Denizens of noted hellhole face Walled City eviction

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

June 30, 1992|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Staff Writer

HONG KONG -- Daylight has long been unable to penetrate the inner recesses of the infamous slum known as the Walled City. Now a tomb-like silence also envelops this warren of jerry-built tenements and fetid alleys that once teemed with so much life and so much vice.

Gone are the brothels, the opium dens, the unlicensed dentists, the gambling clubs, the hole-in-the-wall factories, the criminals' lairs.

And come tomorrow, after Hong Kong police move in with eviction orders and riot gear, likely gone will be the last of about 100 holdouts from among the Walled City's more than 30,000 residents.

Having festered for decades amid Hong Kong's rising techno-glitter, this 6.5 acres of squalor will be razed later this year and eventually converted into what is envisioned as a placid, green park.

The final clearance of the Walled City's last residents closes one of the more bizarre sagas in Hong Kong's quirky history. The city for decades has been the ultimate no-man's-land -- ruled neither by Hong Kong's British administrators nor by Chinese authorities, both of whom claimed it was theirs.

Few outsiders ventured into the vermin-ridden honeycomb of 350 seven- to 14-story buildings interlaced by a maze of dark, shoulder-wide paths -- byways bounded by open sewers, lined with frayed nests of illegal electrical lines and perpetually damp from dripping water pipes.

Even Hong Kong's police wouldn't go in -- not because of China's disputed claim, but because they feared never coming out.

The city was founded in 1843 as a Chinese fort. But it has been at the center of a political tug-of-war since 1898 when Britain, already in possession of Hong Kong Island, forced China to lease part of the Chinese mainland known as the New Territories.

The area leased to Britain surrounded but did not include the Walled City. A year later, though, British troops took the Chinese fort -- an act that is still not accepted by China.

Hong Kong authorities tried to tear down the city several times before. One such effort in 1948 led to the burning of the British consulate in Canton; another in 1962 faltered in the face of Mao Tse-tung's wrath.

The political standoff evolved into an urban nightmare in the 1960s and 1970s when the Walled City swelled with illegal Chinese immigrants, becoming a nether world largely controlled by the Chinese gangs known as Triads.

The British long considered the city a cancer within their colony's spiraling affluence. With the approach of China's 1997 takeover of Hong Kong, China apparently also came to view it with embarrassment -- as evidenced by Beijing's quiet assent to a Hong Kong government decision in 1987 finally to tear it down.

Since then, Hong Kong has spent more than $300 million compensating the Walled City's denizens for the loss of their apartments and businesses. Many have been moved to public housing.

But still camped in a roadside shelter by one of the few entrances to the city that remain unlocked is a small group of residents who refuse to leave, insisting on more money and invoking Britain's 1898 treaty with China.

That treaty disallowed expulsion of the city's inhabitants.

"This is China, not Hong Kong. The British government has no power to move us," said the 41-year-old proprietress of a plastic factory, Wang Ching, gesturing toward a large portrait of Mao on a nearby wall.

Another resister, Lam Yin Ming, leads the way inside the city: down a long dark corridor, around several corners, up a half-dozen flights of stairs and past enormous spider webs, overpowering odors, scurrying rats, a few one-man workshops still operating and the detritus of marginal lives sent packing.

"This is my home," Mr. Lam said, trying to wiggle a finger through a small hole in the door of his two-room apartment, locked shut months ago by authorities. "It was a good place to live."

Mr. Lam and a few dozen others intend to fight their eviction

tomorrow. As during the last clearance effort earlier this year, there may be some scuffles between police and the holdouts, a few explosions of homemade fireworks and perhaps the burning of a Union Jack.

Anything less contentious would hardly be a fitting end for such an inglorious footnote to history as the Walled City.

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