“When I found we had to go to Kowloon Walled City, I felt a churning in my gut. In those days, when you arrived in Hong Kong, and asked other expats which places were safe and which weren’t, they straightaway told you, ‘Whatever you do, don’t go to Kowloon Walled City – day or night!’
“Kowloon Walled City was the hub of crime in Hong Kong. Burglary rings were centered there. Drug trafficking was a huge economic enterprise. You could easily find opium dens, gambling dens, brothels. It was, in fact, a lawless slum, with no government.
“And especially threatening, they said, if you were not Chinese.
“When the British took possession of Kowloon in the 1840’s, the Qing Dynasty government had an outpost there – the Walled City – and they insisted that it was part of China and not Hong Kong. The British accepted that. But some time later -- I’m not sure, but maybe when the Qing Dynasty was overthrown in 1911 -- the Qing soldiers left, and the Walled City became a pocket of land with no government which would accept responsibility for it.
“Squatters started to live there. In the mid 1900’s opportunists began to build apartment buildings. There was no government to oversee or approve – or disapprove – construction. So buildings were thrown up in a random, unplanned, and unsafe fashion. After World War II the population there shot up, and more and more buildings filled all the empty spaces, until there was virtually no land that was not occupied by a tall apartment building.
“However, if you wanted to buy opium, it was the place to go shopping, and that was what we’d been sent to pick up.
“As we approached the Walled City, we saw a higgledy-piggledy array of apartment buildings of different colors about 200 meters wide, with hardly a crack of space between them. Where there was a gap between buildings, rubbish was piled up to the level of the second floor windows. All the buildings were about the same height, about 14 floors, because the Hong Kong government did enforce one law: a height restriction. Kai Tak Airport was nearby. Every couple of minutes a jet would glide past, about 100 meters overhead, and you’d have to scream at each other to be heard.
“This façade of buildings was dotted with balconies enclosed with metal bars like bird cages, and ‘decorated’ with TV cables draped in front of all the balconies, running from the apartments up to a forest of TV aerials on the roofs. From a distance we could see children playing and adults sitting and talking amidst the mess of wires and aerials on the roofs.
“We looked for an opening to go inside the City. We passed a vertical water pipe about one meter high, that people were collecting water from.
“We went into a little lane between two buildings. It was about three meters at its widest, but narrowed to one meter at some places. We’d been told to find Hoklo Tsuen Main Street, but it was hard to find anything that looked like a main street. We passed markets in crowded little alleys crammed with people. Live eels and snakes slithered around inside of large pots. Dead fish floated in large aluminium trays.
“The dirty, dilapidated apartment buildings blocked out the sun. There were even places where a lane ran through the basement of a tall building. In other words, they had built a building over the top of what had been a ‘street’ before. Where there were gaps between buildings the light was also blocked by piles of rubbish and rubbish bags, and clothes hanging out to dry. The result was it was more like walking through a dim, stinky, humid cave than walking along a city street. I was feeling extremely nervous and fought to hold back my anxiety.
“However, most of the people in the street ignored us. At times really loud Chinese music blasted out. In the lanes we stumbled over pieces of broken concrete, over rubbish and hand-pushed trolleys. We didn’t see any vehicles. There wasn’t enough room for them to drive. In some places there were groups of electric leads dangling over our heads. It seemed like a family in one apartment was relying on borrowed electricity from a neighbor across the street, via an ordinary extension lead. In other places water dripped from clusters of dozens of hoses above our heads – sometimes water poured down in a steady stream, sometimes it seemed to drip from electric wires.
“We entered an open area in the center of the Walled City where a temple of some kind stood. Rubbish was lying all over the courtyard and all over the temple roof.
“We asked people for directions. Some just ignored us completely. Others grunted and pointed in a vague direction. Eventually we found Hoklo Tsuen “Main Street’, which was just another tiny lane like the ones we’d gone through.
“We passed another pipe from which people collected water. Dozens of hose ends were hanging nearby, ready to be connected, I guessed, to supply water to a restaurant or shop or apartment. At that moment one woman was squatting at the pipe washing her hair, while another woman was washing dishes there at the same time.
“After wandering back and forth for a while, we found the ‘Hoklo Tsuen Noodle Manufacturing Company’. The factory was in a small room off the lane. The plaster on the walls was falling off, exposing bricks underneath. There was a window in the facing wall, which had been blocked by a building subsequently built next door. Four young girls were operating noodle-making machines in the dim light. Two tough-looking young Chinese men were standing in front of a storeroom door at one side. One was wearing a dress shirt and tie. I went up to him and said, ‘Elder brother sent us to get two packages’, and showed him the $800, just as we’d been instructed.
“The bloke in the tie had a flat-top crew cut, like a U.S. Marine. He was chewing watermelon seeds and spitting them out in our direction. He went into the storeroom and came out with a package wrapped in brown paper. He said, ‘One package costs $1600,’ and wrote the number on the package before he handed it to me.
“That’s one thing that always makes me wild: when Chinese people try to squeeze more money out of me because they think I’m a rich foreigner. So I bargained hard. I kept refusing to budge, repeating that Elder Brother told us it costs only $800 for two packages. We spent a long time arguing angrily, until I finally accepted paying $900 for the two packages, and Bartooth agreed.
“Bartooth quickly checked out both packages. There was a white powder inside. We had to hope that it was the real stuff. Bartooth put the two packages in a cloth bag and stuck the bag inside his shirt. As he did this, I saw that he had a knife in a sheath hanging inside his trousers. The opium merchant saw it too. He laughed mockingly and said something I didn’t understand.
“Then, as we were leaving, he shouted in a mixture of English and Cantonese, ‘You are two stupid kwai lou. Kwai lou who come to Kowloon City end up with their throats cut.’ He mimed cutting his throat and laughed long and hard at his witty joke. Everyone in the factory joined in laughing. Then as we were walking away, he came out into Hoklo Tsuen Main Street and shouted at us, ‘You will lose your $900, your opium and your lives!’
“That didn’t improve my feeling of well-being, as dozens more people heard what he said. Some laughed and pointed at us; others scowled or muttered in a threatening voice. I felt like running, but my head told me that would make matters worse.
“I whispered to Bartooth, ‘For God’s sake, don’t let people see your knife!’ He was holding his arms in front of his shirt to hold the bag inside. Once or twice I saw one of his hands clutching the knife handle. We both had sweat pouring down our faces. We kept walking quickly, with our eyes darting in every direction, trying to pick up any danger signals.
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