State of Siege? Hong Kong’s housing

— by Yu Xinning —

“I have been a tenant of public housing in Hong Kong for three years, since migrating from Zhuhai. With six family members living in a single room, we have neither privacy nor a close relationship. My husband gets 26,000 yuan [3,400euro] per month, but still cannot afford a house.”

This is a narrative from a new migrant living in Hong Kong. Currently, there are many Hong Kong citizens’ names on the waiting list for public housing so that when a one becomes available, it’s a considerably happy event for a family since they believe that they have finally realized their “dream of public housing”.

There are two types of residents in Hong Kong who seem relatively satisfied with the housing situation there. One is the rich, who make up less than 10 percent of the total population; and the other are the people living in public sector housing, who represent more than 30% of the population. Public sector rents are around 2000 yuan per month for every 10m2, including water and electricity bills. Recently the government has given preferential rent reductions to the needy including some payments to supplement children’s tuition. Compared with housing rent levels outside the public sector of more than 6000 yuan for every 10m2, you can see how public housing makes life easier.

Tin Shui Wai

Tin Shui Wai

Declaring family income under is therefore necessary to apply for public housing and so, it seems, that there are many poor residents living in public sector housing who would rather stay unemployed in order to get comprehensive social security assistance from the government rather than raise their income levels and potentially lose their housing allocation.

One family featuring in the film “Tin Shui Wai” (天水围, Night and Fog) is one such case. The name of the film is that of a huge residential tower quarter of the city in the New Territories, constructed in the early 1990s. The film’s story is taken from a real life criminal case in which three family members were killed by the husband under a complex living arrangement and exposing the iniquities of the social services. Not for nothing this residential complex was known as the “city of sadness”.

Recently news reported that some family’s residences – related to criminal cases such as the fictional one above – are empty for a period of time even though housing demand exceeds supply. Once a resident is convicted, these are put back on the market and are snapped up immediately.

These housing projects are incredibly dense places. Back in 1953, a fire in Sham Shui Po destroyed the homes of approximately 55,000 people. Subsequently, the Hong Kong government built the first public house (known as ‘Wu Cun’ in Chinese). It is more like a community than a building, with a primary school on the top. Such rooftop schools became a mainstream phenomenon during the 1950s and 60s in Hong Kong. After this, rooftop schools were abandoned to be replaced with public sports fitness facilities.


Lai Tak Tsuen in Hong Kong Island District,Photo by Yu Xinning, 2016

Lai Tak Tsuen in Hong Kong Island District,Photo by Yu Xinning, 2016

Gradually, public housing became available for some low income earners. The Buildings Department built them on land offered up by the government which tended not to be the most prestigious areas of the city.

planimg_4635-1The architecture forms vary in plan, rising up storey after repetitive storey to a great height. The area known as Lai Tak Tsuen includes two double-cylinder shaped mansion. The hole in the middle can promote ventilation and lighting and is a tie in in the eventuality of earthquakes.

While I was wondering around these towers, I noticed that most residents used a cloth to cover the upper half of their doors when the door was open: needing the ventilation while avoiding people peeking in from outside.

Each fan shaped home takes up 20-30 m2. I looked inside one family home where a man was watching TV in his tiny living room. He was eating and his kids were doing homework at a desk near the gate. Because of the good location near Causeway Bay and the wonderful view of the Victoria Harbor, people are less worried about cramped conditions than they might otherwise be.

hk_choi-hung-estateCompared with Lai Tak Tsuen, Choi Hung Estate is a refined community that includes five schools, a parking lot, a street of shops inside. 1962, Choi Hung Estate houses over 18,000 people in 11 towers. As it was evening when I arrived there, most shops were closed with doors not fully closed. The surroundings are untidy and not particularly pleasant, even in some of the food shops. It is clear that this place has seen better times. Today, this community commercial street seemed like walking around a 1980s’ movie. The reality is a little different to the promotion of the area on websites that seem to prefer to include images of the basketball ground, the Catholic Secondary School with the public housing as a colorful background.

img_4534-1Such images apeal to those who want a cultural symbol of what they believe to be the crazy real-life in Hong Kong. The housing at “E-Mansion” at Quarry Bay Bank was even chosen for some scenes in the terrible movie “Transformers 4”. This is an area containing about 10,000 people. Ironically, E-Mansions are not tiny, cramped, run-down public housing at all, indeed it is not a public sector project at all. A 40m2 apartment here costs over five million yuan. It might be known as a mini Kowloon Walled City, but the differences are significant.


Kowloon Walled City, Hong Kong

With two hectares of land housing 33,000 people at its peak, Kowloon Walled City once was the densest place all over the world (Lam, 2015). Famously it was full of crime and squalor and an eyesore for both British and Chinese governments. In 1992, residents were evicted and given compensation by the government, and the entire development razed to the ground and converted in to a public commemorative park (Lam, 2015).

Interestingly, as the diagram on the left shows, many former residents thought that the crime and danger of the place was scary from the outside but they actually considered that it had an energetic normality within. It reminds me of an interview with a Chinese merchant living in Rocinha, the biggest slum of South America in Rio de Janeiro who said that inhabitants in the slum consider it’s a safer place than outside. The slum has its own rules dealing with various conflicts, life here seems a balance of illegality and justice.


With over 7 million people living in 11,000 km2, land, “intensity” is joked about as “intenCity” in HK. According to a book ‘The Making of Hong Kong: From Vertical to Volumetric’, the mountainous topography and limited land space contributes to Hong Long having to become a highly dense, vertical city, just like Chongqing. This method of city development is praised by many urban planners and architects, mainly because it is efficient in terms of land, it can reduce the use of cars, save the cost of infrastructure and services and it preserves more agricultural land and green space. Thus for all its problems, Hong Kong could be seen as a good example of a sustainable city, both economically and environmentally.

hk_cage-home-hkHowever, most of the living space in Hong Kong is cramped and there is a feeling that people are living in a state of siege. Recent headlines showed how some poor retired people are forced by poverty to live in inhumane Caged Homes, comprising less than 3 m2 and costing 1200 yuan. So statistically and environmentally maybe the city is sustainable, but is the city sustainable in human terms? It is a question worth thinking about.


Ref: Lam, S. (2015), “In the Shadow of the Kowloon Walled City”, Salient, 20 September 2015.