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More commonly referred to as ’The Walled City’, Hak Nam was a de jure Chinese enclave situated in Kowloon City, Hong Kong, known for its unparalleled population density and strangely organic labyrinthian structure, at its peak housing 33,000 people concentrated within 6.9 acres (about 4 FIFA soccer fields). Thanks to a lack of government regulations and proper city planning, buildings and staircases were packed so tightly together that sunlight almost never reached the ground floor. After being fully demolished in April 1994, it became a city only in urban legend, remembered by some for it's reputation as a lawless den of drugs and squalor, and also by others as a refuge, a home, or simply a place to buy soft drinks after school.
Hak Nam is a website that invites users to explore, navigate, and get lost in the community and cityscape of the Walled City— a place that no longer exists. This website was designed by Jefferson Duan for his 2021 Capstone project at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis. A special thank you to Jonathan Hanahan, Mr. Wai Lee, my studio mates, and the industry professionals from Google and Linked By Air for providing me valuable insights and feedback throughout the development process.
Typefaces used on this site are Stick (Fontworks Inc.) and IBM Plex Mono (Mike Abbink, Bold Monday). All photographs used, as well as some paraphrased texts, were sourced from the City of Darkness: Revisited by Greg Girard and Ian Lambot.
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Unrestricted by building laws and architectural convention, the 'Walled City' consists of buildings 10-14 stories tall haphazardly packed together. The only reason it stops there was because building any higher would cause problems for landing aircraft flying overhead.
You’re visiting Hong Kong, and you happen upon the cluster of tiny apartments and caged balconies known as Hak Nam, or the Walled City. You’ve heard of the place’s crime and squalor, and also of its fishball noodle soup—apparently the best in the country. You decide to talk a walk through its subterranean corridors.
There are no 'real entrances' into the Walled City, just narrow openings between shops that open up into the maze. This one takes you into Lo Yan Street from Tung Tau Tsuen Road, and descends four storeys below ground level. It's also one of the few streets with enough space to allow natural light to filter through.
This tall sign advertises the presence of the Kowloon Walled City Landlord's Association. Perfect if you're just starting out and looking for a cheap place to live.
The Walled City is not subject to government control or services, but one thing that is provided by the Urban Services Department is refuse collection. As such the streets remains relatively clean, the rat population remains relatively controlled, and most importantly the fire risk stays relatively low.
These orange USD buckets can be found all over, and numerous refuse collection points are routinely patrolled by the 10 sweepers in the city. Not all residents are great at cleaning up after themselves though.
Just outside the yamen's entrance sits two cannons from back when it was built as a military fort. An inscription on them reads that they were cast in 1802.
Within the courtyard of the Walled City is the yamen, an old military fort built in 1845 to respond to the arrival of the British. As essentially the only place in the city that enjoyed both fresh air and natural light, the courtyard is a popular meeting place on sunny days, for residents to sit and chat, prepare the evening's meals, or air the bedding.
In 1971 the yamen compound was taken over by the CNEC Living World Church, keeping it safe from redevelopment. Reverend Isaac Liu converted the main building into the Old People's Centre, which acts as both an informal welfare service as well as a place for companionship, television, and afternoon tea and biscuits.
The cashier's desk at Ng Kam Mui's Chung Fat Cafe. Due to its proximity to the edge of the City on Tung Tau Tsuen Road, the cafe is a popular haunt for taxi drivers. The menu offers a variety of Chinese and Western drinks as well as affordable meals. Typical fare includes yuan-yang tea (a mix of coffee and tea), butter toast with drizzled condensed milk, and instant noodles with a fried egg and luncheon meat among other hybrid options.
Near the entrance is Jetly Chau Sau Yee's Chiu Chow cake shop. His rice cakes are made from ingredients from all over the world, and are either sold to retail shops or temple ceremonies. Due to their location, the shop has become a regular stopping point for foreign tour groups as of late. The English signs introduce his wares to non-Chinese speaking customers.
Further down Sai Shing (West City) Road is Lee Yu Chun's candy factory. The business started in 1964, and has been run by four generations of family ever since. A number of female workers are also employed as well. Despite there being no regulations for food safety in the City, the business takes pride in the efforts made to ensure their own product quality.
The Tai Chang Street stand-pipe is one of the eight public stand-pipes that provides safe drinking water in the city. Many people frequent these spots for all kinds of needs; this man is using the water to both wash his hair and also thaw the frozen eels he'll bring to the fishball factory later.
Numerous hosepipes hang next to the stand-pipe. Occasionally a worker might come down to attach their business's hosepipe to refill a tank back in the factory.
The masses of tangled wires you see on the ceilings eventually converge to deceptively organized groups of electric meters like these ones. It was only recently that China Electric decided to supply electricity to the city–before that almost all the power was privately and illegally tapped from nearby mains.
Down Tai Change street is Ho Chi Kam's barber's shop. Almost all of his customers are local residents, and the combination of low prices and being situated near the Tai Chang stand-pipe sometimes meant the occasional long queue for service.
Located right here at the corner of Tai Chang Street and Lung Chun Back Road is Lee Pui Yuen's general store, one of the biggest in the city. A steady stream of people come by 6 AM to midnight, seven days a week, to purchase necessities or just chat. Here you can buy rice, kerosene, tinned fish, condensed milk, toilet paper, cigarettes, soft drinks, ice cream, and even Tic-Tacs.
Behind the single partition is a small bedroom where Lee sleeps with his wife and son. Since they live in the store, the place is essentially open for the full 16-hour day, or at least until Lee turns off the television.
On the right here is the entrance to the kindergarten run by the Salvation Army. It is rather well-attended, and they also help with family care for parents who are too busy with work to watch their children. Occassionally the children even get to go on field trips outside the city.
Behind the shutters on the left is Lam Leung Po's minced fish factory, convieniently located not too far from the Tai Chang stand-pipe. Despite not having hygiene inspections, the place is one of the cleaner and better equipped food processing establishments. In the back female part-time workers prepare minced fish dumplings.
Despite being one of the only alleyways that runs east-west across the city, major thoroughfares like Lung Chun Back Road here are hardly ever crowded and usually quiet for most of the day.
One of the few buildings to remain untouched in the Walled City's constant growth, Tin Hau Temple is a temple dedicated to the patron goddess of fisherman. While it isn't near the sea like most Tin Hau Temples, the large population of Chiu Chow immigrants (who were once fishermen) living in the city find it to be an appropriate alternative. The temple is guarded by an aggressive dog and is covered by a mesh grill overhead to prevent trash from dirtying the tiled roof. The grill is cleared once a year.
Since there are only two lifts in the entire city, access to the upper floors (of the 10-14 storey apartment blocks) is almost always via stairs. That being said, the sheer amount of stairs and corridors that link buildings together does make it a little easier to get around. And even though the alleyways are often littered with rubbish, the stairways always remain comparatively clear.
A single staircase can link two, three, or even four buildngs. To maximize space developers built stairs directly into the gaps between buildings, or even build buildings right next to stairs that already exist. Spaces between buildings are nonexistent on the lower floors– the only evidence left of them being windows that now overlook more wall.
As is the case all over Hong Kong, a lot of the apartments in the Walled City have small family shrines, regurarly blessed with fresh offerings of food and incense to bring good fortune and steer away evil spirits. Apartments in the buildings along Tung Tau Tsuen Road are considered the most desirable and undoubtedly the best in the City. They are relatively spacious, have more access to natural light, and are directly accessible from the main road outside.
This stairway leads to apartments that overlook Tung Tau Tsuen Road, as well as to the Kai Fong Association office. The office is open every weekday during normal working hours, with two full-time secretaries ready to help with residents' problems and concerns. The Kai Fong Association often acts as representatives of the Walled City, especially when negotiating with the government.
A small convience store situated in a slightly more spacious corridor that joins multiple buildings. It's very convenient for those who live on the higher floors, as they don't have to make the trek all the way down to buy the goods they need. It also makes for good communal meeting places. The signs above point to other establishments nearby–in this case medicine shops and physician clinics.
All over the city Chinese text is painted on the walls, usually as a way to mark areas and help people find their way around the maze. Some of the text here advertises a TV repair service. The topmost text reads as directions to a building on the second floor with address A.
The rooftop is a rather popular place to gather, expecially in the evening, being a quiet oasis of fresh air and natural light. The discarded fittings and furniture make for exciting playgrounds for children, and the open space is also good for quietly finishing homework.
A two man police-patrol makes their way across the rooftops of the City. Contrary to popular belief, the police have been patrolling the City almost since the very beginning, and the place is no longer the 'den of iniquity' that outsiders believe it to be. Sometimes they might run into postmen Mr. Lui or Mr. Lam trying to climb through rooftop windows and mistake them for burgulars.
The rooftop ambience is frequently interrupted by screaming jet engines as airplanes make their final turn in the descent onto the runway of Kai Tak Airport. This proximity to the flight path led to the only mandatory building restriction in the Walled City: a maximum limit of 150 feet (just under 15 storeys).
Chan Kwan Leung breeds hundreds of pigeons on the rooftop of his apartment, for both individual sale but more importantly for pigeon racing (the only real sport in the Walled City, really). The quiet moments where there is a lull in incoming airplanes is ideal for exercising pigeons. If you ever find yourself lost on the roof he is happy to show you the way around.
The huge cylindrical ovens in Yim Kwok Yuen's cooked meat factory on Lo Yan Street raise the already stifiling summer temperatures by several degrees. The factory prepares roast chicken, goose, and pork, and Yim himself takes the goods to Wong Tai Sin market to sell, albeit as an unlicensed hawker. While the conditions are rather unsanitary, Yim states that things were much worse where he came from.
Postman Lui Man Sang emerges from a staircase to one of the many alleys. He and his colleage Lam Po Chun are the only two postmen in the City—no one knows the alleyways better than them. Their daily route always starts on Lo Yan Street, and then they make their way up and down the City, hopping the rooftops to cross between buildings.
A peek inside Chan Wai Shui's noodle factory on Lo Yan street. Almost everything in this room is covered with a thin layer of flour dust. Every day he and his coworkers Mr Shum and Kwan Tsin On make over 100 pounds of noodle and Won Tun pastry every day, and today is no different. Finished noodles have to be delivered the day of, as there isn't an easy way to reliably store them.
Despite the large amount of people packed in such a small area of space, the alleyways are hardly ever crowded and usually quiet for most of the day. They aren't any dryer or cleaner, but at least they're easy to walk through.
This is Chung Lo Yin's apartment on the fourth floor of 82 Lung Chun Road, which has the rare privilege of overlooking the park outside the City. She is reguarly joined for dinner by at least one or two of her 10 children. Where she lives, the streets are relatively wide and clean, and she knows her neighbors well enough to leave the door unlocked.
All over the city Chinese text is painted on the walls, advertising nearby restaurants or businesses or simply providing navigation directions. The large text and arrows here read "Luen Ying House", and right below it advertises for new buildings for sale. The small text near the bottom lists a phone number: 838924.
A very clean dentist's clinic. Like the desirable apartments, dental and doctor's clinics are located on the edge of the City to make things more convenient for patients outside. An unlicensed clinic meant cheaper prices, but still with the generally same level of quality, so business is good. The large sign reads Bai Chen Dental Clinic.
Inside this small factory on Kwong Ming Street is employee Kwok Tsan Ming ladeling another batch of fried fishballs, ready for export. It is said that more than 80% of Kowloon's fishballs come from within the Walled City—a fact that some fishball devotees perhaps would rather not admit.
Sweating in the hot and humid weather, a workman carries drinking water or other necessities to his factory. A lot of everyday people rely on these dark and fetid alleyways to get around, navigating the obstacle course of broken concrete, sodden rubbish, and incessant water droplets leaking from the makeshift pipes overhead.
Looking up here there is a rare glimpse of daylight. By chance these 12-storey buildings have remained free of later additions that would join them and block out the sky.
Like most high-rises, the postboxes are all arranged in organized ranks at the ground level main entrance. The small posters taped around advertise assistance in moving out. $100 for the contents of a single room, $200 for a small family and $300 for a large.
Squeezed amongst streetside restaurants and dental offices is Fuk Tak Temple, another temple very popular amongst Chiu Chow residents.
Fuk Tak is a minor deity said to give protection and good fortune to local residents. According to folklore, the temple was
originally erected by a Sun Dynasty emperor who brought a statue of the god to the capital of China.
Technically, this temple and the establishments around it lie outside the Walled City boundaries (whicch is marked by Lung Shing Road), but for practical purposes it is considered part of the place.
Passing this corriedor off Tai Chang Street is Cheng San's small wooden ruler factory. The amount of rulers he produces changes monthly, depending on the orders he receives from overseas buyers in Singapore, Malaysia, and Macau. He stays at the shop overnight just to make sure drug addicts don't come and steal anything, but other than that he says no one in the City has troubled him ever.
A part-time assistant works the heated press that stamps out plungers from squares of uncured rubber in To Gui Bon's rubber factory. Even though there are no regulations the workers take extra care in working and keeping the area relatively clean. Throughout the process the smell of hot rubber is overpowering, especially in the heat of summer.
Since nothing in the City is properly zoned or planned, it's not uncommon to see the likes of factories pushed up against family apartments. Here, workers organize and package plastic goods for shipping outside.