Kowloon Walled City

Ariel photo of Kowloon walled city (The city of Darkness) from 1984.

Kowloon Walled City was a super dense urban block in Hong Kong which was somewhat caught between Chinese and British administrations. The Chinese kept a fort within the area it had leased to the UK. After WWII refugees flooded in and the walled city took shape. It was an area without civic control, no building regulations, no enforced laws. Only a maximum height of 14 floors was enforced because of its proximity to Kai Tak airport.

Most apartments within the city had no access to natural light, there was little waste management, and just 8 official water points served the entire block. All the electricity was illegally tapped from its neighbours. The electric cabling in particular became a kind of architectural growth over the walkways, between levels and through floors they had to be constantly rerouted as access was cut and a new point of access had to be made again and again.

Kowloon City is a good example of bottom-up urbanism like The Tower of David . No architect was involved in its building, no city regulations were enforced there. But it was organised. There were schools and nurseries. Mail was delivered, it had water and electricity mostly so it worked within, alongside, between the gaps in the city and its laws. A more obvious version of a slum or favela in which the normal rules of the city in which it grows don’t apply. But due to Kowloon walled cities clear footprint and super-density it’s notable.

Some Interesting Points

  • It reached 14 stories
  • Estimated Population in 1990 was around 35,000 (estimates go to 50,000) over a 6.4 acres site making it the most densely populated area on the plane with a Density of 1,346,000 people per sqkm.
  • It was mostly demolished by 1994 although not before it had been quite well documented in film and text.
  • Notably Kani Hioraki1 made some amazing drawings which really bring to life the inner workings of this super-block.
  • There is a book about it City of Darkness Revisited

To give an idea of how dense it was wikipedia currently lists Manila as the densest city in the world at Phillipines 43,000/sqkm which means it was over 31 times more dense than Manilla is. So probably the most dense inhabited city block there has ever been.

It also has a digital life, it’s often been recycled digitally into games and films and continues to exert a cultural influence in depictions of distopias.


  • Long Arm of the Law (film 1984)
  • Call of Duty Black Ops (video game 2010)
  • Batman Begins (film 2005)
  • Stray (video game 2022)

One of Kani Hioraaki’s drawing of the life of Kowloon city.

  1. These hyper-detailed maps illustrate the true density of life in the city. They come from a rare book released in 1997, shortly after the colonial government decided to demolish the city and relocate the residents to public housing complexes. They were produced by Japanese researchers led by anthropologist Kani Hioraki ref↩︎

September 22, 2023