side. The street is still as animated as before. A bird in a cage was chirping in a clear voice on the veranda in the early afternoon.

An inflammatory notice was put up on a rusty shutter. It criticized the government officials for being all for England. In front of the shutter a girl wearing a denim miniskirt and sneakers was reading a book, being surrounded by big baggage. Her name is Lai Qiangying (20 at that time). “Yes, I’m moving. I’m waiting for a taxi.” It was at the age of eight that she had come to Hong Kong with her parents from Hainan Province in China. Since then she had lived here. “I want to be a social worker. The Kowloon Walled City was a terrible place, but there are more terrible slums and also there are many Chinese who can’t get any help,” she said in a clear voice.  “Some come here to make a fortune; some come here because they couldn’t make a living in China. The reasons for their being here are various, but their aims are the same. All come here for money. Maybe that’s why there are few schools that teach social welfare. The learning of social welfare doesn’t lead to business. Even if I’ll be a social worker of the welfare section of the government office, I’ll not be able to serve the people in great difficulties just because they are illegal immigrants.” She is still at Hong Kong Poletechnics, but she has already started working as a volunteer of a Christian organization.

Her taxi came. When she was putting her baggage into the taxi, I saw the handle of a tennis racket sticking out of her big bag.

A descendant of the Qing dynasty

I visited an elder Zeng Jincai (70 at that time), who kept one of the statements of payment of a real estate acquisition tax that were issued from 1925 to 1933 by the KMT government led by Chiang Kai-shek. His place was on the first floor of the west part of the walled city. Many of the dwellers in this part have already left their places. Nobody lived on the floors above. The place looked just like a ghost town.

“The other day Hong Kong TV crew came to interview me accompanied by a government official. But when they broadcast it, they cut the part where I complained of eviction, showing the statement of payment of the real estate acquisition tax. How dare they say it’s a report of the truth?” He expressed his distrust at the press with his arms folded. I felt embarrassed at his unexpected remark and offered a Japanese cigarette. “Thanks, but I have smoked this more than 30 years,” he said and started smoking a cigarette named “GOOD COMPANION.” He seemed stubborn. At first he refused an interview, but gradually he began to tell me his story. “My father was an official of the Qing dynasty residing in the Kowloon Walled City, so I was born here. When the British army with heavy sticks tried to force the residents out in 1947, my father led them and fled to Guangzhou. There they set fire to the British consulate in retaliation. After that the British army didn’t meddle with the walled city.”

I asked him to show me that statement of tax payment. “No. I submitted an official document issued by Bao’an County (Guandong Province) to the British government to prove that what I was saying was true. They brought it to England and haven’t returned it to me. I took the statement apart, and I have my children and relatives keep its fragments,” he said. He, however, handed me a piece of yellowish paper on the 1898 land contract. There was a word ‘original’ expressly on the paper, which meant that it was a reprint. It is the “trump” of the residents who put up resistance to the forced removal. “If it is the land of the Qing dynasty, it should be the land of the KMT government. If it is the land of the KMT government, it should be my land. I won’t let them have their own way,” he said in the sweat of his brow. His wife handed him a towel, as if she tried to calm him down.

There were 18 members of four generations including his 90-year-old mother at the head in the Zeng family. The ‘descendants of the Qing dynasty’ have been shutting themselves in the Kowloon Walled City for more than 40 years after the KMT government moved to Taiwan, even after the People’s Republic of China, who obtained the British consent to Hong Kong’s return to China, agreed on demolition.

The Bon Festival

Longjin Road is the border of China and Hong Kong. Barracks that had stood densely on the outside were already demolished and the area was reborn as a park with flower beds and a cycle track. A big temple and a theater had been built temporarily in the park for the Bon Festival, which started on August 11, 1991. A vermilion pennant with a serrated border was flying slowly in the wind, forming a striking contrast to the darkish buildings. It looked like a dragon swimming in the sky.

The visitors offer a roast chicken, a broiled fish or a bundle of incense sticks, and then they kneel with their hands joined in prayer exaggeratedly. Since many of the residents in this area were from Chaozhou, they perform religious services for their ancestors who were killed by Qin Shi Huang. They burn red ritual money, and then the ashes from it, riding an up-current of air, envelop the city. All of a sudden, a small old woman in black silk pants appeared. There was something bewitching about her. She looked as if she had come out of the stage of a classical play. She said something to me, looking into my eyes. I asked the interpreter for his help. He speaks not only Cantonese and Mandarin but also Shanhainese and Min, but he didn’t understand what she was saying. I wanted to take a photograph of her, so I looked back at her. But she vanished out of sight suddenly.

Before the Bon Festival of the following year, large-scale compulsory removal was carried out twice, and the Kowloon Walled City has become a ghost town completely.

The end

The residents are on a sit-down in the middle of the street.

The demolition of the Kowloon Walled City was planned to start in the beginning of 1992, but it was delayed until the spring of 1993 because of a strong resistance from the former residents who had stay and slept in the open by the outside of the wall after they were forced out.

At 11:00 in the morning of March 23, I was standing at the place on the south where machinery and materials were kept. There was no one in the buildings of the walled city, and the wind coming through the buildings was bearing no longer the smell peculiar to the Kowloon Walled City but musty smell. The ceremony for the demolition of the Kowloon Walled City was held. The parties only from the authorities attended the ceremony, which the press was covering. Just after Edward Brand, the chief of the City Planning Bureau, cut a ribbon, an iron ball hanging from a crane hit a building of seven stories, and then shouts of joy arose from about one thousand of the parties concerned who were watching the first hit intensely, as if they appreciated the long-term pains they had taken to negotiate with the residents and the Chinese government. “It was shameful for the Chinese to refuse the demolition of these buildings on the grounds they were built on an exclave of China,” an official of the Hong Kong government said, smiling with relief.

“The compensation issue has not settled! Don’t destroy it! You government shams!” About 20 former residents, being surrounded by the police, yelled in chorus on the street. The ceremonial site was screened off by a high protective wall from the street. The protestors were the residents who refused to move out and confined themselves in the walled city to the last, claiming that they would never buy a property equivalent to what they had with the amount of compensation the government was offering. After they were forced out by the riot police in July 1992, they had lived in sheds made of plywood or corrugated cardboard on the street along the fence for construction or in the neighboring site of public housing on the west. Recently there is a rumor that the government will provide substitute housing for the people who have lived on the street over a period of eight months, giving in to their persistence, and the former residents who had already settled in a new place came back to the street shrewdly.

I saw Zhen Lingsheng, a dentist, looking at the ceremony at the gate of the construction work office. “Mr. Zhen! Mr. Zhen Lingsheng!” I called out to him. After we shook hands, he took out a worn-out business card and showed it to me. It was my card. A sticking plaster was applied on his face. “I scratched my face on barbed-wire entanglements when I climbed the wall.” He wanted to have a look at the end of his dental office. “Treating my acquaintances is O.K., but taking the police’s investigation into account, I decided to give up my business.” He was in the middle of visiting his old friend for a chat. “Lately I can’t read a newspaper without glasses. Granted that I keep on treating people, maybe I can work only for two or three more years.” His second son, whom he wants to send to a dental college, still goes to high school.

The joint enterprise of ‘Express Construction’ and ‘Cleveland Wrecker’ is supposed to make this walled city a vacant land by May next year. The cost of construction will be 42 million dollars. The most favorable plan for demolition was to blow them up with explosives, but it was shelved because fine particles might cause damage to the neighboring houses and the international airport. The overseer James Hatchin came from America to teach how to use heavy industrial machines. “It won’t take long to wreck these jerry-built buildings. It’ll take 15 minutes to tear down a building of seven stories,” he said as much as to say “it’s a piece of cake”. The executives also said that it would finish two months earlier than expected. The practical demolition work started three days after the ceremony. However, the operation was suspended because a crane was too tall to move and the engine of an excavator stalled. The first day’s work went completely for nothing. It seemed as if the Kowloon Walled City had been putting up a last-ditch resistance.

On that day I met Zhen Meishan after a long time. “I think this change is necessary. The times have changed. This is a good opportunity for the residents to improve their living conditions,” she said in English as clearly and crisply as two years ago. She is for demolition, but at the same time she is proud that she was born and grown up in the Kowloon Walled City. “I have seen many shady characters such as narcotics and prostitutes from my childhood, so I think I know much more of the world than girls my age.”

The park of Oriental design constructed at a cost of about 50 million on the site of the Kowloon Walled City had been opened on December 2, 1995, just before Hong Kong returned to China. The stone of the Qing dynasty, which Zheng Lingsheng let me look at, was exhibited in a hole in the corner of the park.

The return of Hong Kong to China

Hong Kong decorated with illuminations in celebration of the return.

1997–Offices and shops in Hong Kong are closed for five consecutive days from June 27, in celebration of Hong Kong’ return to China. Red lanterns are hung at the entrances of office buildings, and the median strip of the neon-lit Nathan Road of the Kowloon Peninsula is illuminated by the voluntary companies. In 1945 when the Japanese army withdrew, the population of Hong Kong was less than 500,000. About 90% of 6.3 million Hong Kong citizens came from mainland China after the war, seeking their fortune. They moved to Hong Kong to seize an opportunity for success, and they have made Hong Kong what she is today. When reduced to essentials, the qualities of Hong Kong citizens are common to those of the Kowloon residents. At the sacrifice of the pleasures of a happy family, pleasant living environment, appearances, they greedily tried to catch a big chance. They have backed up the prosperity of Hong Kong at the bottom. They have made Hong Kong into what they wanted her to be like. Hong Kong is going to return to her homeland that they left.

Before and after the Hong Kong Handover Ceremony, fireworks were displayed extensively over Victoria Port. A pub owner Zhen Yaonan moved to an apartment of a multistory building at the foot of Shizi Mountain, which commanded a full view of the spectacle of the century. “There are people who leave Hong Kong, but many of them come back after spending all the money they had. Whatever will happen to Hong Kong, I will never leave here. This is my hometown. In an alien land we are the second-rate people even if we are rich.” His incisive way of thinking was backed up with the fact that his wife had been discriminated because she was an overseas Chinese in Indonesia. His daughter Jingmin, who was born in the Kowloon Walled City, has grown up into a third grader. He said she ranked fifth in her class consisting of 33 children. This is the first time I met his eldest son. “If China had won the Opium War or the KMT had governed Hong Kong, Hong Kong would be different from what she is today. Maybe the Kowloon Walled City would not have existed.” He gave up his pub when he moved out. He couldn’t find a steady job for a period of time. But he started a business of trading in frozen meat and it is well under way. He makes the housing loan repayments without fail. He is proud of the return of Hong Kong to China as a Chinese. “To sum up, England is losing power, while China is gaining power. That’s why England is returning Hong Kong to China.” I was very impressed at his extremely plain analysis. I went out with Yaonan, who also went out to buy some bread with his children.

The site

♪You’re towing the small boat I am aboard … I saw sedge hats decorated with pink and yellow artificial flowers waving to that Chinese pop music that was a big hit in all parts of China including Taiwan. A former dentist Zheng Lingsheng’s house was located in the area where you could hear the wafting sound of music performed in the site of the Kowloon Walled City to celebrate the return of Hong Kong. “Such a great number of people could live in that area. It’s a sheer waste to change it into a park. I wanted to work as a dentist there a little longer and rent my clinic to someone after retirement,” he said regretfully. He went into retirement and lives off compensation for his forced removal and money given by his children. His elder son who was an official of the Hong Kong government set up an electronic engineering company. His second son he wanted to be a Western style dentist had no interest in dentistry and goes to the design department of Shatian Institute of Technology. His daughter, who has worked for a German bank in Singapore, will come back home on vacation tomorrow night. So, all his family will go out altogether to see fireworks.

I took a walk with Yaonan in the Kowloon Park, which were crowded with families and couples spending their consecutive holidays. “I have thought this area was wide. But now that everything had gone, I found it rather small.” It was very difficult to imagine that the gigantic buildings had been standing in this place, breathing, sweating and letting off enormous energy. The temporary stage, where acrobatics such as a dish-spinning trick were performed, and the arbor standing on the artificial hill were out of his sight. “Well, come to think of it, demolition was the right decision. They were dangerous. Their foundations were not secure,” he said and took a deep breath. Around the place where there used to be his clinic, Chinese bamboos were planted along the stone-paved promenade. “This was a turning point in my life. Before I came here, I had lived in poverty. But in here things turned out all right. My business went well; I married and I have a wonderful family,” he murmured, sitting on a bench in the park which was placed on the same place as his Japanese treatment couch had been. I asked Yaonan, who had lived here for 40 years, about Yin Tacheng. He ran a factory, where he made fake brand-name watches. Yaonan said Tacheng had gone back to the country. The ripple effect of open economy must have spread to his hometown Dongguan of Guandong Province that had had no industries worth mentioning except agriculture. He may have set up a factory with his savings and skills mastered in Hong Kong and the factory may have grown into a big factory. At that time his wife, who lived in a separate house, was pregnant. The child ought to have reached school age. Since he could buy ‘snow-white flour,’ which had driven him to stow away, even in his hometown, he went back to his family. We nodded at each other in agreement.

A feast

Nobody visits the Grave Mound for the Loyal Soldiers on the day before the return of Hong Kong.

Zeng Jincai, a descendant of the Qing dynasty, is 78 years old now, if he is alive. I drove to the suburbs to find out how he was. On the northwest from Kowloon there is a fort village named Jintian Village built in the 16 century on the hill, whose land has been developed into a commuter town. The villagers are the Zhao tribe, aborigines of this region and their ancestors fought in the Opium War 160 years ago. Unlike the Kowloon Walled City, this village kept its own culture without turning into a slum. Although shopping or eating isn’t its feature, this village has become one of the important tourist spots of Hong Kong.

Zhou Meimei (75) wearing a unique broad-brimmed hat with a black screen said, “It’s useless to remember the British wrongdoings. It’s better to celebrate. We can have a feast unlike the time when the Japanese army came.” She was frankly pleased about Hong Kong’s return to its home country. Naturally, all of the present villagers were born in British-owned Hong Kong, so that they didn’t compare China with England but with Japan of a half century ago. “The Japanese army shot cannons against the Hong Kong Island from here. We cooked rice, made rice balls with a pickled ume inside and distributed to the Japanese soldiers. To tell the truth, I was surprised to see what frugal meals the Japanese soldiers ate,” Zheng Chubai (85) said as if the incident of 55 years ago was yesterday’s. To put the stories of the villagers together, the wages and compensations were paid by occupation currency during the rule of Japan lasting three years and eight months, but they were very small, while prices soared, so that even pregnant women had to work and some died from starvation. She saw Japanese soldiers coming into the fort and chasing women. She could not stand their low morality, so she made a direct appeal to a noncommissioned officer from Taiwan. If the Communist government breaks a public commitment of ‘one country, two systems’, confiscates the wealth of Hong Kong and deprives the Hong Kong citizen of their freedom, they will be driven into the predicament similar to that under the rule of Japan. They, however, are optimistic about it. “We don’t care whether the government is communist or anything. Unlike those days we can have nice meals and liquor today.”

It is recorded in history that there were many victims including noncombatant villagers in the Opium War. Since they had no knowledge of a white flag, they retreated into the mountains and shot by cannons. In the daytime when young people are working in offices, the elderly are busy with collecting the admission fees to the fort or selling souvenirs. The graves of their ancestors who were killed in the Opium War against England are in a temple not so far from the fort. On the day when the 157-year humiliation was being dispelled, no one visited the Grave Mound for the loyal soldiers but only cicadas were chirring in chorus.

The character of the Hong Kong citizen

“If I have a child in the future, I’ll take her/him to that park and tell her/him that I often played hide-and-seek in the walled city,” Zhen Meishan said four years ago. I met her again the day before Britain returns Hong Kong to China, that is, on June 30th. She was still single. Her statement above-mentioned had not materialized. “I often take my friends there. They know none too much about Hong Kong.” It seemed the Kowloon Walled City still existed in her heart.

“Only TV stations are making too much of Hong Kong’s return. I’m rather happy to have five consecutive holidays. Such opportunities do not occur every day. I’d like to go to Phuket in Thailand with my friend, but we couldn’t book seats on a flight,” she said. She spent the last day of colonial Hong Kong with her boy friend on eating Chinese noodles with wonton in soup and seeing a newly-released film ‘The Jurassic Park-Lost World’. “They say we’re going through a historic change, but I’m not excited at all. Even if Hong Kong is going to change, I can’t stop it. I will stay in Hong Kong from now on, because this is my hometown” It was at 10:30 when she got to her apartment in Shatian from the movie theater. Hong Kong returns to China in an hour and a half. Her apartment here is incomparably lighter and cleaner than that in the Kowloon Walled City, but it is not large enough for her family to live together. It has only a 12-mat room and a kitchen. They divided the room by a plywood board into two bedrooms with double-deck bed, and there five members of her family live together. At the Zhens’ house the live broadcast of the Hong Kong Handover Ceremony was on a big Chinese-Sony TV. I heard the Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre, where the ceremony is being held, was designed in the image of a pearl. Although they don’t make a statement in public, quite a few Hong Kong citizens say it looks like a tomb. Indeed, the bird’s-eye view of the centre indicates a pearl, but a view of its arched roof from the horizontal angle reminds me of a tortoise shell-shaped tomb in Okinawa. Glancing at the illuminated “tomb” on the screen, Meishan said, “I have a friend who moved abroad, but going abroad because of unease about China’s future is unthinkable for me. If she likes the country itself, I can understand. But I like Hong Kong. I’ll never leave here. Why? Well, even if I fail, there is still another chance in this city. I believe that a failure turns into a big chance in Hong Kong.”

When we were eating litchi in season, the hands of the clock pointed to 12:00. Then Chinese President Jian Zemin started delivering a speech. However, Meishan, who speaks English fluently, and her family didn’t understand what he was saying. “Well, I have to learn Mandarin. The markets will expand into mainland China and Chinese companies will branch out into Hong Kong.” This may be the character of Hong Kong citizen. She is trying to turn this adversity where she has to learn a new language at her age to good account. It was in 1984 that China and Britain signed the treaty returning Hong Kong to China. There were the times when citizens got foreign passports because they felt uneasy about the future of China and businessmen made capital flight abroad one after another. And also stock prices fell several times. But those were all temporary phenomena. The stock prices that had plummeted because of the 1989 Tienanmen Square Incident recorded a new high six months later. The increasing GDP per capita is nearly 20,000 U.S. dollars. Meishan herself went through hardship. She once worked as an office girl but quit the job and had no job for some time. But now she works for a leading trading company as a skilled generalist. She is in charge of making out letters of credit and earns 14,000 dollars (about 200,000 yen) a month.

A mulberry field changes into the blue sea

Mr. Zheng standing around the place where ‘Zheng Lingsheng Dental Clinic’ used to be.

After I left Meishan’s house, I took a walk in Hong Kong that had just returned to China. The sky was illuminated by innumerable lights in the apartments of multistory buildings. The lights in the apartments where the former residents of the Kowloon Walled City live should be included among those lights, but I have no idea how to find them out.

The Chinese Communist government controls the border transgression from mainland China to Hong Kong strictly in order to maintain the prosperity of Hong Kong, which ought to be the driving force behind the development of mainland China. Then the disparity between Hong Kong and China will surely be narrowed gradually. The Kowloon Walled City, an anarchic space that resulted from rivalry between the governments of China, Britain and Hong Kong, had barely existed. Since there is no longer a special medium of colony, there’s little possibility that a second Kowloon Walled City will come into existence.

At parting, the former dentist Zheng Lingsheng wrote a line in my notebook, steadying his trembling hand, which was caused by high blood pressure. The meaning of the line is, I guess, that as a mulberry field changes into the blue sea, the times change bewilderingly. But when he looked up from my notebook, his triumphant smile on his face has never changed since he let me look at the stone of the Qing dynasty.

(Story & Photo by Shinichi ASABE)

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