“There were only two rules for construction: electricity had to be provided to avoid fire, and the buildings could be no more than fourteen stories high, because of the nearby airport.”
When I was 17, I started constantly re-reading Hakim Bey’s TAZ, or as I like to call it, “His Only Good Book.” I had no problem with Jonathan Kozol, but Peter Lamborn Wilson builds a sentence like Turkish Muslims build a shrine. Before I discovered the playground of “Academic Critical Theory,” from Marshall McLuhan to Manuel de Landa, TAZ was the most dense language artifact I’d ever seen.
Even then, though, I wondered why Hakim Bey didn’t discuss the only real “TAZ” I could think of – the Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong. “Kowloon” means “Nine Dragons,” and you can only visit the ruins today. After an eviction process that took years and cost billions of Hong Kong dollars, the city was destroyed in 1993 and only a park remains. While it lasted, though, it was the closest thing to Pure Anarchy the world has seen outside of a war zone.
At it’s most overgrown peak in early 1987, Kowloon Walled City was home to 50,000 inhabitants. From 1899, these tenacious squatters had repelled the British, the Japanese and every would-be landlord and “property owner” in the history of Hong Kong. So why not make them the centerpiece of the book?
I’ve since come to realize it’s because he was writing a personal historical fantasy, not a tactical or practical guide. Although Kowloon truly was a Temporary Autonomous Zone, and it’s a cool idea to read and think about, it truly sucked to live there. This is best summed up by Coilhouse‘s conclusion:
Yes, the anarchistic types out there are correct when they say that the Walled City is evidence that humans can co-exist, and even thrive, without laws constantly piled on them. But it’s not that simple. After all, without massive police raids (government incarnate), the place would have probably become a mob-run tyranny. Its residents had a degree of freedom that anyone who comes home to piles of bills or endless forms can’t help but envy. They also had darkness, a lower life expectancy, filthy living conditions and huge numbers of drug addicts.
But if the Walled City is a reminder that lawlessness isn’t quite as cleanly romantic as some might think, it also reminds us that a staggering number of societies are possible “‘ and that every one of them has a price.
It’s also worth meditating on how Kowloon came to achieve their “hands-off” status: by kicking up such a profound shit-storm of noise and problems, every single time someone tried to exert their authority, that everyone in power simply gave up. As David Robinson puts it in his great Tofu Magazine piece, “British policy came to regard Walled City as something of a hornets nest “‘ best not to be kicked unless absolutely necessary.”
Perhaps the lesson here is that there are no little things when it comes to defending your freedom. If either of those words are supposed to mean something, there are no acceptable tradeoffs or reasonable comprimises.
FURTHER READING: The best narrative summary is from Coilhouse, and the Wiki is surprisingly dense. My Father Lived in Kowloon City, and the hilariously mis-translated but quite interesting story of a Japanese expedition into the city the week before it was demolished in 1993. If you’re interesting in more photos, more information, and more pages to scroll through, then say hello the Skyscraper Forum, who have collected pretty much all there is to know in one thread.