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A Letter From China
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A Letter From China

The Great Divide - Part Three

By Cynthia Muak

Hong Kong's Public Housing Estates:
Then (1969) and Now (2010)

In order to resettle the first influx of refugees who arrived in the 50s from southern China with affordable housing, the Hong Kong government built tenement blocks - each block consisted of 5 floors, each floor consisted of 20 to 30 flats, each unit floor area measuring 35 sq. ft to 100 sq. ft. Communal bathing and sanitation facilities were situated in the centre of each floor. The amenities were very basic and not very secure. If a female member of any family needed to use the washing facilities at least one male member of that family would be standing guard outside the washrooms. This as precaution against peeping toms and/or perverts lurking about.

The earlier type of public housing estates each consisted of twenty to thirty housing blocks grouped together. In the 1950s, handled by the Resettlement Department of Urban Council, 2 such housing estates were built and located on the more remote fringes of the city.

When Housing Authority took over from the Council's Resettlement Department, public low cost housing that was erected in the 60s to early 70s was implemented with better planning - infrastructure and town planning. The units were better designed and the estates were located in townships earmarked for industrialisation. This would ensure factories could recruit workers easily and workers had easy access to work.

As the years progressed, Hong Kong's population increased at such an alarming rate that land space became limited and very expensive. To make more land available for residential housing, Town Planning embarked on a frantic expansion plan by hacking away at hills, reclaiming land from the sea, building higher buildings at closer proximity to one another and increasing sea routes to the outlying islands as these islands opened up. No potential liveable space was safe and free from avaricious property developers.

The most recent batches of public housing units on offer by Hong Kong Housing Authority, either for rental or through Home Ownership Scheme, were so well designed and so well received by the public that private developers had to lower their units' selling price per sq. foot in order to compete favourably for sales from middle income group buyers. Each estate was as large as 50 blocks, each block as high as 40 stories, some units as large as 1,000 sq. ft. Very large communal grounds and play area beautifully landscaped and kept immaculately clean.

Below is an in-depth article from UK BBC about Wah Fu Estate, one of the earlier housing estates which had undergone extensive redevelopments over the years to make it extremely liveable and affordable, although to be realistic, there is nothing known as 'affordable' housing in Hong Kong.

BBC Extract,
(Words and pictures: Samanthi Dissanayake.)
1) Homes for squatters
Wah Fu is one of Hong Kong's oldest and largest housing estates. It was built in 1967 as part of the colonial government's attempt to alleviate the appalling living conditions for Hong Kong's many squatters and tenement dwellers.

By the early 1980s it approached the size of a small town, housing 54,000 people.
Hong Kong's property prices are among the world's highest, but over one third of its population live cheek-by-jowl in modest public housing, paying a nominal rent.

2) Three generations
In 1967 Mr and Mrs Wong saw an advertisement for housing provided by the government. At the time, the entire family lived in one tiny room in the congested city centre. The 30 sq m one-bedroom apartment the government offered was a welcome improvement for the family of six.

Mrs Wong says, "We had barely any space before. But three generations of my family could live here at once; my mother and my three sons."

3) ‘Never leaving’
Conditions are cramped by western standards and even though many fellow residents have left to live in the larger homes of children who have prospered, Mrs Wong says she will never leave. “We have a really deep connection with this estate. Next door, there are people who have been here since the 1960s too.

“I now have a position of responsibility here. I talk to people in my building about their problems and liaise with estate management.”

4) Between mountain and sea
Wah Fu was built according to the principles of Feng Shui facing the sea, its back to a mountain – a feature residents are grateful for.

There is estimated to be around 1 sq m of open space per resident so it is hardly surprising that nobody has private space outside. But, as Mr Wong points out, the concept simply doesn’t exist here. “Why do we need our own outside space Space is shared by the public. We can walk to the nearby beach park for exercise.”

5) Community gardening
A new community garden is part of an initiative to encourage residents to make the most of what outside space there is.

Angus Lee is a horticulturalist in charge of leading the way. “We grow vegetables, we grow plants. A lot of people come here and really enjoy the process. People make friends; it helps build a better community. It’s also a much healthier lifestyle for people here.”

6) Built on a cemetery
Mr Hong presides over the fruits of Wah Fu’s community garden. He moved there in 1978 from an estate where six were confined to a space of 100 sq ft.

“In those days, you needed at least six people to qualify for an apartment in Wah Fu.
“Thirty years ago, Wah Fu was considered a very remote place. It used to be the site of a cemetery so people were scared. They said there were ghosts. But I still had to wait eight years for a place.”

7) Space enough
There is room for nothing but a bed in Mr Hong’s bedroom. His children have left home now so he only shares the small flat with his wife. “I was a poultry hawker. We can’t afford private housing. I’ve lived here for over 28 years now and I love it.

“At 5.30am I leave the house and walk to the beach for exercise. I enjoy the smell of the seaweed, the salty sea. There is a natural gathering of people of all generations for Tai Chi.”

8) Self-contained
Wah Fu has its own market, shopping centre, restaurants, public library, primary and secondary schools. It was planned as a self-contained community similar to a small town rather than isolated slabs of housing.

Opened in 1969, this café was one of the first additions to the estate. It is a typical traditional restaurant serving up western food such as omelettes, sandwiches, teas and coffees. One customer says, “Like other countries have Chinese takeaways, we have cheap, fast and delicious western cafés.”

9) Estate of opportunity
For Mr Hong, Wah Fu is a microcosm of Hong Kong.
“Hong Kong was just a fishing village. Now it’s one of the most famous cities. Wah Fu has changed with Hong Kong. It is a place of opportunity.

“Miss Hong Kong grew up in this estate as did the current secretary of justice; the CEO of a major clothing company grew up in these blocks. And just to think it used to be a place where dead bodies were left!"
End of Extract

Thank God for Hong Kong's Housing Authority and its very well-spread out public housing programmes that many families who cannot afford private housing can now have at least a decent roof over their heads.

This work including text and associated photographs is Copyright of Cynthia Muak and Jonno Morris (Unless stated otherwise), and may be reproduced for personal and private use under Collective Commons 3 Licence. An email would be appreciated in such circumstances, as would a reference.

We also thank the BBC for their freely available additions to this missive, thank you.

You are not allowed to use this information to make money from my work - regardless of how fancy or well paid your lawyers may be.

The views and recollections expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily representative of those of China Expats. Some artistic licence has been used arbitrarily in some of these Letters, and whilst most facts are in essence correct, some personal and literary interpretation may have been employed to greater or lesser degrees.

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Image: Wah Fu Estate in 2010 - Click to Enlarge

Image: Wah Fu Estate community - Click to Enlarge

Image: Wah Fu Estate open spaces - Click to Enlarge

Image: Wah Fu Estate community clothes drier - Click to Enlarge

Image: Wah Fu Estate in 1967 - Click to Enlarge

Image: Wah Fu Estate under construction - Click to Enlarge

Image: Wah Fu Estate view two - Click to Enlarge

Image: Mr Wong and wife - Click to Enlarge

Image: Mrs Wong's kitchen - Click to Enlarge

Image: Mr Hong, manager of produce - Click to Enlarge

Image: Mr Hong's bedroom - Click to Enlarge

Image: Western Cafe - Click to Enlarge
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