A Rare Cross-Section Illustration Reveals the Infamous Happenings of Kowloon Walled City

A Rare Cross-Section Illustration Reveals the Infamous Happenings of Kowloon Walled City

At its height in the 1990s, Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong housed about 50,000 people. Its population is unremarkable for small cities, but what set Kowloon apart from others of its size was its density. Spanning only 2.6 hectares, the tiny enclave contained 1,255,000 people per square kilometer, making it the densest city in the world. For context, New York City boasts about 11,300 per square kilometer, while Manila, the most highly concentrated municipality today, tops out at about 42,000.

Kowloon was built as a small military fort around the turn of the 20th century. When the Chinese and English governments abandoned it after World War II, the area attracted refugees and people in search of affordable housing. With no single architect, the urban center continued to grow as people stacked buildings on top of one another and tucked new structures in between existing ones to accommodate the growing population without expanding beyond the original fort’s border.

With only a small pocket of community space at the center, Kowloon quickly morphed into a labyrinth of shops, services, and apartments connected by narrow stairs and passageways through the buildings. Rather than navigate the city through alleys and streets, residents traversed the structures using slim corridors that always seemed to morph, an experience that caused many to refer to Kowloon as “a living organism.”

The city devolved into a slum with crime and poor living conditions and was razed in 1994. Before demolition, though, a team of Japanese researchers meticulously documented the architectural marvel, which had become a sort of cyberpunk icon that even inspired a gritty arcade as tribute.

For a now out-of-print book titled Kowloon City: An Illustrated Guide, artist Hitomi Terasawa drew a meticulous cross-sectioned rendering of the urban phenomenon to preserve its memory. The massive panorama peers into the compact neighborhood, glimpsing narrow dance halls, laundry dangling from balconies, and entire factories tucked inside cramped quarters.

Thanks to psychologist Greg Jensen, we now have a stunning high-resolution scan of Terasawa’s illustration complete with annotations and diagramming. It’s worth viewing the full panorama in its entirety to zoom in on all the details of this infamous city. And, for photos of Kowloon and its inhabitants, check out this incredibly informative video detailing its history.

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