If These Walls Could Talk: Kowloon Walled City As Captured By Photographers Ian Lambot And Greg Girard
“People thought we were mad,” remembers British photographer, architect and publisher Ian Lambot. “No one could quite understand why we were interested in the Kowloon Walled City. It had this reputation as a terrible place where terrible things would happen to you. My Chinese friends would ask me, ‘Why would you spend time there?’”
But Lambot wasn’t deterred and visited the Kowloon Walled City hundreds of times between 1985 and its demolition in 1994. At first he explored out of personal interest. Then in 1988 he joined forces with Canadian photographer Greg Girard to document this much-maligned corner of Hong Kong, which at the time was the most densely populated place on the planet and was said to be packed with brothels, gambling parlours and drug dens.
“Hardly anyone had been there, seen it or even knew where it was,” says Girard. “I’d heard about the Walled City but in those days, pre-internet, there was no automatic visual reference. So before I stumbled across it one night in 1985 I had no idea what it looked like.”
That’s hard to imagine now because the duo’s photos of life inside the Walled City’s teetering three-metre-wide high-rise buildings have seeped into Hongkongers’ collective memory. Their images were collected into a book, City of Darkness, which was published in 1993 and reprinted multiple times until 2014, when Lambot and Girard released a second edition, complete with extra photos, new interviews with former residents and new essays about the politics, architecture and legacy of the Walled City.
Twenty-five years since the place itself was demolished, their journey continues. This month, Blue Lotus Gallery in Sheung Wan is exhibiting a selection of some of their best Walled City shots.
A World of its Own
Selecting photos to show in this exhibition has allowed the pair to reflect on their experiences in the Walled City. “The thing that struck me when I first visited was that nothing I’d ever read or heard about it prepares you for just how strange the physical reality was,” recalls Girard. “The wetness, water dripping everywhere; the tubing and wiring running overhead in the alleys; the narrow alleys running into other narrow alleys; the maze-like quality of the place. The sounds from air conditioners, and televisions and radios, and the noise from workshops and small factories. At the same time, the normalcy of life going on: kids on their way home from school, people at work producing low-tech items like rubber plungers or wooden rulers, food factories, people going about their business like anywhere else.”
For Lambot, producing the second edition of the book and working on exhibitions like this also provide a platform for discussing and sometimes disproving some of the myths that still swirl about the Walled City. “The triads had never really had a big hold there, contrary to popular belief,” reveals Lambot. “I was never, ever threatened and I spent a lot of time exploring down the darkest, narrowest alleys.”
See also: François Pinault's Paris Museum To Open in June 2020
That fact hasn’t held back creative types, who continue to use the Walled City as a backdrop for crime films, video games, books and more. “There is a general fascination with urban dystopia, noir settings that can be sampled for virtual worlds or serve as an inspiration for production design in film,” says Girard.
Gone But Not Forgotten
Its appearance in blockbuster films such as Batman Begins and video games such as Call of Duty: Black Ops has spread the memory of the Walled City around the world, but back in Hong Kong the site of the city has been turned into a park, with almost all physical trace of the place gone.
“In the run-up to demolition I didn’t think the Walled City should have been saved, and even now, knowing what it was, I still don’t,” says Girard. “It was an anomaly in every way and hardly fit for human habitation, even though its residents remarkably made the best of a dire situation. Having said that, I do wish that something remained of it. A sliver, a shard, a corner. Something more representative than what’s there now.”
Lambot agrees. “As an architect, I understand it would have been hugely complicated to keep part of it,” he says. “There were no foundations. Nobody knew what was holding it up. And it was all tiny, tiny buildings with tiny stairways, so allowing people in to move around it would have been very complicated as well. It would’ve been nice if something of the feel of the Walled City had been kept, but the book exists, so people can find out what was going on there. There is still an enduring fascination with it—and that shows no sign of going away.”
City of Darkness: Kowloon’s Lost Walled City runs from November 8 to December 8 at Blue Lotus Gallery.
See also: A Look Back At Old Hong Kong With Keith Macgregor