This Fascinating City Within Hong Kong Was Lawless For Decades
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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?
One example from recent history sheds light on just how such a situation could work: Kowloon Walled City.
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.
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.
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.
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 Darkness
Mapped: What Did the World Look Like in the Last Ice Age?
A map of the Earth 20,000 years ago, at the peak of the last ice age, when colder temperatures transformed the planet we know so well.
What Did the World Look Like in the Last Ice Age?
What did the world look like during the last ice age? Was it all endless glaciers and frozen ice? The answer is a partial yes—with some interesting caveats.
The Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), colloquially called the last ice age, was a period in Earth’s history that occurred roughly 26,000 to 19,000 years ago.
This map by cartographer Perrin Remonté offers a snapshot of the Earth from that time, using data of past sea levels and glaciers from research published in 2009, 2014, and 2021, alongside modern-day topographical data.
Let’s dive into the differences between the two Earths below.
The Last Ice Age: Low Seas, Exposed Landmasses
During an ice age, sea levels fall as ocean water that evaporates is stored on land on a large scale (ice sheets, ice caps, glaciers) instead of returning to the ocean.
|Earth's Ice Cover||20,000 Years Ago||Today|
At the time of the LGM, the climate was cold and dry with temperatures that were 6 °C (11 °F) lower on average. Water levels in the ocean were more than 400 feet below what they are now, exposing large areas of the continental shelf.
In the map above, these areas are represented as the gray, dry land most noticeable in a few big patches in Southeast Asia and between Russia and Alaska. Here are a few examples of regions of dry land from 20,000 years ago that are now under water:
- A “lost continent” called Sundaland, a southeastern extension of Asia which forms the island regions of Indonesia today. Some scholars see a connection with this location and the mythical site of Atlantis, though there are many other theories.
- The Bering land bridge, now a strait, connecting Asia and North America. It is central to the theory explaining how ancient humans crossed between the two continents.
- Another land bridge connected the island of Great Britain with the rest of continental Europe. The island of Ireland is in turn connected to Great Britain by a giant ice sheet.
- In Japan, the low water level made the Sea of Japan a lake, and a land bridge connected the region to the Asian mainland. The Yellow Sea—famous as a modern-day fishing location—was completely dry.
The cold temperatures also caused the polar parts of continents to be covered by massive ice sheets, with glaciers forming in mountainous areas.
Flora and Fauna in the Last Ice Age
The dry climate during the last ice age brought about the expansion of deserts and the disappearance of rivers, but some areas saw increased precipitation from falling temperatures.
Most of Canada and Northern Europe was covered with large ice sheets. The U.S. was a mix of ice sheets, alpine deserts, snow forests, semi-arid scrubland and temperate grasslands. Areas that are deserts today—like the Mojave—were filled with lakes. The Great Salt Lake in Utah is a remnant from this time.
Africa had a mix of grasslands in its southern half and deserts in the north—the Sahara Desert existed then as well—and Asia was a mix of tropical deserts in the west, alpine deserts in China, and grasslands in the Indian subcontinent.
Several large animals like the woolly mammoth, the mastodon, the giant beaver, and the saber-toothed tiger roamed the world in extremely harsh conditions, but sadly all are extinct today.
However, not all megafauna from the LGM disappeared forever; many species are still alive, including the Bactrian camel, the tapir, the musk ox, and the white rhinoceros—though the latter is now an endangered species.
Will There Be Another Ice Age?
In a technical sense, we’re still in an “ice age” called the Quaternary Glaciation, which began about 2.6 million years ago. That’s because a permanent ice sheet has existed for the entire time, the Antarctic, which makes geologists call this entire period an ice age.
We are currently in a relatively warmer part of that ice age, described as an interglacial period, which began 11,700 years ago. This geological epoch is known as the Holocene.
Over billions of years, the Earth has experienced numerous glacial and interglacial periods and has had five major ice ages:
|Major Ice Ages||Name||Time Period (Years Ago)|
|1||Huronian Glaciation||2.4 billion - 2.1 billion|
|2||Cryogenian Glaciation||720 million - 635 million|
|3||Andean-Saharan Glaciation||450 million - 420 million|
|4||Late Paleozoic ice age||335 million - 260 million|
|5||Quaternary Glaciation||2.6 million - present|
It is predicted that temperatures will fall again in a few thousand years, leading to expansion of ice sheets. However there are a dizzying array of factors that are still not understood well enough to say comprehensively what causes (or ends) ice ages.
A popular explanation says the degree of the Earth’s axial tilt, its wobble, and its orbital shape, are the main factors heralding the start and end of this phenomenon.
The variations in all three lead to a change in how much prolonged sunlight parts of the world receive, which in turn can cause the creation or melting of ice sheets. But these take thousands of years to coincide and cause a significant change in climate.
Furthermore, current industrial activities have warmed the climate considerably and may in fact delay the next ice age by 50,000-100,000 years.
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