The Strangest City on Earth

In this History Blog post, I talked about Robert Fortune, the Scot who almost single-handedly made tea the national drink of Great Britain.

The problem that needed solving was this: the British were absolutely mad for Chinese tea. However, the Chinese weren’t interested in any of the goods the British wanted to trade for tea. Instead, they demanded payment in silver. Shipping silver halfway around the world to buy tea wasn’t just risky, it also caused inflation at home, too… as Isaac Newton found out. So the East India Company set up a trade triangle in which British goods were shipped to India and traded for opium – which the Chinese loved. The opium was shipped to China, where it was exchanged for tea, which was shipped back to the UK. And everyone was happy.

Well, everyone except the Chinese government. Needless to say, the Chinese were angry that the British (and French and Americans) were shipping tons of addictive drugs into their country. After several diplomatic attempts failed to find a solution, the Chinese decided to go to war against the Westerners. Which seemed like an easy win: the Chinese had an army of 200,000 to go against Britain’s 19,000 troops. And the Chinese were clearly superior to the European barbarians. How could they lose?

As it turned out, they lost. Badly. China’s sense of racial superiority ran headlong into Britain’s modern weapons and tactics. The war lasted 3 years, 5 months, 1 week and 4 days, and China lost 20,000 men to just 69 for British forces. And in almost every battle, the British played the role of the 1995 Chicago Bulls to China’s [insert your area’s worst high school basketball team here]. And so, on August 29, 1842, representatives of the Qing Empire boarded the HMS Cornwallis (ironic?) and signed the Treaty of Nanking. The treaty gave the British five “treaty ports”, in which they would have considerable autonomy. The Chinese also agreed to pay the British $21 million in silver dollars for various reparations on a three-year installment plan, with 5% interest charged for late payments. The Chinese also gave the British the island of Hong Kong, which will be important later.

The Chinese weren’t happy with the Treaty of Nanking. They tried to ignore it whenever possible, or halfheartedly enforce it when compelled to. In 1844, French officials signed the Treaty of Huangpu and American officials signed the Treaty of Wangxia. These treaties gave French and American traders rights similar to those enjoyed by the British, but with one crucial difference: there was a clause in both treaties whereby they could be renegotiated every 12 years. And, because of China’s lack of enthusiasm for enforcing those treaties, the French and Americans fought for more concessions in 1856 when they came up for renewal. And the British decided that they too wanted to renegotiate the Treaty of Nanking, something the Chinese flat-out refused to do.

It all came to a head in late 1856. Because of Chinese indifference to (or downright interference with) the treaty, the British offered their flag to any Chinese ship that wished to trade with them, essentially daring the Chinese to attack a British flagged ship. And that’s exactly what happened on October 8, 1856: Qing officials boarded a ship called Arrow, which was owned by Chinese traders but flying the British flag. Chinese officials (correctly) suspected the ship of piracy and smuggling, and so arrested the 12 Chinese crew members.

Arrow Incident
Chinese officials boarding the “Arrow”.

The British were outraged. Although it was later discovered that the ship’s registration had lapsed, and the Chinese were fully within their rights to stop the ship, Chinese authorities nevertheless agreed to release the crew and promised not to board any British-flagged ships in the future. Not satisfied, the Brits launched a successful raid on the port of Canton, in which 4 forts were taken or destroyed and 23 Chinese ships were sunk. The Chinese – busy with the Taiping Rebellion – were too busy to fight back. Which was good for the British, because they soon had their own rebellion to deal with: the Sepoy Rebellion in India. But once fighting started to die down in India, the Brits turned their attention back to China. There were several more attacks, a brief period of peace, and then a long series of battles in which the British were joined by French and American forces. This is known as the Second Opium War, and once again Westerners were victorious.

That part of the war was ended by the Treaty of Tientsin (1858), which gave several concessions to the British and French. One of those concessions was giving the British the Kowloon peninsula, a part of Hong Kong which had not been included in the Treaty of Nanking. A follow-up treaty, the Convention of Peking, terminated the Brits’ existing lease on Kowloon and started another which would give the British control of Hong Kong “in perpetuity”. A few more treaties were signed over the years, and eventually the British and Chinese agreed to “The Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory” in 1898. This gave Hong Kong to the British – rent -free – for 99 years. The treaty expired on June 30, 1997, which is why the British – by then a shell of her former Empire – gave Hong Kong back to the Chinese.

The Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory had one interesting clause in it. It specifically excluded a small area known as “Kowloon Walled City”.

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Kowloon Walled City was founded some time between AD 960 and 1279 as a salt trading post. Hundreds of years passed with little (if anything) happening there. The area was so remote and boring that it was BIG NEWS when 30 guards were stationed there in 1668. For the next 150 years, the “city” existed as an anomaly: not much of a trading center, but not much of a fort, either.

In the aftermath of the Treaty of Nanking, Qing authorities decided to beef up Kowloon Walled City so as to keep an eye on the British. Defensive improvements were made, including a large wall. This apparently didn’t amount to much, because the fort fell to rebels during the aforementioned Taiping Rebellion in 1854. Chinese forces retook the fort several weeks later.

And then the Second Opium War came, and the British were given control over the entire area… except for the Walled City. At the time, the Walled City had a population of around 700, mostly soldiers. For a while, the British thought the Chinese were using Kowloon Walled City as a staging ground for spying on or attacking British interests. So British forces attacked the Walled City on May 16, 1899… but found no soldiers. Only the mandarin (a Chinese government official) and around 150 civilians remained. The British, convinced that Kowloon Walled City posed no threat, left the area alone. And the Chinese either forgot about it, or decided it wasn’t worth the hassle of dealing with.

And so, from 1899 to 1993, Kowloon Walled City existed in a kind of legal netherworld. The two local governments – British and Chinese – forgot it was there. So the people who lived there did so without any government whatsoever.

It didn’t become a “big thing” until World War II, when the Japanese invasion of the Chinese mainland drew thousands of refugees to Kowloon Walled City. Many went home after the war, but many stayed. And more came when the Communist Revolution broke out in China. At its peak in the early 1990s, 33,000 people called the 6.5 acre area home. This made Kowloon Walled City the most densely populated city on Earth… and by the longest of long shots, too. The density of Kowloon Walled City was 3.2 million people per square mile. Compare this to 73,350 per square mile for Macau, 18,176 per square mile for the rest of Hong Kong, 650 per square mile for the UK, and the seemingly empty 84 people per square mile for the United States. Even Manhattan, one of the most densely populated places in the US, “only” has 66,940 people per square mile. To approach the density of Kowloon Walled City, Manhattan would have to have 47 times as many people as it does today. And that would require the entire population of Texas – everyone in Texas – moving to Manhattan. Or, if you’d like to think of it another way, imagine the entire population of Tupelo, Mississippi (36,337, the 976th largest city in the US) or Gainesville, Georgia (population 35,750, the 996th largest city in the United States) living in an area the size of four football fields. And that’s including all their shops, restaurants and schools, too.

That’s what Kowloon Walled City was like.

Kowloon Walled City 1989
Kowloon Walled City (foreground) in 1989

And how do you fit 33,000 people in an area 0.008 the size of New York’s Central Park? You build up, of course. And with many buildings so close together that you couldn’t put your hand between them, someone got the brilliant idea of knocking down walls between two buildings to create a passageway. Someone else thought that was a good idea, and so knocked down a wall in their own building. In time, an entire network of passageways was created between buildings. It was said that one could go from any point in Kowloon Walled City to any other point without ever touching the ground. Men could go to work, kids could go to school, and housewives could go shopping and get a haircut… using only stairs and passageways between buildings.

Not that it would have mattered if they went outside anyway. Kowloon Walled City didn’t have that many “streets”. The city was mostly alleyways between buildings. And since there was no government to schedule trash pickup, people with windows overlooking the alleyways simply tossed their trash out the window. People living and working at street level got sick of all the trash lying around, and so put up fencing, sheets of aluminum, or anything else they could find to keep the trash off the ground. Trash eventually piled so high that one could walk down an alley at noon and not see daylight at all:

Kowloon Walled City: alley
A typical alley (click to enlarge)

Because the average apartment was only 250 square feet (23 square meters) and usually lacked running water and toilets, rooftops became important gathering places for families. They provided sunshine, a view of the outside world, and a (relatively) safe place for kids to play. I say “relatively” because many rooftops were covered in TV antennas, water storage tanks and clotheslines. Most also had ladders or boards allowing residents to travel from building to building via rooftop.

Since neither the British nor the Chinese exerted any control over the city, it became a beacon for degenerates. Prostitution, gambling, drugs and organized crime were quite popular in Kowloon Walled City, which is not surprising, since there was no government to stop it. But then a funny thing happened: the city reached a kind of “social equilibrium”. There were only so many customers for prostitutes and drugs, so new arrivals would often leave or change professions. Neighborhood groups formed to settle disputes, and if the group couldn’t settle the issue, it could be “appealed” to the local organized crime boss. Which, of course, acted as a great incentive for people to settle their differences, because nobody wanted the head of the local Triads sitting in Judge Wapner’s chair when it came time to settle an argument. Surprisingly (or not), Kowloon Walled City ended up having a lower crime rate than Hong Kong did.

I don’t want to give the impression that Kowloon Walled City was somehow cut off from the modern world. Residents made an agreement with Hong Kong’s postal service whereby mail for the city was dropped off just outside the town, and a few brave local mail men made rounds every day. Kowloon Walled City had electricity, and thus TV and radio. However, there was never any kind of power plant in the city, so electricity had to be siphoned from elsewhere. And although I know next to nothing about electrical engineering, I’d love to see how that worked. I imagine bootlegging enough electricity for 33,000 people requires a bit more than running some extension cords to the next door neighbors’ house!

Like Cubans, who have a reputation for being able to repair a 1952 Ford with two coconuts and a couple of wire coat hangers, residents of Kowloon Walled City proved to be very industrious and resourceful. There wasn’t space for big industry, so the city couldn’t build radios or CD players… but the city’s tiny shops made almost anything else you can think of.

By the mid 1980s, the British had grown weary of constantly repairing the damage done to Hong Kong’s power grid by “Walled Citieans”, and both the Chinese and the British worried about the state of sanitation and public health in the city. The Sino-British Joint Declaration, signed by China’s Zhao Ziyang and Britain’s Margaret Thatcher on December 19, 1984, laid the groundwork for cooperation between the soon-to-depart British and the soon-to-take-over Chinese. On January 14, 1987 both sides agreed that the time had come to demolish the city. A US$350 million fund was set up to assist residents in finding new homes, and demolition began on March 23, 1993… but only after some residents who’d refused to leave were forcibly removed.

Kowloon Walled City lives on in some ways, though. The Jean-Claude Van Damme film Bloodsport was filmed there, as was the 1993 Jackie Chan film Crime Story (in fact, many of the explosions seen in the film were part of the actual demolition of the city). The “Narrows” neighborhood in 2005’s Batman Begins was inspired by the city, as was the 2006 Hong Kong film Re-cycle. Robert Ludlum’s second Jason Bourne novel – The Bourne Supremacy – was partly set in the city. The video games Kowloon’s Gate, Shenmue II and Call of Duty: Black Ops were set all or in part in the city, while the designers of Fear Effect, Fear Effect 2 and Guild Wars: Factions used photographs of the city as inspiration. And more than a few documentaries about the city were made.

But perhaps one of the most poignant references to Kowloon Walled City comes from author William Gibson in an article he wrote for Wired entitled “Disneyland with the Death Penalty”. The article (read it here) talks about modern Singapore and how beautiful, if bland, it is. To him, the city is almost like Disneyland. But underneath the squeaky clean city lies a totalitarian regime (the death penalty) that greatly restricts the freedom of its citizens and tourists. Towards the end of the article, as his plane leaves Singapore, Gibson mentions Kowloon Walled City and the anarchy of it all:

In Hong Kong I’d seen huge matte black butterflies flapping around the customs hall, nobody paying them the least attention. I’d caught a glimpse of the Walled City of Kowloon, too. Maybe I could catch another, before the future comes to tear it down.

Traditionally the home of pork-butchers, unlicensed denturists, and dealers in heroin, the Walled City still stands at the foot of a runway, awaiting demolition. Some kind of profound embarassment to modern China, its clearance has long been made a condition of the looming change of hands.

Hive of dream. Those mismatched, uncalculated windows. How they seemed to absorb all the frantic activity of Kai Tak airport, sucking in energy like a black hole.

I was ready for something like that. . . .

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There are a couple of interesting side stories to all this that I wanted to work into the original article, but they just didn’t seem to fit.

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The HMS Cornwallis was indeed named for Charles Cornwallis, the same general who surrendered to George Washington at the Battle of Yorktown, effectively ending the Revolutionary War. Many Brits had opposed the war from the beginning, and many who supported it initially had grown weary of the cost and length of the conflict. So when Cornwallis returned to England after the war, he was seen as neither a hero nor a villain. He remained popular with King George III and the prime minister, and was knighted in 1786. That same year he was named Governor-General of India. There he led several important reforms of the British administration, the most important being rooting out nepotism and an “old boy network” in favor of merit-based appointments. He also led British troops in the Third Anglo-Mysore War, in which the famed Mysorean ruler Tipu Sultan was defeated. The Tipu, whose symbol was the tiger, had a famous toy made called “Tipu’s Tiger”. It was an automaton of a tiger attacking a life-size British soldier. It made roaring and screaming noises when played. You can see it today at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London:

Tipoos Tiger

Cornwallis returned to England in 1794 and was named Master-General of the Ordnance. Four years later he was named Lord Lieutenant and Commander-in-chief of Ireland. He was Britain’s chief signatory to the Treaty of Amiens (which ended phase two of the Napoleonic Wars), and was sent back to India in 1805, where he died shortly after arrival.

The HMS Cornwallis was built in 1813. After playing her part in the Opium Wars, the ship was retrofitted with steam propellers and served in the Crimean War under George Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington’s nephew and the future First Sea Lord (the head of the Royal Navy). The ship served various roles in the Royal Navy until she was broken up in 1957… an incredible 144 year run.

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The Opium Wars can be broken down into three major parts: the First Opium War, the Second Opium War (Part 1) and the Second Opium War (Part 2). Most of the military action in the first two parts consisted of coastal clashes. After all, the Brits (and, later, the French) had no interest in “owning” China – they just wanted to trade. So the Europeans mainly engaged Chinese ships in sea battles, attacked land targets by sea and sent troops to attack coastal areas.

But by the time “Second Opium War (Part 2)” rolled around, the Brits had had enough. In 1860, British and French forces launched a land attack that eventually ended up on the outskirts of Peking (Beijing), the Chinese capital. The British governor, James Bruce, the 8th Earl of Elgin, sent two envoys and an entourage ahead for peace talks with one of the sons of Emperor Xianfeng. After a day of talks, the two envoys – Henry Loch and Harry Parkes – were arrested by the Chinese, along with most of their entourage. They were sent to the Board of Punishments in Beijing where they were brutally tortured (and twenty British, Indian and French soldiers accompanying them were killed).

Bruce, furious, ordered the destruction of the Forbidden City, the gigantic home of the Chinese Emperor (the “city” is a rectangle 3,153 feet (961m) long and 2,470 feet (753m) wide; there are currently 980 surviving buildings housing 8,886 rooms). However, two of Bruce’s advisors – one French, the other Russian – advised him that doing so might provoke the Chinese into a counter-attack and prolong the war. So Bruce ordered the destruction of the nearby “Old Summer Palace” instead.

Summer Palace before
The Summer Palace before the British arrived.

French forces had already looted much of the palace, and the 3,500 arriving British troops helped themselves to what was left. They set the palace alight, and it took three days for it to burn:

Summer Palace after
The Summer Palace after the British left.

You might call this “needless destruction”. And many Asians, in fact, do. But it seems like it was just in Bruce’s blood. His father, Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, was a huge fan of antiquities, and once stopped by Italy on his way to Constantinople. There he assembled a team of craftsmen. He took them to Athens, where he bribed the local Ottoman rulers into allowing him to remove many works of art from the Acropolis. It appears that the Ottomans did not give him specific permission to remove sculptures and friezes from the Parthenon itself, so he bribed another Ottman official to do just that. Elgin took his prizes back to Britain, and eventually gave them to the British Museum. Which is why they’re called the “Elgin Marbles” today, and why, if you want to know what the Parthenon looked like in antiquity, you have to go to London, not Athens.

*     *     *

One of the British leaders involved in the destruction of the Summer Palace was the confusingly named Charles George Gordon. Gordon made a decent (but not spectacular) name for himself in the Crimean War. He then transferred to China, where he took part in the burning:

We went out, and, after pillaging it, burned the whole place, destroying in a vandal-like manner most valuable property which [could] not be replaced for four millions. We got upward of £48 apiece prize money…I have done well. The [local] people are very civil, but I think the grandees hate us, as they must after what we did the Palace. You can scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the places we burnt. It made one’s heart sore to burn them; in fact, these places were so large, and we were so pressed for time, that we could not plunder them carefully. Quantities of gold ornaments were burnt, considered as brass. It was wretchedly demoralising work for an army.

But then, something odd happened: he went to work for the Other Side.

If you’ve ever seen the horrible Tom Cruise film The Last Samurai, you know it’s about an American military officer who comes to Japan after the US Civil War and modernizes the Japanese army while at the same time embracing Japanese culture. Although the film is loosely based on the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877, it could just as easily have been based on the life of Frederick Townsend Ward.

Ward, born in Salem, Massachusetts on November 29, 1831, was a rebellious and hard to control youth. He was such trouble that his father took him out of school in 1847 and put him on a clipper ship owned by a friend. Ward was put in charge of the crew, and was so abrasive and unlikeable that the crew tossed him over the side of the ship not too long into the voyage. This proved an important lesson in managing people.

Ward served in a few European conflicts, including the Crimean War, before becoming a “filibuster” (in this sense, a solider of fortune acting on behalf of private citizens). He was hired by William Walker, an American lawyer and journalist who wanted to establish English-speaking colonies in Mexico. Most of Walker’s schemes failed, although he was able to use a small number of filibusters to exploit a civil war in Nicaragua and become president of that country for a year. Nicaragua was a vital link in the Atlantic and Pacific shipping trade in the years before the Panama Canal, and being president of the country could have made him rich.

But what Ward really got from Walker was experience in training and commanding troops. And when he showed up in Shanghai in 1862 (on a trading mission, perhaps at the request of his father), he found a country in dire need of a military upgrade. Ward rose to fame as a member of the “Shanghai Pirate Suppression Bureau”, a paramilitary group officially part of the expat community but secretly run by two governmental officials – Xue Huan and Wu Xu – and funded by Yang Fang, a local merchant and banker who’d made a ton of money selling goods to Westerners.

When the Taiping Rebellion broke out, Ward was hired to run the Shanghai Foreign Arms Corps, a military outfit responsible for keeping European and American interests safe from the rebels. Ward hired many Chinese men for the group, and taught them marksmanship and how to drill in the European fashion. The group was a target of much satire from locals: regular Chinese troops of the day still dressed a bit like samurai and used swords and pikes, and here were these ‘weirdos” in European-style uniforms. However, the Foreign Arms Corps rapidly proved their worth against rebel forces, with Ward’s soldiers racking up minor victory after minor victory.

Ward’s military prowess drew the attention of higher-ups in the Chinese government. He was soon given more money and men. This became the core of the Ever Victorious Army. The army only lasted for four years and only had 5,000 soldiers at its peak. But while regular Chinese armies were routinely defeated by the rebels – even if far superior to rebels in number – the Ever Victorious Army continued to roll up success after success.

Ward, who had become so taken with Chinese culture that he married a Chinese woman and wore the ceremonial shaved head and ponytail of Chinese mandarins, was killed at the Battle of Cixi in 1862. Which is where Gordon took over. Although British sources have traditionally given Gordon credit for the Ever Victorious Army, American and Chinese sources have always maintained that Gordon acted as a caretaker of what Ward had assembled. And Gordon was much more of a disciplinarian than Ward ever was, which led to many desertions and the eventual end of the Ever Victorious Army, which happened in 1864. Ward’s basic organization and drilling plans, however, lived on in the Chinese military for decades. What we today call the “Red Army” was essentially, and perhaps ironically, created by an American.

Gordon eventually died in Africa, much to the dismay of the British public and the secret relief of the British government. He had been named Governor-General of the Sudan in the early 1870s and British efforts to end the slave trade in north Africa led to a revolt all across the upper half of the continent. After quelling the rebellion, Gordon had a series of other offers: King Leopold II asked him to become governor of the Congo; the government of the Cape Colony (a former Dutch colony, now British, that would one day become part of South Africa) wanted him to become their governor; and the Marquess of Ripon, who had been appointed Governor-General of India, wanted Gordon to join him there as his private secretary. Gordon accepted the last offer, but resigned almost immediately after arriving. China was teetering towards civil war again, so he went back there to try and keep the peace. He then returned to London… but not for long: he went to Mauritius in 1881 to work as an engineer, went back to South Africa, then back to London, then to Palestine for a year-long visit, then took up the offer of running the Congo when King Leopold II asked him again. (This guy had tons of passport stamps!)

Gordon went back to London to arrange his affairs before heading to the Congo, but the state of British holdings in north Africa was so perilous that the British government convinced him to go back to the Sudan instead. There Gordon became involved in the Anglo-Sudan War, which was something the government had not wanted, which was why they were secretly relieved when Gordon died. And speaking of, he was most likely beheaded by Islamic rebels.

Also of interest: the army assembled by the British was a motley bunch of British, Australian, Indian, Egyptian and Sudanese troops. One of those British solders was a guy named Winston Churchill, who said it was “perhaps the worst army that has ever marched to war”.

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