HONG KONG, NOV. 28 -- Police and government officials began evicting residents from Hong Kong's most infamous slum, the Walled City, today as part of a long-delayed plan to raze its dilapidated buildings and turn the area into a park.
Government eviction teams, backed by about 150 police, struggled with angry residents as they removed 11 families and business operators from buildings in the dark, maze-like neighborhood across a roadway from Hong Kong's international airport. Twenty-eight other households and businesses were given until Monday to leave.
An elderly man climbed to a rooftop and threatened to commit suicide before police persuaded him to come down. Another man was carried away by officers, as residents hurled objects at police.
Authorities temporarily halted the crackdown after warning residents they would not be allowed to stay. "We hope they will remain calm and sensible," said Peter Chok, an official of the government's City and New Territories Administration, which is overseeing the Walled City clearance project. "But if they will resort to violent action, the police will have to come in and forcibly arrest them."
Although most of the community's 33,000 residents have left in exchange for a multimillion-dollar compensation package, about 2,700 have refused to go. Many of the holdouts, citing historical precedents, have contended that the colonial British government in Hong Kong has no legal rights over the Walled City and may not forcibly remove them.
"We believe that the Walled City belongs to the Chinese government," said Ma Chong Chung, chairman of the Kowloon Walled City Residents Association. "Most residents have lived here for decades. And we have not enjoyed even a single piece of welfare from the government. And now they say it is their land."
The dispute over the Walled City -- called Hak Nam, or "city of darkness," by Chinese -- dates from 1898, when London compelled China to accept a 99-year lease for the New Territories, a 365-square-mile tract on the Chinese mainland across the harbor from Hong Kong Island, which had already been ceded to Britain.
The British initially agreed to permit China to retain a military garrison on Kowloon Peninsula -- the present site of the Walled City. But after an uprising a year later, Britain reclaimed the garrison. Although Chinese officials departed, Beijing has never recognized London's control over what is now the Kowloon Walled City.
Despite British and Chinese claims of sovereignty, neither nation sought to police the Walled City for fear of causing a diplomatic incident. As a result, the area became a jurisdictional no man's land, a magnet for illegal immigrants from China and a haven for criminal activity.
During the 1960s, when waves of Chinese immigrants fleeing the Cultural Revolution sought refuge in the Walled City, the area became notorious for opium dens, gambling, brothels and pornographic movie houses. Now, rats roam its mostly deserted alleyways, and miles of leaky rubber hose hang over its streets, bringing water to residents who have illegally tapped into the city's water supply.
Hong Kong authorities tried three times to clear the Walled City, the last time in 1962. But each of these efforts encountered heavy resistance from residents, backed by Chinese authorities.
After the signing of the 1984 Sino-British agreement -- under which Hong Kong is to be handed back to China in 1997, when the New Territories lease expires -- both sides began to display a willingness to lay the issue to rest.
The Hong Kong government announced in 1987 that it would raze the area to create a park at a cost of about $390 million, including compensation for residents and business owners. Officials estimate it will probably take another year to clear the area.