The Walled City meets Richmond

It was the 1980s in Hong Kong, and Greg Girard heard about an almost mythical place: a city within a city where 33,000 people lived in an almost lawless area equivalent to a city block.

One day he happened upon it—300 interconnected high-rise buildings constructed without the guidance of architects or inspectors.

“Your mind kind of races to understand what you’re looking at. How can this exist? How does a place like this manage to be allowed in modern Hong Kong?”

It was Kowloon Walled City—a densely-populated and largely unregulated settlement near the end of an airport runway, described by some as a city of organized chaos.

Girard, a photographer, spent five years documenting the city with collaborator Ian Lambot before it was completely demolished in 1994. Their work was published in the book City of Darkness: Life in Kowloon Walled City, a volume of photographs, oral histories, maps and essays that provides an important record of daily life in this architectural phenomenon of a modern international city.

Now Girard is embarking on a new project connecting the Walled City and Richmond. He will be photographing local life for a new Richmond Art Gallery exhibition that will include photographs of Kowloon and Richmond.

“Both Kowloon and Richmond have things in common. To some extent you can say they know each other,” he said in an interview with The Richmond Review.

His new photographs will explore the relationships and networks that link both places, and the exhibition will examine the social and physical transformations that take place in a region.

Girard, a Vancouver native, spent 30 years photographing Asia. Travels took him to Tokyo, Hong Kong and Shanghai. Between shooting photographs in the pre-Internet age for magazines like Time, Newsweek and Forbes, Girard has authored four books. Today he’s represented by Monte Clark Gallery in Vancouver and is a contributing photographer for National Geographic.

The planned exhibition ties into his own history—of living in the Lower Mainland and Asia, and seeing how both have changed.

“Obviously Richmond, in the 30 years I was away, has been transformed beyond almost recognition,” he said.

The Walled City

While other high school grads were heading to Europe for adventure, Girard found his in Asia. He took his first trip to Hong Kong in 1974.  Asia intrigued him. In Hong Kong, intrigue became fascination upon hearing about an almost unreal place.

The Walled City began as a Chinese military fort. In response to the British invasion of Hong Kong in the 19th century, a walled city with watchtowers and gates was built in 1847.

An 1898 treaty that ceded modern-day Hong Kong to the British in a 99-year lease excluded the Walled City, effectively leaving a little piece of China in the middle of Hong Kong. Squatters eventually moved in.

After the Second World War, Chinese in search of a better life poured into Hong Kong and saw the Walled City as the cheapest place to get a foothold. High-rises were built without approval.

According to the website of the Kowloon Walled City Park—built following the settlement’s demolition—the high-rises lacked proper foundations and covered almost the entire site, and the Walled City “with its dank alleyways became a notorious nest of drug divans, criminal hideouts, vice dens and even cheap, unlicensed dentists.”

Girard was left with an incredibly moving first impression. He began photographing people living and working there.

“It’s like walking into a ghetto or a slum with a bad reputation. Everybody on the outside looks down on you. So if you’re carrying a camera, people are hostile to that, thinking you’re just trying to make them look bad.”

Little by little, he started having success. The resulting book is now considered an important historical record of a place that’s more widely known today than when it stood. Girard and co-author Lambot are now updating the book with new material. It’s set for publication in July following a successful Kickstarter fundraising campaign.

“One of the big motivations in documenting the Walled City was that the place was mostly dismissed as a lawless slum, whereas when you visited for yourself you immediately understood that it was a community that organized itself in response to a set of very unusual circumstances,” said Girard.

“My colleague and I tried to make a record of what actually went on there: people working, living, raising families inside a solid mass of 300 interconnected high-rise buildings, none of them built with contributions from a single architect.”

Kowloon meets Richmond

Girard plans to work in Richmond for the next 12 months to produce Greg Girard: Kowloon/Richmond, an exhibition to be held at Richmond Art Gallery April 2015.

The photographer is seeking co-operation from businesses, organizations, individuals and families so he can witness first-hand life in Richmond.

“It’s a pretty broad project. I’m just looking to do kind of a representative survey of the place that connects with my own history of growing up here, coming and going, being away for a long time and kind of rediscovering the place,” he said.

Girard said he’s looking forward to talking with as many people as possible about their Richmond, and hearing their thoughts on the city. “There are many different Richmonds, depending on what you do, who you are and how you came to know the city. So I want to find those different Richmonds, that’s really what it’s about.”

Through his photographs, Girard hopes to create a portrait of Richmond—by training his lens on subjects in both public and private spaces.

The exhibition will be a series of prints, along with other material, that includes early and contemporary photos of Kowloon, as well as Richmond as it is today.

Along with the exhibition, Richmond Art Gallery is planning various public programs relating to it. School tours, artist talks and community panel discussions will explore issues such as immigration, acculturation, urban planning and social policy, according to gallery curator Nan Capogna.

Visit greggirard.com to learn more about the artist.

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