City of Darkness Revisited - a new edition of the Kowloon Walled City classic
Ian Lambot co-wrote the well-known book about Kowloon Walled City, "City of Darkness". Here I ask Ian about the new and expanded edition, "City of Darkness Revisited".
David: The book is full of beautiful photos - do you have a favourite?
Ian: Where to begin! Should it be the aerial image I took one misty evening in, I think, 1989, which now appears all too regularly – and almost invariably without permission – on any website about the Walled City you care to mention?
Or should it be one of the City’s dark and dank alleys, lined above with the innumerable water pipes and electricity cables that had accumulated, layer upon layer, as successive residents of nearby buildings each installed their own supply? It became impossible to work out which pipe still held running water and which had fallen into disuse, but either way one had to run the gauntlet of unknown drips and ever slippery alleyways.
But then I realised that the one aspect of the City I photographed more than any other and, indeed, what had drawn me to photograph there in the first place was its rich and articulated elevations, and especially the caged balconies that seemingly lined every surface. Of course, these weren’t unique to the Walled City. I first arrived in Hong Kong in 1979 and in those days one could see caged balconies on most of the older tenement buildings. The streets around the back of Yau Ma Tei and Mong Kok were lined with them I remember, but their sheer profusion, on the Walled City’s south and east elevations in particular, had turned them into something of an art form.
At one level they appealed to the craftsman in me. At first glance they seemed to be very similar, but the more one looked, the more you realised that each fabricator and workshop had their own particular style. And although their purpose was entirely functional – a way of adding a little extra space to far too small and crowded apartments – each was decorated with unnecessarily complicated curlicues, arches and other geometric patterns, all given a sense of uniformity by their coatings of pale green or orange anti-rust paint.
The real fascination, though, was that they allowed the passer-by a glimpse into a multitude of people’s lives, a little like walking past homes on an English winter afternoon when the lights have been switched on but before the curtains are drawn. Here among the invariable washing put out to dry, were buckets and storage boxes, delicate bamboo birdcages, perhaps a child’s bicycle, and always somewhere or other flower pots, some with living plants growing out of them. Here was a wonderful patchwork of everyday life.
Sadly, in the name of progress, health and safety or just the elimination of ‘illegal’ structures, like the Walled City itself caged balconies have disappeared entirely from Hong Kong and I am sure I am not the only one who finds the urban street-scene the poorer for it. Hopefully, the pictures here will bring back warm memories of how Hong Kong used to be – and not that long ago.
David: Why did you decide to make this new edition? After all, the original book has been in print for 20+ years, and is still popular.
Ian: To my continuing astonishment, as you point out, the original edition remained in print for close on 20 years.
It was produced in a pre-digital age – difficult to imagine now – and only existed on the original films from which the printing plates are produced. As a consequence, changing anything apart from the cover was all but impossible.
For various reasons aspects of the City’s growth and recent history had been omitted from the original book, which had always bothered me, so the idea of an all-new edition had crossed my mind several times. But it was the approach of the 20th anniversary of the City’s demolition that provided the real impetus. It just seemed the right time to bring the story up to date.
David: I already have a copy of the original book, so should I buy the new one? How much new and different material will there be?
Ian: Naturally, we will be using all of the best of the photographs and resident interviews from the original edition again, though reorganised and reformatted, and both Greg and I have found a number of really very good photographs we took at the time that somehow never made the cut. Most importantly, though, the passing of 20 years has allowed us to go back and thoroughly research the history of the City’s growth from 1949 onwards; to look again at the City’s complicated legal and political standing and how this affected every aspect of life there.
Another section will explore the reality of the Triads’ influence there, which was indeed considerable for a few short years in the 1950s and early 1960s, but nowhere near the extent of the myths that continue to swirl around the place; and finally we have looked at how the City – in reality and myth – continues to influence popular culture to this day.
And all of this will be illustrated with a veritable treasure trove of new drawings, documents and photographs that have some to light over the past few years, many previously unpublished.
((David: Or by numbers - the original book had just over 200 pages, the new one is 50%+ bigger at well over 300 pages.))
David: I'm very interested to see you're using Kickstarter to raise the money for this project, as it's something I'd like to try. Why did you decide on Kickstarter?
Ian: Funding of some kind was absolutely essential. Though we are calling this a new edition, in reality it is an entirely new book. All of the photographs have had to be digitally rescanned, the whole book has been totally redesigned and, of course, there is a considerable amount of new material, which means that what was a relatively modest 200-page book has now expanded to 300 pages plus. Including all the research, this has been a very expensive exercise.
Greg and I have funded this entirely so far, but the final production and printing involves another level of magnitude that is frankly beyond us. We needed some form of support, but raising any form of sponsorship from either government, companies or individuals here was proving nigh-on impossible. It can also involve various provisos, so I just found the democracy of the Kickstarter approach much more appealing.
We were lucky in that we already had a quite a good fan-base so it seemed a good way to go. I have to say though, I hadn’t realised quite how emotionally draining the level of immediacy and exposure it involves would be.
David: Are there any questions you would like to ask Gwulo’s readers?
In general I think we have done quite well and, as I say, we have turned up a lot of really good new material. The one area that has proved almost impossible to source, though, are photographs of the Walled City during the 1950s and early 1960s. If anybody has any pictures from that era I would love to include them in the book. Otherwise, we are compiling on our website, all sort of personal recollection, all of which I find fascinating, so I’d love to hear from anybody with a good story to tell as well.
Ian and co-author Greg Girard have taken a different approach to funding this new book. They are using Kickstarter to raise money from supporters who want to see the book published. Supporters commit to buy a copy of the book when it is published, which guarantees the funds are available to finish the project.
To support this project visit their Kickstarter page:
And if you'd like to learn more about the book's contents visit: