The park was the site of the earliest settlement on the Kowloon peninsula and the Qing Dynasty’s imperial officers saw its potential as a strategic military base in the 15th century. This beachfront location, that looked across Hong Kong Island to the south and the peninsula to the north, was the perfect stronghold. So a signal station and fortification were built.
Front courtyard of the Yamen Building inside Kowloon Walled City Park, photo by Malcolm Koo
The year 1841, when the British landed on Hong Kong Island, marked a fundamental change for the area. Taken by surprise by the occupation, Qing officials reacted by strengthening their hold on Kowloon by establishing a garrison. The 2.6 hectares of land, protected by six watchtowers, four gates and massive stone walls, would become the focus of the Sino-British struggle over the next decades, as both sides fought over Hong Kong.
Remnants of the original slums inside Kowloon Walled City Park, photo by Randomwire
Today, the ruins preserved in Kowloon Walled City Park give us a rough idea of the military site’s infrastructure. The ten buildings were for soldiers’ quarters, gunpowder and ordinance magazines, as well as some civilian houses. During the years that the walled garrison was operational a Chinese brigade and the local military inspectorate, or ‘Yamen’, had a considerable number of troops under their control and made their presence felt. Hong Kong’s days as a peaceful fishing village were over, as it was quickly becoming a military stage on which the powers played out their struggle.
Almshouse, Kowloon Walled City Park, photo by Wikipedia user Abasaa
In 1898, the signing of a treaty between China and the UK leased the rest of the peninsula (just north of the garrison) to the British. The Qing Dynasty officials intended to maintain their garrison, but they were driven out less than a year later. Though it seemed that the struggle for the walled city was over, in actual fact, after the Chinese left the location, the British were not interested in moving in, and so the land was up for grabs. Over the following years, new arrivals from China established their own sporadic enclaves.
Kowloon Walled City Park's Chinese architecture, photo by Weronika Czekaj
The end of World War II plunged Hong Kong into turmoil, and the garrison area took a decisive turn for the worse. The Japanese were defeated, and an overwhelming number of displaced citizens and refugees sought a new home. People tried to get back on their feet any way they could, and came across the walled city. Though partly destroyed, it was good enough a base to build upon. So, tenements went up quickly, without any proper foundation or sanitary infrastructure, let alone any law enforcement. In its narrow, labyrinthine alleyways, drug lords, criminals and illegal businesses found the perfect hideout. The area lived its darkest days in post-war Hong Kong.
Hong Kong's past and present in one atmospheric location - Kowloon Walled City Park, photo by Fai Chong
Finally, in 1987, the Kowloon Walled City Park project received a go-ahead, as local authorities reached an agreement to clear the area for a new park. The cleanup took seven years to complete, and the effort was well-rewarded by the unearthing of many important relics: pieces of the walls’ foundations, carved granite plaques from the gates, cannons, stone lintels, couplets, column bases and more.
To reconnect with the Qing Dynasty and its heritage, the park’s designers took inspiration from classical Chinese landscaping. Expert architects faithfully re-created historically accurate features for the pagodas, bridges, ponds, carvings, statues and most importantly, the overall aesthetics that a stunning Chinese garden ought to possess.
Admiring the picturesque scenery through softly rustling willows while listening to songbirds and gurgling waters in the Kowloon Walled City Park, you can experience Hong Kong’s unique juxtaposition of the past and present.
Songbirds inside Kowloon Walled City Park, photo by Canadian Pacific