Kowloon's Walled City, 1989. (Image by Wikipedia.)

How do humans operate in a state of pure anarchy, where there is no higher authority to keep the peace?

Incredibly, such anarchy existed within Hong Kong well into the 1980s. A veritable failed state, a few square blocks in size, thronged in the center of Kowloon. A demarcation oversight between skirmishing British colonialists and Chinese negotiators created a pocket of indeterminate legal jurisdiction, and that meant no legal jurisdiction at all. Now, twenty years after the Walled City's final demolition, The Wall Street Journal has published a moving (if a little romanticised) documentary about this strange, notorious neighborhood of 33,000 people — the highest-density urban area ever known.

The answer to the lead-in question — how do otherwise-civilised people behave in a vacuum of lawful order? — is predictable. In a word: badly. Those states without effective rule that still exist worldwide (think Somalia, Baluchistan, Transnistria etc) show much the same grim outcome: gangsterism, where 'big men' preside over hierarchies of thugs. Everything and anything comes at a price; there are few public goods. For example, the entire Walled City had just one water pump.

Inside this autonomous little community, gambling parlours, brothels and opium dens flourished beyond the reach of Hong Kong's police. Addiction, dysentery, venereal disease and knife wounds assured 'poor, nasty, brutish and short' lives for most (although life was certainly not solitary, as Hobbes originally had it). Those who could, left. Those who stayed either disappeared or flourished in their own sordid ways of success.

My wife was raised in a Kowloon slum just beyond the Walled City, but its menace spread far further, terrifying and corrupting city blocks for miles around. The kids in these surrounding neighbourhoods knew the Walled City as a black hole of vice and death that sucked in weaklings from its verges. It was like living next door to Mordor. No wonder my parents-in-law kept young Natalie on a tight rein!

Yet there are many remarkable, uplifting stories of redemption in all this squalor. Here is one. In the early 1960s, a young English music teacher disembarked from a steamer in Victoria Harbour, her final stop in a one-way voyage from London. With a missionary Christian faith and a tough practical attitude, Jackie Pullinger headed straight for the Walled City and made it her home.

Her book Chasing the Dragon, which recounts her time there, is a classic. Going about her often dirty and mundane acts of service, she became intimately connected with the residents of this hell-hole. In one tense confrontation, Pullinger stared down the triad chiefs. Later, some of these men converted to Christianity and, as they admitted later, it was they, not her, who were most shaken by that encounter! Last year I had the honour of meeting Jackie Pullinger, still sprightly and still feisty. She now runs a major institution for recovering addicts in Hong Kong.

The Walled City is long gone, and perhaps unsurprisingly it is now mythologised. There were indeed great tales of hope, but in reality it was a despairing testament to anarchy.