[REVIEW] “Fiona Hawthorne and Kowloon Walled City” by Susan Blumberg-Kason

{Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Artist and author Fiona Hawthorne grew up in Hong Kong and much of her work is informed by her childhood, including two new books out this year: Drawing on the Inside: Kowloon Walled City 1985 and a children’s book, The Extraordinary Amazing Incredible Unbelievable Walled City of Kowloon, both published by Blacksmith Books.

Kowloon Walled City means different things to different people. For some, it symbolised vice and danger. For others, it was a place to find medical care or employment for newly arrived refugees. And for many, it was home. Hawthorne had always been interested in learning more about this unusual area of Hong Kong and in 1985 she won a travel award in art school to study it further.

In Drawing on the Inside, Hawthorne’s son Benjamin Salmon curates stunning photos and drawings of his mother’s renditions from her 1985 project. Hawthorne writes in the introduction, “I did not have a plan other than to try not to impose. I simply wanted to enjoy the drawing, and the adventure of looking, seeing and responding. I did not set out to document but just to capture what inspired me, so I worked spontaneously.” She includes both an English and Chinese introduction to appeal to a wide reader base.

Her drawings centre on people in Kowloon Walled City, thereby bringing humanity to a place in Hong Kong that was often seen as sinister and dangerous. But children in school uniforms, elderly men enjoying yam cha, and a father holding his young child all show that Kowloon Walled City was home to many—in the decade before it was demolished, about 50,000 people lived in its 2.6 hectares. Quite a few drawings include fans, an important detail, given many of the activities portrayed—eating, assembling toys, and performing dental work on patients—would be highly uncomfortable without this welcome source of ventilation. Interspersed with her black and white drawings and her watercolours are photos of the exterior and interior of Kowloon Walled City.

While Drawing on the Inside is more of a coffee table book that celebrates Hawthorne’s art, The Extraordinary Amazing Incredible Unbelievable Walled City of Kowloon is a children’s picture book (for all ages!) that tells the story of the Walled City. This book is accompanied by some of the same photos and drawings in Drawing on the Inside, as well as many not featured in that first book. Hawthorne begins with the history of the core of the Walled City, the yamen—an administrative building of traditional Chinese architecture, within a Chinese military fort that remained a tiny enclave of the Qing Empire after the New Territories were leased to Hong Kong’s British colonial rulers in 1898. This legally anomalous status in the centre of the colony would have major implications for the development of the Walled City.

At first the Walled City stayed the same, but when things changed in the rest of Hong Kong, the Walled City changed too. The leaders and the army left, many of the old buildings fell down, and eventually the Walled City was almost totally deserted.

Then everything changed!

The Extraordinary Amazing Incredible Unbelievable Walled City of Kowloon

Hawthorne shows through her drawings and photos the beginnings of what became the high density of Kowloon Walled City. As the Walled City grew, she explained that it became a hub for toy factories, dim sum bakeries, and dentist’s and doctor’s surgeries, which often served people who could not otherwise afford health care. Hawthorne discusses the whirring fans, the planes flying overhead on their descent to the nearby old Kai Tak airport, and her own experience sketching and painting in Kowloon Walled City.

Before the Handover, the British government made plans to demolish the Walled City. Hawthorne also includes this part of its history in her children’s book. After the buildings were demolished, the grounds on which they stood were turned into a beautiful park that memorialises the former Walled City with an engaging exhibition. The old yamen also continues to stand.

These books complement one another, so it’s best to read both and not just pick one or the other. With the picture book, the story of Kowloon Walled City is spelled out, including its many contributions to Hong Kong. On the other hand, Drawing on the Inside provides a comprehensive collection of artwork that brings the reader into the many corners of the Kowloon Walled City. Hawthorne’s art is gorgeous and it’s an incredible treat to be able to access so much of her Walled City paintings and sketches in these two books.

How to cite: Blumberg-Kason, Susan. “Fiona Hawthorne and Kowloon Walled City.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 3 Dec 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/12/03/fiona-hawthorne/.

Susan Blumberg-Kason.jpg

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair With China Gone Wrong. Her writing has also appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books‘ China Blog, Asian Jewish Life, and several Hong Kong anthologies. She received an MPhil in Government and Public Administration from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Blumberg-Kason now lives in Chicago and spends her free time volunteering with senior citizens in Chinatown. (Photo credit: Annette Patko)

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