Population Density Nightmare: Kowloon Walled City

Originally built as a Chinese military fort, the Kowloon Walled City became a residential enclave after the New Territories were released to Britain in 1898. The population boom occurred after World War II, when the Japanese occupation drove prostitution, gambling, and drug use out of downtown Hong Kong and into Kowloon.

In 1987, its population numbered 33,000 within its 6.5-acre borders.

Map it!



Kowloon Walled CityThe Kowloon fort was built in 1810 originally to protect salt trade routes in and out of Hong Kong. By 1842, Hong Kong was ceded from China to Britain with the Treaty of Nanjing; however, the Walled City was not conceded as part of the agreement.

Thus, it was decided the fort needed reinforcing to protect the Chinese inhabitants from the British-ruled Hong Kong around it. In 1899 the British finally attacked Kowloon only to find no resistance from the 150 residents.

The British now claimed ownership of Kowloon but they did little with it – allowing it to decay until 1933 when the Hong Kong authorities announced it would be demolished.

Kowloon Walled CityBy 1940 only several structures remained on the land, and by the World War II occupation of Hong Kong by Japan, the city’s walls were demolished and the stone used elsewhere.

After Japan’s surrender in WWII, China laid claim to the Kowloon Walled City once again. Two thousand squatters occupied the Walled City by 1947 and by 1948, after numerous failed attempts at eradicating the city, the British decided to ignore it.

With no government set up by the Chinese occupation, and the British staying away from Kowloon, it became a haven for prostitution, drugs, and gang activity. By the 1950s, Kowloon was ruled by the Triads and police didn’t dare go inside.

It was not until 1974 – after 3,500 coordinated police raids – that the Triads started to lose their power over the Kowloon Walled City. By 1983 the Police Chief declared Kowloon’s crime rate to be “under control.” The dynamics of the growth of a city unencumbered by governmental regulations or zoning laws and devoid of law enforcement is nothing short of amazing… and hazardous.

Kowloon Walled City Hong Kong
Kowloon Walled City


Kowloon Walled City Infrastructure

Kowloon Walled CityEight city pipes provided water to the entire Walled City, and only a few of the streets were illuminated by lighting. Sunlight rarely reached the lower levels, and power was scarce and rudimentary.

In addition to crime, the Walled City was known for its high number of unlicensed doctors and dentists, who could operate without standards or fear of prosecution.

Most structures were built on top of one another over time, not as free-standing towers. Picture crude manufactured homes stacked one on top of another, left to right, bottom to top – but due to proximity to the airport, no structure exceeded a height of 14 stories tall.

Kowloon Walled CityAlleyways were only 3-5 feet wide, had poor lighting, and very poor drainage.

The maze of staircases and alleys was so extensive one could walk around the city without ever touching the ground.

Construction was unregulated and thus conditions were very poor and unsafe; most residential units were 250 sq. ft. and had no foundations or utilities.


Declining Quality of Life

The population density of Kowloon Walled City at its peak was 3.25 million people per square mile. For perspective, Hong Kong as a whole (itself one of the most densely populated regions on Earth) has a population density of 17,000 people per square mile.

Despite the crime rate leveling off, the British and Chinese governments agreed that the Walled City was becoming increasingly intolerable as the quality of life – sanitary conditions in particular – were far behind that of the rest of Hong Kong.

Kowloon Walled City


End of Kowloon Walled City

By 1987 a mutual decision was reached to tear down the Walled City, and a plan developed to compensate the 33,000 residents and businesses with $350 million (US) for their troubles.

The last residents – not satisfied with the terms of the compensation – were finally forced out by 1992.

Demolition began in 1993 and a year later it was complete, leaving only a temple and remnants of a front gate. A park was constructed and finished in 1995 which, along with the pieces of the gate & temple, commemorates the old city.

Kowloon Walled City is no more, but we certainly can make an effort to remember the history surrounding its formation and demise.

Map it!



  1. My husband was born near there and was forbidden to go there as a kid. Since there was so much prostitution and drug use. We went there last week on a visit and his older brother who did sneak over there as an 8 year old was astounded by the beauty. A must see for anyone visiting.

  2. Thanks for posting great articles!
    The most interesting articles are about what we don’t want to know or believe..

    Thanks again for posting knowledge that is needed to be spread.

  3. I’ve always had a thing for Kowloon, it’s an astonishing testimony as to what people can build without any regulation or impediment. The city has an almost living, breathing quality to it, almost like it was a separate entity itself. Just beautiful

  4. I was born and lived in Hong Kong for many years, the city was only a very small part of the.
    peninsula of Kowloon, however the rest of what you say is correct and as young kids (eight or nine) we used to go and buy “bangers” (firecrackers) which were illegal in Hong Kong. It was a crazy place but never felt unsafe.. As I mentioned on your Hashima site, excellent blog…

  5. Pardon me, but the second picture (by photographer Michael Wolf) is not Kowloon Walled City, but another part of Hong Kong. The last photograph is not only not Kowloon Walled City, but not anywhere in Hong Kong, or even remotely like anything in Hong Kong.

  6. Today is the first time I have ever heard of the Walled City of Kowloon & I’m fascinated!

    Some other articles I’ve read report there did appear to be a form of ‘rule/law enforcement’ within the city itself, as most residences reported feeling very safe and welcome. As you have mentioned though, outsiders were viewed suspiciously & most of the activity made it an unsafe place to snoop around.
    I can only imagine what living conditions must have been like, however it did serve a purpose didn’t it? I’m sure not all it’s inhabitants were of a criminal nature. I bet most raised families etc. & lived their lives.
    My search for more info will continue, I hope to find a documentary on this ‘forbidden city’ to hear from those who lived there.
    I’d also be very interested to know local area was affected by the demolition. These people had to go someplace.
    In terms of the seedier element, law enforcement may have found it preferable to have them in the ‘Walled City’ & to know they were in one central location rather than scattered about.
    A very interesting topic, thank you for shedding more light on this for me.

  7. It’s interesting while at the same time Hong Kong has the biggest gap between the rich and the poor. Most Hong Kong people constantly tell us how great Hong Kong is…I laugh every time they brag and exaggerate such thoughts.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.