One of our family traditions is for Doug or me to read out loud to the boys every night. We’ve worked our way through a variety of books, some excellent (Inkheart, Harry Potter, etc.) and some cringe-inducingly awful (Warrior Series – I’m looking at you). Right now, we’re reading Gwelio by Martin Booth, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. The term gwelio is now seen as a somewhat generic term for Westerners, although historically, it does have some negative racial connotations. The book Gwelio tells the story of Martin’s time in Hong Kong as a 7-10 year old. It’s really an example of free-range parenting taken to the extreme. He is basically given the run of the city (okay – his mother does give him some rules, but what 7 year old boy follows rules like – don’t go there or be sure to say near home?). As you can imagine, he gets into some really interesting adventures, including hanging out with members of the Triad, visiting an opium den, and helping a family escape from a squatter house blaze.
One of the locations that features prominently in his memoir is Kowloon Walled City. Originally built as a coastal fort in 1810 (although sporadic settlement in that location dates to approximately the turn of last millennium), it no longer sits anywhere near the ocean; landfill surrounds what used to be the ocean side. During the 1950s (when Booth lived in Hong Kong) and indeed for much of the 20th century, the City was largely ungoverned. When the Chinese leased the New Territories to the British, the Walled City was excluded from the lease. There was much back and forth talk about who controlled the City, but no one really actually did any controlling.
As a result, the Walled City became a haven for drugs, crime and apparently unlicensed dentists (my worst nightmare!). Due to the lack of authority, building codes were mere guidelines at best, resulting in probably the most densely populated area on earth. Wikipedia claims that in 1987, the population density in the Walled City was over 1.2 million people per square kilometer (no – that’s not a typo); in contrast, Hong Kong itself only had about 6,700 people per square kilometer. Buildings were so densely packed that most parts of the actual ground (the little that was not covered) never saw the light of day; social life occurred largely on the rooftops.
Eventually, something had to be done, so the British asserted their power in the early 1990s. Some residents left voluntarily, while others had to be forcibly evicted. Once clear, the Kowloon Walled City was demolished, and a park and memorial was erected in its place.
Given Martin’s adventures in the Walled City and its colorful history, we decided to visit on Saturday. It’s a bit off the beaten tourist path, but is well worth the visit, in my opinion, as it combines a good dose of history, some natural beauty and a touch of everyday life in Hong Kong. There were plenty of locals there enjoying the amenities in the portion of the park surrounding the old walls. The new park inside the walls is beautifully done; it’s hard to believe that it was once the location of largely lawless slum. Most of the areas in the old walls are lush gardens, although there are some historical artifacts and pictures that detail the history of the area. Quin even remarked that the park was much better than he expected (I don’t think his expectations are very high for parks and historical sites though!).
For the boys though, even better than the Walled City was the portion of the park outside the old walls as it contained a bike track. For $45 HKD (or about $5.50 U.S.), we rented bikes for the boys for an hour and set them free. They were gloriously happy – furiously pedaling away with the wind whipping through their hair. It was this latter element that had us biting our nails as there were no helmets available for rent and quite a bit of the chaos that is almost always involved in navigating Hong Kong. There were minor crashes and several near misses, but luckily, the boys emerged unscathed. Needless to say, they can’t wait to go back. So while our boys generally have to endure far more parental supervision than Martin Booth, for an hour on Saturday, our little gwelios seriously enjoyed a taste of freedom.