While old-style public housing apartment blocks conjure fond memories of the ‘real’ Hong Kong, a flawed system has seen them unable to keep up with demand, leading to near intolerable living conditions.
Having had the chance to work in Hong Kong, I appreciate the space that some cities have. It shows when you are out and about in the city. I spend the days wandering around and one night changed my impression of living conditions. It’s night, although everything is lit so brightly the only way to tell is by looking at the sky. My left hand is clutching a small backpack that holds my stuff. I’m sweating a bit, having just caught a minibus, then a train, then another minibus, and I’m pretty sure my backpack is getting heavier with each step.
Stretched out in front of me is a forked path, each way leading to one of three identical foyers. I’ve actually been here before, many times, but after three years, I’ve only been able to follow my feet this far.
All around me people are coming and going, getting home from work, wrangling children after tutoring, making their way to the shops. My mannerisms sets me apart, says I don’t belong. Everyone who passes by gives me a second look. Hong Kong is no stranger to tourists – but this place is not where tourists go.
The buildings in front of me are impossibly tall, and to properly take them in requires a change of thinking. Western skyscrapers are usually distinct creatures, an architect’s opportunity at experimentation – each standing alone with its own personality. Hong Kong’s residential apartment complexes instead are a cluster of buildings that closely resemble each other, basically forming a compressed version of a suburb where the streets stretch upwards instead of horizontally.
It’s rare for expats to set foot in these places; even less common for tourists. But to me this is the real Hong Kong.
According to the 2016 census, almost 45 per cent of Hong Kong’s population live in some form of public housing, whether that be via renting or subsidised home ownership. It’s a statistic with a dramatic history – in 1953 a large fire swept through a shanty town in Shek Kip Mei, leaving more than 50,000 people homeless and prompting the government to start building affordable public housing.
Over the decades, the buildings got taller and taller, and more and more schemes were introduced. In the 1970s, the Home Ownership Scheme assisted families who were unable to purchase in the private sector to own homes while also freeing up public rental spaces for those who needed it. Then in 1995 came the Sandwich Class Housing Scheme, which caters for families that fall between those eligible for the Home Ownership Scheme and those able to purchase in the private sector.
You don’t see expats here because they’re either too wealthy or too new. Even if you meet the other criteria, you must have lived in Hong Kong for seven years to be eligible for public housing.
Given that you could fit nine Hong Kongs into one Melbourne, despite Hong Kong having a population of more than seven million people compared with Melbourne’s 4.8 million, it’s fair to say the population is dense. Even with the added space you get from wrestling land back from the sea, it’s not quite enough – you still need to build upwards, as high as possible.
However, as someone passionate about architecture, to me the apartment blocks encompass everything I love about Hong Kong. They’re small towns clustered into limited space – they have their own markets, their own shops. Pharmacies. Clothes stores. Homewares. Breakfast places. Hairdressers. Parks. The food here is great, authentic stuff that doesn’t usually make it onto the ‘not to be missed’ lists – spaghetti in chicken broth with a side of fried eggs. Macaroni and Spam in tomato soup. Egg waffles. These places are a community. If you wanted to, you could live your entire life in one of these satellites.
Private apartment complexes exist as well, of course. Money buys you a little more space, a little more breathing room, so the population is a little less dense. But supply and demand also means there is less choice and a smaller cross-section of shops and eateries. There are also fewer transport options because it’s assumed most people will have cars. These complexes are structurally similar but emotionally different.
Whether the complex is private or public, the fact remains that, compared with what other people are used to, the apartments are small. Thus, your home mostly is for you and your family – if you’re catching up with other people, you go out. So, if you don’t live in an apartment, if you’re just passing through, the closest you may come to seeing one is snapping a picture of washing hanging out of a 13th-floor window for your Instagram. Thus, you don’t know what life is like for half the population – Hong Kong to the tourist eye is Michelin-starred dim sum and cheap knockoffs in marketplaces.
But there are problems, too. To name the estate you live in automatically gives an indication of your financial situation, your class. Once people know which one you’re from, they’ll make assumptions.
It’s not even simply a case of private versus public. Within the public housing scheme itself there are strata – whether you own your own subsidised home or are renting, which territory it’s located in, how old the building is. When you’re applying for a spot at a high- demand school for your child, a job, or membership at one of Hong Kong’s prestigious clubs, it’s not uncommon to give the address of a friend who lives in a more desirable location so as not to be discriminated against based on where you live.
These are the problems when the system is working. In the past few years, however, things have started to fail – and there is a general feeling that the government has dropped the ball. For public housing the demand is high and the waiting lists are long. There aren’t enough new buildings going up. The ownership schemes have oscillated between being paused and being slowed. People who fall between the gaps – those who are waiting and those who are ineligible – are vulnerable.
Demand for housing has led to the rise of tong fong – or, to paraphrase, dissected rooms. Some are legal, others not – but they see already small apartments subdivided into micro apartments, ranging between 37 square metres and 5.5 square metres. For context, a kingsized bed is about 3.9 square metres. Some tenants are forced to share basic facilities such as bathrooms while still paying high prices. It’s also not always just one person living in a tong fong – it’s often couples and families.
Hong Kong’s public apartment complexes are, to me, a microcosm of Hong Kong itself. Not just in what they are – a hub of food, of language, of community – but in what is happening to them and where their future lies. I worry that their days are numbered, that what we see now is not sustainable. The private sector remains out of reach for most, which bottlenecks the system. Hong Kong is bursting at the seams and, instead of adding a stitch in time, it is being allowed to tear. It further spurs that need to continue to work to pay the rent of hopefully a larger apartment.
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