Humanities and Arts

From Garrisoned District to Chinese Town: Land and Boundaries at the Kowloon Walled City, 1898–1912

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The Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong became a named entity around 1810 and was demolished in 1994, but its architecture had long been unclassified. Not until the years just prior to its demolition did this dense slum of informal multi-story buildings receive sustained attention from architects and architectural historians. However, the architectural nature of the six-acre area predated its late-20th-century state. After its founding as a Qing military outpost, it underwent various structural additions and renovations, including an imperial Chinese administrative complex known as a yamen [衙門] and an outer wall, after which the Walled City was named. Against the grain of scholarship that has focused on the Walled City’s postwar, informal architecture, this article considers the site’s early years, arguing that the Walled City’s yamen and outer wall played a crucial role in the region’s land management practices. These two architectural structures make legible the Walled City’s evolution from a Qing administrative zone to a crowded slum. The Convention of 1898 ushered in a British-led land surveying effort throughout the New Territories region of Hong Kong, followed by the creation of an intricate bureaucracy for managing land lots. This clash of empires saw the use of two forms of land knowledge, Qing land deeds and British cadastral land surveys. In between these systems existed the Walled City, its inhabitation falling outside the British conception of land division but its historical contours very much shaped by the architectural boundaries that gave it its name.