Drawing in ‘The Walled City of Kowloon’ Hong Kong in the 'blog Section'
All content copyright©FionaHawthorne 2017
My family moved from Northern Ireland to Hong Kong when I was six.
Hong Kong was soon home – I did nearly all of my primary schooling and a good chunk of secondary schooling there, and loved everything about the place… the noise, the humidity, the onslaught of colour and florescent lights, the crowds and loud chatter, the cacophony of smells from fish markets and street-food to rainwater in gutters and oily ferries in the ever busy harbour. The deafening roar of airplanes so close that you felt you could reach up and touch their underside, landing through the high-rise blocks into Kai Tak, the runway built into the sea. Hong Kong was unique and exciting and there was so much freedom in the 1970s – a playground of shopping malls and factory outlets, hillsides and forests to roam in, reservoirs to swim in, no adults. Skateboarding, sunburn. Finding shed snake skins, monkeys stealing fruit, packs of wild dogs, glossy gold buildings with bullet lifts.
Returning to live in Northern Ireland in the height of The Troubles in 1978 was not easy for a teenager. It got dark at 4pm in winter, bomb scares and security threats and troops on the street was unnerving and frightening, but it was true that the craic was unbeatable in Holywood, County Down. I made lifelong friends, loved the music and eventually got used to the weather. But desperate to get back to being in a mix of cultures (and religions) I won a local authority scholarship to Atlantic College in Wales to study the International Baccalaureate… where Art, Chinese and Peace Studies replaced A levels. After that I couldn’t wait to be back in a metropolis and in 1982 moved to London to go to Chelsea School of Art.
I still ached for Hong Kong but when you leave a home so far away it is usually forever. Luckily, now over 18, I found a way of getting there for a few short trips as an air courier – in the fortunate days when DHL and TNT gave young people who were ‘hard-up and willing to travel at short notice’ free flights in exchange for their luggage allowance and excess baggage to ship urgent packages. On one of these trips a friend took me to The Walled City of Kowloon, a place I knew about but had never been to.
It was not somewhere you ventured into. But from the moment I stepped inside, it knew I had to go back to Kowloon Walled City and draw. So when a Thames TV travel bursary was advertised to the students in my 2nd year of my degree at Chelsea, I was absolutely determined to win it and get back to there. Thankfully they went with my project, and together with begged art materials from Windsor and Newton and a very modern, very huge VHS-C ‘compact’ camera loaned from JVC, I went to Hong Kong on a mission.
Seeing the Walled City close up for the first time is totally unbelievable and difficult to describe. Picture looking across a cityscape of row upon row of uniform high-rise blocks individualised only by the life behind the windows, the poles of washing stuck out on frames and the dripping air-conditioners, but with a certain order typical of any part of Hong Kong’s urban landscape. Then suddenly, right before your eyes, the scene changes and something about the next 500 or so meters of blocks is different, odd, shocking. Still high-rise, but now jagged and chaotic, here is a mass of what seems to be individual slices of different blocks all joined together, bits added later, leaning against each other haphazardly, organically, energetically. Lke buildings nearby have somehow seeded in the wrong place and accidentally grown into a clump of chaos, chaos with a strange compelling beauty.
Artistically I loved it. The juxtaposition of buildings gave the Walled City a unique and wonderful facade. The inside was compelling in a different way: Alleyways almost in darkness lined with a tangled mass of tapped electricity cables and haphazardly-connected dripping pipes, occasional shafts of light cutting down from just a few spaces between blocks. All types of industry happened inside, from dim sum making to the assembly of Barbie accessories. Like stepping into a cavern of passageways and busy, noisy, shuddering, clanking industry, or people around table top assembly lines, fixing, cutting, cooking. So much to be drawn to, to take in – like the roof – a startling, even frightening landscape of different levels to jump up on to, amongst a forest of hundreds of TV aerials. Best of all were the many people I met who welcomed me into their homes, factories and shops and allowed me to draw, paint and photograph. It was hard to believe that in this tiny 6.5 hectare area lived 60,000 people, and that 80% of them were over 60 years old. And that the blocks were all at least 12 stories tall, yet only one had a lift.
Most people I knew in Hong Kong had driven past the Walled City or had seen it from the street – or even from planes landing at Kai Tak a stone’s throw away. But they had never been inside – it was considered ‘out-of-bounds’, too dangerous.’ I was for sure intrepid but I know I had my wits about me, and my instincts said go in and draw and record this, and I did. In the three months I spent there, I never once felt threatened, never met hostility, never saw violence. As well as drawing I also spent time researching into why this unique place existed. The most surprising thing I learned was that it was not true that the Walled City was outside of HK jurisdiction and was a law-free zone. Indeed, the once thriving feudal village – made up of traditional dwellings and surrounded by a wall – had been excluded from the original 1897 treaty that colonised HK… but only for one year. A new treaty had been written by the British a year later in 1898, and the Walled City was taken unilaterally. However this second treaty was said to have never been recognised by China, and certainly not by the local inhabitants. So “excluded from the treaty” the myth prevailed for decades, and even after the wall had long gone, people still felt that this small area of land in the heart of Hong Kong was outside of Hong Kong’s legal system. Here within the parameters of the original wall – no wall there but tracing the shape it once made – came into existence a free-flow city. It was built quickly during the 60s by savvy developers capitalising on the idea that they could invent their own regulations, so blocks went up fast and cheaply, often without foundations, plumbing or electricity. Businesses moved in – rents were low, trade inspections and policing turning a blind eye. Indeed the Walled City was said to have its own system of control run by a mix of neighbourhood association or ‘Kai Fong’ and triads, hence the many so called ‘illegal’ dentists who supposedly did not have the right papers to practice in HK but offered very affordable dentristy used by people who came from all over, the gambling dens, the prostitution.
When I got to HK I had already decided to write my final year dissertation on Northern Irish Art – something to not look forward to when I went back to London. But once ensconced in the Walled City I soon scrapped that idea and managed to persuade Chelsea to allow me to extend my trip a bit longer. Thankfully an 80s art college dissertation was not required to be highly academic – in truth I probably only scratched the surface, but it was fascinating and surprising to meet everyone I could who knew anything about the Walled City, to spend hours in libraries and the public information office, hunting through old documents, meeting people who knew people who knew something. And even if my hypothesis was a rather contrived attempt to compare the Walled City to other vernacular architectures and the work of Le Corbusier, I was so pleased to have had the change to research and learn about a fascinating place that no longer exists.
At the time, I had several offers to buy all the artwork. And even though that London art student could certainly have used the funds, something made me say no and hold on the work. I have it all still, having stored it for 30 years. In fact I only rediscovered it recently – photos, drawings, paintings and quite a lot of vhs-c video footage, including some other large pieces of art not shown here that I will dig out and photograph at some stage. At the time, when I was sitting at my usual table in the tea house where I always drew, surrounded by the smiling faces of old men playing Mah Jong, I had no idea that this place would soon be gone.
Years later when I read that the Walled City had been demolished, I was truly sad. It is now a beautiful park with a scaled model of the city in brass you can look down into, grasp the amazing place that once was. I was so lucky to have seen the Walled City of Kowloon, and it was such a privilege to have actually spent time inside it, and get to know people who lived there, and see something of their day to day life.
This is some of my adventure – a selection of the drawings and paintings from 1986 – hope you enjoy.
All photos and images below copyright©Fiona Hawthorne 2016
Walled City 1900
Walled City in 1980
Below: Photos I took – through the fence and from the outside.
Family factory making dimsum, bakery
Walled City Industry
The inner courtyard
The exterior fence, view upwards from within – a shaft of light between blocks
Collaged photos of the treaty… Cover of my dissertation
Some pen sketches
All photos and artworks above copyright©Fiona Hawthorne 2016
There are some great photos of the Walled City on this face book page http://www.facebook.com/
In 2015, author/photographer Greg Girard and Ian Lambot asked if they could use two of my drawings in City of Darkness revisited, the update of their beautiful book about The Walled City – Click here to see their website about the book. I was delighted for them to include two of my drawings illustrating that the Walled City had compelled photoraphers ands filmmakers – and a young artist to draw 30 years earlier.
I am currently putting my own book together – drawings about my time there. Watch this space.
Update – in April 2016 I returned to HK for a school reunion. After all, kids from all over the world had spent their school days together in an exciting place at a unique time, and many – like me – had left suddenly, sadly, to be transported into a culture so different to the one they had grown up in. So thanks to social networking much joy goes into detailed reminiscing in various Hong Kong groups – we’ve got back in touch, rekindled old friendships and find a way of getting together either for dimsum in the Chinatowns of our different cities of residence, and occasionally in Hong Kong. Nearly two hundred of us had a fabulous week at the KGV 2016 Mega Reunion, then I stayed on in Hong Kong, with The Walled City Park on my list of things to see. Joined by my 16 year old son Benjamin we spend a day there, then another day… ordinarily I would rather browse markets or malls, but this park was special. Click here to see more about the park. One of the best things about our time in the park was meeting paper tearing artist and tour guide Sing Man Lee (click here to read more about him) who showed us around and told us much about the historical significance of each area. The park is beautiful and peaceful and carries the quiet powerful stories of a rare heritage – if you ever visit Hong Kong I would really recommend spending time in Kowloon Walled City Park.