This Fascinating City Within Hong Kong Was Lawless For Decades

There are very few places on Earth that remain ungoverned, and even the tiniest islands and city-states tend to have rules in place for things like taxation and citizenship.

Government control is an established reality for most of the world, but what would happen if a neighborhood in your city suddenly became a lawless free-for-all? What type of industries would emerge, and how would people cooperate within that environment to ensure basic services continued to operate?

As Visual Capitalist's Nick Routley details below, one example from recent history sheds light on just how such a situation could work: Kowloon Walled City.

Courtesy of: Visual Capitalist


Kowloon Walled City

Today’s infographic is a fantastic editorial illustration from South China Morning Post from 2013 that takes a detailed look at the inner workings of Kowloon Walled City (KWC).

Often described as one of the most remarkable social anomalies in recent history, this bizarre enclave was more dense than any other urban area on the face of the planet.

Kowloon Walled City Timeline

The story of the KWC site begins in the Song Dynasty (960-1297) when a small fort was constructed to house soldiers who helped safeguard the salt trade. In the latter half of the 19th century, the small fort was expanded into a full garrison town as the threat of a British invasion hung over China.

In 1898, the 99-year lease of Kowloon and the New Territories was established with one exception: the 2.7 hectare walled fortress. Because China never dropped its claim on the site and the British took a hands-off approach, the site became a sort of lawless enclave.

After WWII, squatters began to fill the site and more permanent structures followed. By 1950, the population had grown to 17,000, and by 1990 over 50,000 people lived within a property the size of two rugby fields.

kowloon walled city density people

From Squatter Camps to Functioning Neighborhood

There was a tendency to view KWC is an isolated bubble of vice within the city, but the sheer volume of business activity within the informal settlement shows that outside customers were more than happy to benefit from lower priced goods and services. This symbiosis has few parallels in modern history, and it makes KWC a fascinating situation to look back on.

KWC is best known as an enclave of criminal activity and illicit businesses such as brothels and gambling dens, but that only tells one side of the story. Despite the lack of space and formal links to utilities, the neighborhood was remarkably productive. In fact, KWC was often been described as Hong Kong’s shadow economy because the hundreds of tiny workshops and factories scattered throughout the site provided products for businesses across Hong Kong.

Kowloon Walled City Businesses

People moved to KWC for many reasons, including bankruptcy, poverty, or to avoid deportation. Others went there to take advantage of the lack of law enforcement and regulations.

One prominent example of skirting regulation was the high concentration of dental and medical practitioners operating within KWC. In addition to lower rents, doctors who immigrated to Hong Kong from China could avoid expensive licensing and retraining required by the colonial government. Industrial businesses were free to ignore fire, labor, and safety codes to produce goods at a lower cost, or to sell items that were considered taboo in the formal economy (e.g. restaurants serving dog meat).

Law and Order

Triads acted as a de facto city council by resolving civil conflicts, creating a volunteer fire brigade, and organizing garbage disposal. The tight-knit community within the settlement would also coordinate among themselves to conserve electricity and make repairs to shared infrastructure.

Despite the lack of formally recognized land ownership, people still bought and sold property within KWC. In one example, a construction company struck an exchange deal with the owner of a four-story building. The owner would retain a ground floor flat in a newly constructed thirteen-story building on the site.

The Bitter End

In 1993, after intense rounds of buy-out offers and forced relocations, Kowloon Walled City was demolished and converted into a park. Many of the businesses were forced to close forever as rents in the rest of Hong Kong were not affordable for most of the owners.

All this intensity of random human effort and activity, vice and sloth and industry, exempted from all the controls we take for granted, resulted in an environment as richly varied and as sensual as anything in the heart of the tropical rainforest. The only drawback is that it was obviously toxic.

– Greg Girard, author of City of Darknes


Kendle C Sep 13, 2017 2:09 PM Permalink

If you let them shove UN Agenda 2021 and 2030, this is where you'll live, or die with a shiv in your kidney. The only difference is you'll pay more than $35 rent and you will be locked in.

sagramore Sep 13, 2017 8:50 AM Permalink

Vancouver in British Columbia is somewhat like this.  The parks and universities are not covered by the city charter, so drug law reform activists often have civil disobedient "markets" on beaches and in parks.  Of course now with legalization they are seen as a bunch of opportunitists and the public is rethinking their tolerance.  That block of shops on West Hastings would make great condos.

CRM114 Sep 13, 2017 8:32 AM Permalink

This is not anarchy at all. With the Triads settling disputes, it's just Rule of Law by criminals. FFS will you journos learn what the F#CK you are talking about!

jet20 Sep 13, 2017 4:32 AM Permalink

Anarchism is the most unjust and unfree system of them all. Yes, that includes authoritarian dictatorships. There can be no freedom in a system that gives the wolves free reign and does not guarantee a level playfield. That they are "free-for-ALLs" is mere spin of the Darwinian winners and rulers of such a system, the local warlords, the strongmen, the exploiters. Of course, safe for free energy and pervasive AI and robots, any system can only amass huge wealth on one side if another side is being systematically leeched and exploited - the mass of weak people, followers, muscle and brain power to be utilized by the strongmen for their own profit. We see this tendency in so-called free markets, which quickly devolve into the "Manchester capitalism" style corporatist monopolies we see in today's internet economy, and anarchism is just the more all-encompassing perversion of such lack of protections in society - not just from economic exploitation, but theft, rape and injury. It is an anti-society in that the basic societal contract of transfer of power by citizens in exchange for universal protection, laws and standards is being abolished. We might as well go back to warring stone age hunter and gatherer tribes...

dchang0 jet20 Sep 13, 2017 7:42 PM Permalink

You will never get a level playing field in ANY form of human organization. Some are just more hierarchical than others. Communism and socialism have historically turned into dictatorships, the most hierarchical of human organizational structures.At least in true anarchy, with the invention of guns, most individual humans are able to level the playing field of ability to commit interpersonal violence as much as it can be leveled (for instance, a person without fingers or hands cannot aim or operate a gun). True anarchy doesn't last long, as it turns into tribal fiefdoms fairly quickly (see Somalia), which is just a bunch of small dictatorships.Repeated: you will never get a level playing field in any form of human organization.

In reply to by jet20

drunkfish Sep 13, 2017 1:57 AM Permalink

Anarchy in action! Reminder to always question all government authority. Why do they have each and every power? If we all question authority perhaps they will lose the illusion of power.

Rebelrebel7 (not verified) drunkfish Sep 13, 2017 3:18 AM Permalink

Right. As a teenager, when pulled over, i told the police that i paid his salary. Some how, I didn't wind up in jail, and by my estimation, if I contributed 5 cents to his pay check, it would have been surprising being that i was  a part time minimum wage worker.

In reply to by drunkfish

Rebelrebel7 (not verified) Sep 13, 2017 1:43 AM Permalink

It certainly beats the licensed crime and tyranny for the elite over the majority in America! They have given themselves and their friends a license to steal, rape , pimp,  and murder, and We just have to put up with It!  

East Indian Sep 13, 2017 12:12 AM Permalink

Big deal. Every Indian city has many such pockets where the writ of the government (police) runs only by courtesy. More crowded than this, more unhygienic than you can imagine.More inhuman.

SixIsNinE East Indian Sep 13, 2017 1:04 AM Permalink

guess i'm first to mention Christiana - Denmark.Hippie utopia.  until the shitty drugs began appearing, as will do when prohibition reigns.shitty meaning they're like the sledgehammer on the bell  - ding, ding .... just a CNS hit, then the rat-like stimulus-response behavior exhibited... speed,coke,heroin/morphine. wonder if the Jihadis have claimed 7.2 semi-virgins and a block of territory there yet? 

In reply to by East Indian

atomic balm uhland62 Sep 13, 2017 1:12 AM Permalink

In the finance and insurance sectors self-policing is a nice idea on paper. The ripoff in those sectors is precisely due to "policing."  Regulation, that is.  Regulatory agencies exist to serve the regulated. . .this is basic information everyone here should know. The "progressive" era was in fact dominated by business, not social welfare reformers. . .business avoiding the free market which they hate. . .the first order of business in FDR's time was cartelizing, not the socialist welfare state. See The Triumph of Conservatism for more on this story.…

In reply to by uhland62

max-kisser atomic balm Sep 13, 2017 5:17 AM Permalink

Yeah, its a gentlemans agreement. In the UK, its called voluntary agreement. That is we promise to follow the 'guidelines' as set out by the toothless and clawless regulators, and the gov does not make any rules actually legal and enforceable. Not only this but we will play games with wording. The FCA (Financial Conduct Authority), who BTW also play games with wording, say that they regulate 'services' - once you look at the situation in more detail. The financial firm comes along and changes a 'service' to a 'product' - therefore hey-presto no longer regulated. Yet all the time the FCA claim they regulate the financial industry.

Its a scam to fool the rubes.

In reply to by atomic balm

Golden Showers McRocket Sep 13, 2017 12:21 AM Permalink

Are you sure about that? I thought Jane's Addiction first album was way better: still is Dinosaur Jr's Green Mind Album which is probably the best album of the 90s. Not counting My Bloody Valentine's Loveless album which is untouchable.MBV Loveless: Jr. Green Mind: can keep your "Jeremy".Shit dude, Badmotorfinger was better.… and Ministry were better than that grunge wannabe shit.Pitchshifter:, dude. Leo Kotke is better than Pearl Jam. Eat a bag of shrooms and listen to this shit: bless and hope you find something better to jam out on.

In reply to by McRocket

wildbad old naughty Sep 13, 2017 3:32 AM Permalink

parts of detroit, chi-town LA etc. are similar. dense and shit poor where the police don't bother to show up and where the americans have a zero net worth.

then there are the walled in towers in NYC that no cop or DA would DARE storm for other reasons.

there are hampton redoubts where your child rape room would not be discovered in two hundred years.

In reply to by old naughty