I'm short-sleeped, and have physically pushed myself 'way beyond my usual boundaries, and so my words cannot do justice to the day. Awesome, awesome experience. I appreciate that you're reading this, and wish I could offer you better value for the time, but I can only proceed intuitively now, not intellectually.
(And nota bene, specific facts below may be incorrect, and come from my memory of my prior reading -- please research for yourself before using me as termpaper material.)
Imagine -- a series of discrete fishing villages along the South China seacoast -- some farming salt ponds for sale to Imperial China -- people living there since neolithic times, tribes disappearing, migrating in, migrating out -- Ming Empire in the 1600s sending their powerful yet ineffectual navy to the mouth of the Pearl River to guard against Japanese dwarf pirates, and the British and other uncivilized barbarians -- building a fort at a nice fishing harbor on the east side of the "Nine Dragon Hills", Kowloon -- camp followers building up the village, a long stone pier stretching into the bay for ships' ease -- the British not going away, and instead demanding Hong Kong after revenging the destruction of their ships' cargo (Indian Opium, like other goods forbidden by Empire) -- moving the fort back up the harbor and building a walled city where the Ming could keep an eye on things.
About the size of a San Francisco city block, stone walls fifteen feet high. But the Ming are defeated by the Manchu Qing, and the Ming retreat south, as the Song did centuries before when the Mongols took the north, and the walled city at Kowloon Bay takes another change in direction, as the central empire has too many things to think about to worry about the south. They cede the entire area south of Shenzhen to the British as "The New Territories", but keep that small surrounded small city block as China.
The British build up Hong Kong Island and the southern tip of Kowloon Peninsula. The fort remains in Qing hands. Sun Yat Sen's Revolution overtakes the Qing in 1912, and the few Qing loyalists take refuge in the south, in the Walled City of Kowloon, long queues of hair and all. The Nationalists take formal claim to the walled city, surrounded on all sides.
But the Guomingtang have troubles up north too, with Japan invading Manchuria, and the Communists vying to betray the egalitarian revolutionary principles of the Republic. Even after the Communists drive the KMP offshore to Taiwan in 1949, the isolated little walled cityblock within British Kowloon remains a place neither here nor there -- under formal control of Beijing, but increasingly under the actual control of triads, which had their roots as Ming loyalists long long ago, before the KMP, before the Manchu.
The Japanese had torn down the walls during their occupation, using the stone to expand the nearby airfield. The triads built up and up upon that block-sized piece of land, fourteen stories building packed navel to navel, tight little alleys running between, caged verandahs as lightwells where the sun could never reach. An entire three-dimensional city, all in one city block, thousands of people packed together.
Drugs and drug factories, nightclubs and brothels, abortionists and displaced dentists, sex toys and fishballs, all made within this eight-of-a-mile 3D cube. A place where British police dared not go, formally under the control of Beijing, actually under control of the triads. The booming Kai Tak airport only two blocks away, ready to transport drugs or women around the world.
Hong Kong was booming, international air travel exploding post-WWII. Flights came in from the west, flying low from the westt over Nathan Road, until they saw the checkerboard pattern upon the hiill two blocks north of the no-longer-walled Kowloon Walled City, signaling them to make a hard right, to the south, passing just over the cubic city-within-a-city, a white-knuckle ride that every air passenger into Hong Kong remembered.
And then... the rapprochement between Beijing and London, as the 99-year-lease on The New Territories was terminated with the British tossing in Hong Kong as well. Both Empires called the chits on the triads. Kowloon City was demolished less than twenty years ago. The cubic proto-city, the Neal Stephenson dystopia where people spent their entire lives, was torn down less than twenty years ago.
Today? It is a beautiful garden, a Chinese garden, where every twist and turn reveals a new view, a puzzlebox of greenery, and history. The small almshouse in the center of Kowloon Walled City and Kowloon Cubic City remains, dating back to the 1700s. The engraved stone over the south gate, smashed and buried by the Japanese occupation, is left where it was found during excavation, a memento. That, and the memories of the oldtimers who lived in that dense cubic block of infamy and who sit chatting in the garden today, are all that remain.
I want to learn more about Kowloon City. It was the wickedest place on earth, in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s. The center of narcotics trade, of sex trade, of Chinese criminal gangs. A place where children were born and raised, where septugenarians breathed their last. An entire culture of people, living their lives, within an infamous society. Real people.
There is a brass model of the city before it was razed, in a central section of the park. Buildings built cheek to jowl, with windows that never saw light, narrow alleys running between, a maze where the police dared not enter. You can see the cubic city as it was, before it became a beautiful classical garden. The nearby wall shows a cross section of the life within that city, the way people lived in those apartments, the diversity in that one-block cube of life. Like no city, nowhere else. As people never before had been.
A fishing village. A fort, a fortress. A Ming outpost, a Qing outpost, a KMP outpost, a CCP outpost. A triad outpost. Surrounded on all sides by British civility, yet a law unto itself. Kowloon Walled City. Amazing.
What else did I do today? Late start, after a late night. I had hoped to take the train to the norther border in the afternoon, but was just blown away by walking in Kowloon City. Got done less than I had hoped to accomplish, but more than I had hoped to accomplish.
Took the MRT to Kowloon Tong. This is the high-end suburb, the most desired suburban residential area, just a few blocks away from the block of infamy. Bruce Lee spent his teenaged years at 41 Cumberland, or so the Internet says. I didn't find his old house until late in the afternoon, but was impressed by how ritzy the entire neighborhood is -- he led a priviliged life, attending nearby LaSalle, as so many of Hong Kong's legit movers and shakers did. Jackie Chan has his massive walled headquarters just a block away from where Bruce Lee grew up.
The entire area today is just as paradoxical. Hong Kong's wealthiest still live in Kowloon Tong, and the area is filled with seminaries and theological schools of all denominations. Kindergartens abound, and the children of the wealthy all yearn to attend school in Kowloon Tong. The elementary school children pass by Love Motels interspersed among the seminaries -- not the baroque Love Motels of Tokyo, but discrete trysting shacks for the well-to-do, hidden behind high walls, where doormen draw curtains while patrons park and disembark.
Just to the south is the village which built up around the walled fort. Tenements, at one time the noisiest on earth, as airplances passed right overhead, twice a minute. Today the area still holds many of the Fujian minority, but also has a budding Thai population, of domestic workers who make this park their Sunday holiday-spot. I had some spicy Thai noodles there for lunch -- miraculously for chile-shy Hong Kong, the dish was actually hot.
Up above it all, on the hill, the Hau Wong Miu temple, one of the oldest in the area, dating back to the 1700s. Down below it all the Song Wong Toi inscribed stone, marking the death of the final emperor of the Song Empire about 1200AD -- a boy emperor, chased from the north by the Mongols, captured and drowned in the south.
Millions of human stories, on the streets that I walked. We only know about a millenium of history in this area, even though there are signs of human habitation here for millenia before that.
I was very moved today. Exhausted, but my brain's on fire. I walked among ghosts, and they spoke to me.