The Lost Labyrinths of Kowloon Walled City

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Not many photographers can claim access to the most densely populated building in the world. Greg Girard most certainly can.

Along with long-time collaborator Ian Lambot, the Vancouver-born Girard has spent most of his photographic career documenting, investigating and recording the colossal phenomenon that is Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City; transforming it into the infamous icon it is today.

Demolished in 1994, the former Qing dynasty fortress defied its historical confinement through human ingenuity, housing an estimated 33,000 people within the space of just one single city block.

The project arose through a chance encounter. “I stumbled across it,” Girard says. “I had heard of it years previously, but never seen a picture of the place or met any who had been there.

“One night I was photographing near Hong Kong’s old international airport, when I came round a corner and saw this big thing that was so different from anything else, that it had to be the walled city”.

Girard spent five years capturing the anarchic architecture of the walled city. His images expose a throbbing mass of twisting artery-like hallways, chaotic catacombs and crumbling stairways that encapsulate the city’s accidental evolution.

In doing so, Girard’s photographs reflect the social transformation of the city, showing lives and experiences that, while extraordinary for us, are mundane and everyday for the homes, businesses and communities that somehow thrived within the complexity of Kowloon’s walls.

“Walking inside, I remember being struck by how close overhead the alleys were, festooned with this network of pipes and tubes that were dripping wet underfoot with not sure what”, Girard says. “Going up to the rooftop was very much a literal breath of fresh air after being in the humidity, heat and damp darkness below; the tangle of television aerials, discarded furniture and other detritus strewn about made it very much a sort of strange garden, with kids playing, people doing their laundry, just enjoying the light and communal space”.

The project culminated in a series of books, The City of Darkness-Life in Kowloon City and The City of Darkness Revisited (published in 1994 and 2014), both of which excavate the urban myths that still defiantly entangle the realities of life within the city, and deconstruct social criticisms of the city as a fetid slum, rife with crime and violence.

“One of the things Ian and I tried to do quite consciously was to counter the prevailing view that it was this not just an eyesore but a den of inequity. That reputation still lingered into the 1980s. What you discover when spending any time there is that the place was so misunderstood. It’s a community that worked, and worked quite well, under those comprised circumstances, so that was really something I tried to show.

“That meant lighting it properly and doing it in colour to give it a more neutral treatment, rather than using black and white which takes you down a different, slightly darker channel”. Inevitably, Girard adds, the city was not without vice, with drug use and prostitution still apparent in his time there. “But no more so than any other working class neighbourhood” he says. “I don’t think we shied away from the compromised nature of the city; we actually were quite keen on showing how it worked and to investigate how so many people could live there”.

As time dissipates, the memory of Kowloon’s lost labyrinths live on through Girard’s fervent imagery, providing a potent reverence to the fragility and dignity of such an accidental unprecedented relic of architecture.

To learn more visit the City of Darkness website. See more of Greg Girard’s work here.

Charlotte Harding

Charlotte Harding is a writer, creative consultant and editor of More This, a sustainable sourcebook for doing good, based in London. She has been writing for British Journal of Photography since 2014, and graduated in 2016 with an MA in Visual Anthropology at Goldsmiths, UoL. Her work is published on various arts and culture platforms, including AnOther, TOAST and Noon Magazine.