Photographs by Greg Girard & Ian Lambot. Interview with Greg Girard by Habitat Project
Kowloon Walled City was a large settlement raised in Hong Kong. It was the most densely populated places on earth with the extraordinary population stimated in 33.000 in 1987. Greg Girard and Ian Lamboth spent 5 years inside the walled city, documenting the daily life of the Walled City.
Habitat decides to have an interview with Greg Girard, on occasion of the kickstarter campaign for the new edition of the book “City of Darkness Revisited”, firts published in 1993.
HABITAT: Why are you re-publishing your work with the kickstater campaign? what’s new?
GREG GIRARD: The original book was in print for nearly 20 years, and as the 20th anniversary of the Walled City’s demolition approached it seemed like the right time to take another look at the place, and our material, in light of the unexpected ways the Walled City had inserted itself in various corners of the culture -as an influence in film production design, literature, architecture, first person shooter games, and other areas.
H: Why did you decide to work in hong kong? how did you know about Kowloon?
GG: I first visited Hong Kong in 1974, travelling and photographing in that part of the world as a young photographer, and I started living there in 1982. I had heard stories about the Walled City -a dangerous slum to be avoided- but I had never met anyone who had ever been there, and until I started making my own I had never seen a photograph of the place. In 1986 I was photographing in the streets near the old international airport, Kai Tak, and came around a corner and saw this extraordinary structure, completely at odds with everything around it. And I remember thinking to myself, “this must be it”.
H: How did you start to collaborate with Ian Lambot?
GG: Ian and I were introduced at a party, and we discovered to our surprise that we were both already photographing in the Walled City. Our approaches were quite different and so we decided to try and work together to make a thorough photographic document of the place. 4 years later “City of Darkness: Life in Kowloon Walled City” was published.
H: How did you get in contact with the families living in Kowloon?
GG: As I started making pictures I gradually started to meet people, and gradually gained -if not exactly “trust”- then maybe their indifference. Photographing inside homes was difficult but I started making progress when Ian hired an assistant, Emmy Lung, to help with interviews for the oral history we compiled. Emmy opened a lot of doors for us.
H: Which kind of community lived there? Have you ever spend one night in?
GG: I never did spend a night there. I did think about it at the time but it seemed like an imposition that wouldn’t result in anything more than a huge inconvenience for our hosts. I was already able to photograph families preparing and eating dinner, and playing mahjong and watching tv, and bathing their children before bed. So, to ask them to make space for one extra person in an already crowded apartment seemed to be counter-productive. As it was I was already roaming freely through the place at all hours of the day and night. The community was in some sense a normal working class Hong Kong neighbourhood. Except this one was living and working in extraordinary circumstances.
H: Could you tell us about the social and the economic set of rules of this micro-world?
GG: The Walled City’s reputation was of a place outside the law where prostitution, drugs and other vices resided and the police never entered. The part about vice was true, from the 1950s to the 1970s, but by the time we started photographing there, from 1986, the Walled City was more or less like any other working class neighbourhood, at least in terms of vice. In our new book we looked into the policing question (the police would and did pursue serious crimes there) and also found government records detailing in impressive detail the number of brothels, opium dens, strip shows and dog meat restaurant there. You can’t help but wish to have been born earlier.
H: How would you describe the sensation that you felt inside and the atmosphere you perceived?
GG: The first visits I have to say were scary and fascinating. People were rather hostile to outsiders at that time, before the announcement was made that the place was going to be demolished. Nothing really prepares you for a place in modern Hong Kong that was completely in defiance of basic regulations governing health and safety and water and sanitation. The regulations of a modern city produce a city that looks a certain way, one that we are all used to. How a street looks. How a sidewalk looks. How it looks above and beside the street and the sidewalk. This “city” didn’t look anything like that.
H: Kowloon city it’s an impressive informal process of densification. Could you exactly explain how it happened?
GG: Although the authorities did pursue serious crimes committed there, almost everything else was left to the inhabitants to decide. Remember that the history of the Walled City meant that it was exempt from the treaty between Britain and China that ceded Hong Kong to Britain. So although the Walled City was situated in Hong Kong it was, technically, a piece of China where colonial British law didn’t apply. China was in political and social upheaval for much of the 20th Century so Beijing had other much larger things to worry about, though they always left it unclear what they would or wouldn’t accept in terms of the HK government’s policies towards the Walled City. This meant that, for example, any builder in the Walled City could build whatever they wanted (no need to consult an architect: just build it), even if it went up 14 or 15 stories on a tiny plot of land. One of the only conditions imposed on the Walled City by the HK government was to restrict the building height to 14 stories because of the flight path and nearby runway at Kai Tak airport.
H: Would you describe the social value of your work, in the case of “Walled Kowloon City”?
GG: Ian and I were in part motivated by the sensationalist and plainly incorrect reporting on the Walled City at the time. To some extent we were trying to set the record straight, to show that in spite of its physical extremes the Walled City was worth paying attention to and exploring how it actually worked, providing a home and workplace, and more, to over 33,000 people. But as for social value, who can say. You set out to make an honest record of something, a social and architectural space in this case, and whether it ends up having value to anyone besides yourself can never be predicted.
H: In your opinion, was the demolition the only possible choice for the Kowloon Case?
GG: Around the time of its demolition in 1993 I used to get asked whether I though the Walled City should have been preserved in some way, and, as fond as I was of the place, I usually answered “no”. The place was a health hazard, a fire and safety risk, and to allow it to continue as a place to live in would mean that people would be subject to unacceptable conditions. At the same time, to make it “liveable” according to normal regulatory considerations would change the nature of the place. So, that’s what I thought for many years, accepting that it had to go. More recently I do wonder where a conversation about that question might lead, had it been allowed to stand for an additional 20 years.
H: Could you picture us in 2 words how did you feel on the rooftop of Kowloon?
GG: Thrilled. Free.