Kowloon Walled City: Hong Kong’s City of Darkness

Kowloon Walled City: Hong Kong’s City of Darkness


Imagine, if you will, a city of eternal night. A place so intensely crowded that sunlight
never penetrates its alleyways. Overhead, wires dangle from the ceilings. Neon signs fizz in doorways. All around you, 33,000 people are crammed
into self-built apartments barely 10m square, while overhead great airships rumble through
sky. Is this a vision from the future? The setting, perhaps, for some dystopian sci-fi
novel? Not quite. The place we’ve just described was very
real, and existed within most of our lifetimes. Its name was Kowloon Walled City. It was once the most-densely inhabited place
on Earth. Situated on the edge of Hong Kong, the Walled
City was a place devoid of oversight. Claimed by both China and Britain and administered
by neither, it grew out the needs of the poor who flooded there, determined to rebuild their
lives. But was Kowloon Walled City merely a gigantic
slum, or was it something more: a radical experiment in communal living and architecture
that broke all the rules? Today, we’re tiptoeing through alleys of
eternal night to explore the most dystopian city to have ever existed. A Building Outside the Law
The standard image of Kowloon Walled City preserved in pictures is of a high-rise slum
surrounded by skyscrapers – more or less how it looked at the moment of its demise in 1994. But to understand how this concrete behemoth
came to exist in the first place, we’re going to have to travel back through time. All the way back to 1839. China is still ruled by the imperial Qing
dynasty. The British Empire still straddles the globe. And these two global powers are about to go
toe-to-toe in a fight that will reshape Asia. The First Opium War was as one sided as watching
the Incredible Hulk step into a ring with the Andrex Puppy. By 1842, China had lost so badly that it was
forced to hand over Hong Kong to the British. However, the Hong Kong the British received
in 1842 was smaller than the Hong Kong we know today. Specifically, the area of Kowloon was just
outside. And it was here, in Kowloon, that an old fort
lay. Dated to the Song Dynasty of 960-1279 AD,
it was this semi-forgotten building that would one day form the core of the Walled City. The 19th Century progressed, with China losing
yet another Opium War to the British and handing over yet more territory. By the time Beijing had also lost the First
Sino-Japanese War in 1895, the Chinese state was effectively unable to control its borders. Which may be why the British were able to
force yet another treaty on the Qing, finally giving them control of Kowloon. But the British Empire had a problem. While China might be weak, it was also very
big, and very close to Hong Kong. By contrast, London was nearly 10,000 km away. If the Chinese were really determined to hold
onto part of Kowloon, there was little the British could do about it. And it turns out the Chinese really, really
wanted to keep that old Song Dynasty fort. In the 1898 Second Convention of Peking, Beijing
insisted on inserting a line, asserting ownership of Kowloon fort. In full, it read:
“The Chinese officials now stationed there shall continue to exercise jurisdiction except
so far as may be inconsistent with the military requirements for the defense of Hong Kong.” To which the British presumably replied “yeah,
totes, for sure,” while secretly crossing their fingers behind their backs and winking
at one another. In May, 1899, less than a year after the Second
Convention of Peking had been signed, British troops marched on Kowloon fort, chucked the
Chinese out, and proclaimed it part of the British Empire. Just as they’d calculated, Beijing didn’t
put up a fight. That line in the Convention about the Chinese
owning the fort had been shown to be nothing but words on a sheet of paper. But here’s the thing about words. For such insubstantial things, they have a
funny way of shaping reality. It was words on a sheet of paper, after all,
that had given Hong Kong to the British in the first place. It was words on a sheet of paper – in this
case the Zimmermann Telegram – that would drag the US into WWI. Before long, the British were going to regret
giving Beijing something as powerful as those words. A Home for the Homeless
You can trace how the fortunes of both China and Britain changed over the 20th Century
just by looking at how the British treated squatters in Kowloon Fort. In June, 1933, for example, the colonial government
in Hong Kong became concerned about Chinese peasants living in the ruins. So they drove them out. While the peasants complained to Beijing,
Beijing was all like “yeah, we already lost two Opium Wars to those guys, we’re not
gonna fight them again,” and that was that. But jump forward twenty odd years and things
had changed. In 1947, the British Empire was still reeling
from the near-fatal blow it had received in WWII. Across the border, China was devouring itself
in a bloody civil war between Communists and Nationalists. As the bodies piled up, thousands fled across
the border into Hong Kong. Destitute, in need of a place to live, many
of them converged on the Kowloon Fort. By 1948, 2,000 Chinese refugees were squatting
there. That January, the colonial police tried to
eject them. On January 12, officers marched into Kowloon
fort, expecting a routine removal. What they got instead was 2,000 angry refugees
attacking them with rocks. The resulting street battle was a disaster
for the police. Although luckily no-one was killed, six were
injured, and the fort had to be surrendered to the refugees. Could the British have taken Kowloon fort
if they really wanted to? Of course! This is the British Empire we’re talking
about, the guys who conquered half the damn world. But 1948 wasn’t a year when the Empire felt
like conquering. London had barely survived WWII. The Empire had just lost India in an orgy
of ethnic cleansing known as Partition. There simply wasn’t the will to spark trouble
in Hong Kong too. So the colonial authorities retreated, biding
their time. In the end, they would have to wait decades. On October 1, 1949, Chairman Mao’s Communist
forces declared victory in the Chinese civil war. Everyone who wasn’t a dyed in the wool socialist
fled, many of them into Kowloon. Come 1950, the population of the fort had
hit 17,000. Nor was it just refugees anymore. Criminals, drop outs, peasants, anarchists,
and people fleeing the law had all joined this melting pot on the fringes of Hong Kong. It was at this time that Kowloon fort became
Kowloon Walled City. On January 11, 1950, a massive fire ripped
through the fort’s makeshift town. Although firefighters intervened, they only
managed to save the ancient core. In the aftermath, those who’d been living
there didn’t go elsewhere. They returned, began to rebuild. Out of necessity, they constructed new homes
atop one another. A new kind of architecture began to take hold,
one that grew organically, according to its residents’ needs. It was from these humble beginnings that the
vast Walled City of legend would grow. But the colonial authorities still weren’t
done trying to evict its citizens. In March, 1962, the British announced they
would demolish the Walled City in one year. As they had in 1933, the residents complained
to Beijing. This time, Beijing listened. Mao’s government declared the British had
no right to interfere in the Walled City. That it belonged to Communist China. They waved about the Second Convention of
Peking, highlighting those words the British had foolishly agreed to, long ago. What else could Britain do? Faced with the prospect of war with Communist
China, the authorities agreed not to interfere in the Walled City. Importantly, though, they also didn’t give
Beijing permission to enter Hong Kong and administer the place itself. Suddenly, the Walled City existed in a diplomatic
no-man’s land. A place where neither China nor Britain were
able to enforce their laws. From this legal quirk would spring one of
the strangest cities in human history. Life in Darkness
So, that’s the story of how Kowloon Walled City came to be. Now it’s time for us to take a trip inside,
to wander its alleys and discover what it was like to actually live there. Well, the first thing to note is that it was
incredibly cramped. After 1963, the numbers of people in the Walled
City didn’t top out at 17,000. More and more kept on arriving; refugees from
Mao’s Cultural Revolution or Hong Kong citizens who’d been ruined by the 1973 stock market
crash. But even as their numbers swelled to an all-time
high of 33,000, the space they had to live in stayed static. The Kowloon fort’s limits covered an area
roughly the size of four FIFA soccer pitches. While the British weren’t about to interfere
inside it, you can bet your sweet backside they also weren’t gonna allow it to simply
keep growing. That meant the new arrivals had only one direction
to build in if they wanted homes: up. By the 1980s, the Walled City reached fourteen
storeys into the sky – the maximum it could hit without causing serious risk to planes
landing at Hong Kong airport. The rickety towers that made up its height
weren’t apartment blocks that you or I would recognize. While some residents had normal-sized living
spaces, the average block in the Walled City was effectively a whole bunch of 30m square
apartments balanced precariously atop one another. In some blocks, these one room apartments
were barely 10m square, smaller than the average American bedroom. And, yes, we totally looked up the size of
the average American bedroom for this video. Who knew there was anyone actually counting? Within these tiny apartments, you would have
multiple families living. Typically, three or four generations would
live in a space not much bigger than a closet, the kids doing their homework in one corner
while mom and pop ran their business from the front. That’s right: business. Just like any city, Kowloon Walled City needed
its entrepreneurs to keep things working. For many families, this meant turning the
front of their apartment into a shop of some kind. But there were other, bigger businesses, too. Because neither the British nor Chinese could
enforce their labor laws, the Walled City became a Mecca for those wishing to operate
without a license. Slaughterhouses set up shop. Unlicensed dentists. Factories. Surrounded by the din and bustle of this human
hive, workers would package food for consumption across Hong Kong. It’s said that, at one point, 80% of all
rice balls consumed in the territory were prepared right here, in these dingy corridors. Speaking of food, the Walled City was famous
for its snacks. You could get a siu mai for the equivalent
of one US cent. That’s if you weren’t busy frequenting
the noodle bars. Noodles in the city were so good that the
average Hong Kong resident would go to the Walled City more for the gastronomic experience
than for anything to do with crime. That being said, crime did exist there. It wasn’t exactly the den of iniquity portrayed
by popular culture, but it also wasn’t a shiny utopia. It’s time we met the shady people running
the show. Organizing Anarchy
With no nation able to exert control over the Walled City, you might be wondering how
it didn’t just transform into a permanent Hunger Games. The answer is that there were people enforcing
order amid. But not the police. It was the Triads that called the shots. While the Triads are synonymous in Western
culture with violence, within the Walled City their role was different. Lacking anyone else to do the job, the Triads
were basically City Hall. They organized waste collection, recruited
a volunteer fire department, kept order in the cramped alleyways, paid elderly residents
pensions. There was even an old folks home located in
one of the blocks, where the Triads arranged for the old and infirm to be looked after. But, still, criminals gonna crim. While they might have been able to fulfil
some basic social functions, the Triads couldn’t stop themselves from indulging in a little
bit of classic gangsterism on the side. The most destructive, of course, was the drugs
trade. Getting high in the Walled City was an absurdly
easy thing to do. Opium dens flourished in its darkest corners,
while a rampant heroin trade allowed you go on the nod in the comfort of your tiny home. There was even a hierarchy of drug users. The wealthier indulged in opium, while those
less well-off shot heroin. The poorest of all could buy little red pills
containing opioids. For the equivalent of 3 US cents you could
drift away and forget your troubles, even if only for an hour. Unsurprisingly, this led to rampant addiction,
and all the attendant social ills. There were rumors of addicts dying inside
their tiny apartments and not being discovered for months. Of families hiding corpses so they didn’t
have to pay the funeral costs. Yet, while darkness undoubtedly flourished
in the Walled City, so did a lighter side of life. You won’t see it in many films set there,
but the Walled City was a functioning society. It had schools. Kindergartens. Libraries. There were even two temples you could pray
at: one squeezed down in the darkness of the lower floors, one hopefully situated beneath
a skylight that was frequently buried under garbage. People did normal jobs here, too, albeit with
a unique twist. There were mailmen, for example. A whole two of them. Each day, they would spend 8 hours scrambling
up and down the infinite blocks, navigating the preposterous numbering system, squeezing
through alleys which were an average 90cm wide. Because it had grown without any central planning,
walking the Walled City wasn’t like walking a normal city block. In the late 1980s, one resident tried to map
the place. It took him the best part of six years to
record the strange twists and turns and hidden routes that those mailmen had been forced
to memorize. Still, this outward chaos masked inner normality. On the roof, children would play soccer amid
the television ariels, oblivious to the airplanes booming overhead. Old men would sunbathe. It was like a typical Manhattan block, with
the exception that Manhattan’s population density was 27,000 people per km2, while scaling
the Walled City up to that size would’ve resulted in a population density of 1.2 million
per km2. Not a good place for claustrophobics. Still, by 1980, Kowloon Walled City was starting
to become part of Hong Kong life. The colonial police had even started patrolling
inside, on the understanding that they were there purely to keep people safe and not enforce
annoying British laws. So it’s ironic that it was right at this
point, just as the Walled City was starting to go legit, that the colonial authorities
were again making plans to destroy it. This time, they would succeed. A Transfer of Power
In early 1986, Sir Edward Youde was a man with a problem. The colonial governor of Hong Kong, he was
all too aware that Britain’s time running the territory was coming to a close. Fifteen months earlier, in December, 1984,
Beijing and London had signed the Joint Declaration, paving the way for Hong Kong to return to
China in 1997. There was just one problem. Edward Youde had no idea what to do about
the Walled City. Like most of the Hong Kong elite, Youde considered
the ungovernable block in Kowloon to be an embarrassing slum, the sort of place that
gave refined gentlemen nightmares. He also considered it a perfect propaganda
gift to China. Youde’s thinking went something like this. If Hong Kong was handed over to China with
the Walled City intact, Beijing would immediately use it to kick the British. And the last thing a loyal man like Youde
wanted was to embarrass the Crown. From this worry grew the long process that
would lead to the Walled City’s destruction. The first any of the inhabitants heard of
this was at 6am on January 14, 1987. That humid day, 360 Housing Department staff
supported by scores of police sealed off all the Walled City’s 83 exits and fanned out
through its alleyways, collecting information. By sunset, they’d registered 19,606 people
living within its walls. Eventually, that figure would be revised up
to 28,200 people scattered across 8,800 buildings. The residents pretty quickly realized what
was up. But rather than fight, they treated it all
with a shrug. “We’ll see what Beijing has to say,”
was the most frequently reported phrase that day. But when Beijing finally spoke up, those residents
were in for a nasty shock. In early 1987, the Chinese government declared
they were happy to let the British do what they wanted with the place. If they wanted to knock it down, good luck
to them. See, while Kowloon Walled City was safely
within British territory, the Chinese were happy to kick up a fuss over it, as a way
of reminding London that Beijing might be down, but wasn’t out. Now that they’d got Hong Kong back, Beijing
no longer needed that reminder. In fact, they’d much rather see the Walled
City in ruins than have to deal with it themselves. And so the City’s fate was sealed. All through the rest of the decade and into
the 1990s, the colonial government worked to clear the area. New homes were offered to residents. Generous compensation packages were handed
out to businesses. Some enterprising landlords even built new
homes during the clearance process, specifically so they could claim extra money. By January, 1991, 96% of residents and 51%
of businesses had agreed to leave. The colonial authorities breathed a sigh of
relief. But this is Kowloon Walled City we’re talking
about. A place that always refused to play by the
rules. If the British wanted to tear this slum down,
they were gonna have to fight for it. Death of a Dream
Throughout 1991, there were warning signs that not everyone was happy with the demise
of the Walled City. Union Jacks were burned in the streets, while
protestors waved Chinese flags. But still, things remained mostly calm that
summer, if a little tense. Come late fall, though, they finally exploded. On November 28, protests broke out outside
Hong Kong’s Government House. Angry former-residents marched through the
streets, before finally erecting a new tent city near Kowloon. The following year, 1992, there were skirmishes
at the Walled City. Rocks were hurled at police. People punched officers. Given the volatility of the situation, the
authorities chose to let these incidents slide. That March, a small, homemade bomb destroyed
a flat vacated in the clearance. Barely a month later, an angry resident attacked
police with a meat cleaver, injuring several. In the aftermath, the colonial authorities
decided it was time to finally finish the job. That June, armed riot police converged on
the Walled City, making for the apartments where the last die-hards still held out. There were stand offs. Unwise words. The threat of violence. Yet, for whatever reason, things never span
out of control. One by one, the last residents left their
homes, hands in the air, and surrendered to the police. On July 1, 1992, police reached the last hold-out
apartment. At 16:30 that day, the middle aged couple
barricade inside agreed to leave. The moment they stepped outside into the bright
Hong Kong sunshine, the Walled City lost its final inhabitants. But clearance wasn’t quite over yet. Remember that tent city the protestors set
up? Well, by mid-1992 it had become a magnet for
former Walled City residents and was starting to grow. Fearing that another Walled City would just
spring up, the authorities quickly moved against the encampment. On July 2, it was dismantled. Demolition of the Walled City began eight
months later, in March, 1993. It was a slow process, one that used tools
rather than dynamite. For a long time, it was still possible to
make out the outlines of the former City, even as its walls finally fell to the wrecking
ball. By April, 1994, the last of the Walled City
had been destroyed. After dominating this corner of Kowloon for
half a century, the most famous slum in history was no more. When they tore the City down, the Hong Kong
authorities were acting with the best of intentions. At the time, it was seen as nothing but a
slum, the vertical equivalent of Rio’s favelas. Yet, just as the favelas can be misunderstood
from the outside, so, too, was Kowloon Walled City. This was a self-organizing community that
had sprang out of nothing. This was architecture designed by the people,
free from government interference. Over decades, it had grown like an organism,
eventually becoming a real-life example of grimy, Blade Runner-style futurism. More than that, though, it had become a unique
community. It’s telling that, when the South China
Morning Post caught up with a former resident who’d received vast compensation for leaving,
he told them: “If I could choose, I’d still be running
my air conditioner-repair business at my Walled City shop and leading a happy and stable life.” Many others who lived there have spoken in
similar, nostalgic terms, remembering the food, the people, the feeling of living beyond
the normal rules. And it seems this feeling has reached more
than just those who once lived there. Today, nostalgia for the Walled City is everywhere. You can see it in pop culture, such as the
Gotham City neighborhood the Narrows, which Batman Begins director Chris Nolan claimed
was modeled on the Walled City. You can see it in games such as Call of Duty:
Black Ops, which included the Walled City as a playable level. You can even see it in Japan, where some wonderful
nutjob has meticulously rebuilt three storeys of the Walled City as an amusement park. Apparently they even import trash from the
Kowloon area of Hong Kong to keep it authentic. Kowloon Walled City, then, is a place that
survives in humanity’s imagination, living on in sci-fi, graphic novels, and visionary
architecture. It may have been a crime-ridden slum. It may have appeared only because of a diplomatic
void. But the Walled City was a place that made
its mark on history. Who knows if we’ll ever see its like again.

100 Comments on "Kowloon Walled City: Hong Kong’s City of Darkness"


  1. Fun fact. The Walled City can be seen in Jackie Chan's (excellent) serious cop-drama Crime Story, where they took advantage of TWC getting destroyed by filming scenes there with huge explosions going off.

    It's also the place where the Kumite tournament was held in Van Damme's Bloodsport.

    Reply

  2. I really enjoy your channel! I think I could listen to your voice reading a telephone book! It's so interesting to me. Thank you for the knowledge ❤❤😊😊

    Reply

  3. Dont forget that the Walled City was home to entire factories devoted to manufacture of counterfeit goods, and the only place you could go in the area to eat cats and dogs. Also the old cannons that were recovered in the alleyways during demolition that dated back to pre-colonial years.

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  4. You know when the video is in trouble when they do a flashback to wood bottom boats and the first opium war?!?

    Reply

  5. I’ve always wanted to go here and I couldn’t tell you why. So sad that I’m an adult now and not then when I could have freely gone.

    Reply

  6. The 11×12 for american bedrooms is in feet not meters. A 30×30 meter apt is about the side of a studio apartment in the states or a 1 bedroom trailer.

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  7. 👌👀👌👀👌👀👌👀👌👀 good shit go౦ԁ sHit👌 thats ✔ some good👌👌shit right👌👌there👌👌👌 right✔there ✔✔if i do ƽaү so my self 💯 i say so 💯 thats what im talking about right there right there (chorus: ʳᶦᵍʰᵗ ᵗʰᵉʳᵉ) mMMMMᎷМ💯 👌👌 👌НO0ОଠOOOOOОଠଠOoooᵒᵒᵒᵒᵒᵒᵒᵒᵒ👌 👌👌 👌 💯 👌 👀 👀 👀 👌👌Good shit

    Reply

  8. It is funny how easy we stroll over extreme violence, when it is committed by the western megalomaniacs …

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  9. I saw a building in hong kong where it had a population of 70,000 more than my city amazing those people are tiny!

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  10. So it’s like the Chinese version of a hive city? Where are the Adeptus Arbites when you need them

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  11. Very interesting. I would have preferred something a little more in-depth though. With maybe the inclusion of more photo's and documentary footage.

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  12. Something tells me the presenter is a proud Brit stuck in the imperial times. Britain cant even administer their own island and finish Brexit yet talking about conquering half the world.

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  13. 5:05 Logical fallacy & historical omission. 1. Communism and nationalism are not mutually exclusive and, 2. Following the fracturing of the Qing Dynasty into 'warlorism' by the revolutionary efforts of Christian-convert, Sun Yat-sen (advised by American imperialist, Anglo-Saxon supremacist and agent-provoateur, "General" Homer Lea) the emergent Republic of China (RoC) under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek of the "nationalist" Kuomintang Party (KMT) had formed an alliance with the Communist Party of China (CPC) as the "First United Front" for the purpose of subduing the northern warlords of the remnant Qing Imperial Beiyang army. The "communist" civil war was triggered when Chiang Kai-shek purged the RoC government of the communists during the northern campaign.

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  14. You can't say it was the most dystopian city that ever existed bcuz you really don't know that for sure.

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  15. that was interesting. I visited Kowloon last year for the 2nd time. Hadn't ever heard of this before. More people than you cam shake a stick at. I believe around 7m now for all of Hong Kong.

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  16. If china wants to take HONG KONG.the protesters now might as well DESTROY HONG KONG before they sieze it.. And unrelentless rally riot.. Destroy HONGKONG and might as well kill that Prime minister..

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  17. The crown seen that people were not just surviving but thriving without the need for government and if that spread the powers of England would eventually be overthrown.
    Communist China eventually seen that wouldn't work for them either.
    It had to be stopped.

    Reply

  18. I visited The Walled City in 1991 twice.
    I remember the Temple in the first floor.
    The cannons that are seen in the old pictures were still there I saw two on the side of one of these streets alley ways. When venturing down the ally’s or streets there was so much water coming down to the ground level from air conditioning or water pipes. The residents were nice enough and went about their business there were lots of noodle makers.
    The only “ fear “ I had was the electric wires just everywhere and due to the amount of water coming down one had to walk close to the walls where those electrical wires were. My fear was getting electrical shocked 😳
    I remember one shopkeeper who was living with his family invited us in and shared his drinks with us and we bought them drinks in return.
    For me personally I feel very lucky to have visited The Walled City.

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  19. You forgot the stacks from ready player one. But other than that, this has me sparked! I'm going on a research binge about this! Whee! 👍❤️

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  20. It was in Bloodsport too, back when Kumite’s were illegal it was one of the few places you could have them.

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  21. Moment it was destroy they destroy the true identity of Hongkong, to day’s Hongkong is just a rotting carcass

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  22. I’ve been to Kowloon once, I was there with a good friend named Weaver and an acquaintance of ours, Clarke 😉

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  23. I went to Hong Kong in '84 while it was still a colony. The thing that bothered me most was that the Crown had no system in place to help the homeless. I walked through alleys where on both sides there were cardboard, scrap wood and scrap metal housing. I saw in a few places that the cardboard structures reached three levels.

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  24. Yes something more the better secret can't be many things but tests subjects or for some just wanted to to get away and probably running there own establishments some became landlords,slumlords what to profit off the weak that would be terrible messed up movie to see shit man.

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  25. What a precious narrative tapestry. (Thank U!) I marvel at the effort to summarize, and grok your reverence for the greater depth of human and social stories alluded to here. I have a deeply intuited, (not yet succinct), theory on the unique cultural riches born of improvised survival communities; as bacteria is necessary for yoghurt or a good brew, the diminutive label “scum” on autonomous outcasts, falsely validates the cleansing efforts which kill the essence of Culture. This plague-like paradigm processes people into automaton products, in “serial boxed” communities.

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  26. In 1948 the British were very lucky they weren't being forced to speak German.
    Yeah, they kinda got their ass handed to them, if not for the US.

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  27. yeah the British definitely had a problem they wanted to conquer the world but now they're scared because a couple of people want in

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  28. The clause about the Kowloon Walled City seems about as shortsighted as the 99-year term lease of Kowloon and the New Territories…

    The British were excellent at conquering and administering, but could've used a bit more long-term thinking…

    Reply

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