Hong Kong Housing Problem – From The 1950s To The Present

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Hong Kong’s residential skyscrapers (Minghong / Wikimedia Commons)

Hong Kong’s housing shortage and tiny flats are notorious problems in a city that is known for the stark contrast between its extraordinary wealth and the poor living conditions of a large section of its population.

Hong Kong has Asia’s largest wealth gap, with the 10 richest individuals owning half of the entire economy. According to the Census and Statistics Department, the median monthly wage in Hong Kong in 2016 was HK$16,200 (around US$2000). Around 200,000 individuals live in so-called ‘sub-divided flats‘. The median monthly income of households living in subdivided flats was approximately HK$12,000. About 46% of them have applied for public housing but have not yet received a unit from the government.

In 2016 3.9 million persons lived in private permanent housing, 2.13 million persons in public rental housing and 1.16 million persons in subsidized home ownership housing. 1.22 million households owned and occupied a home, and one-third of them incurred a median mortgage payment or loan repayment of HK$9,500 (about US$1,200) per month, or about 18% of their income. The median monthly rent in private residential flats was HK$10,000 (US$1,280), an increase of nearly 50% compared with 10 years ago. The median rent to income ratio was 31%, while 10 years ago it was 25%.

Due to its lack of affordable housing and land, Hong Kong has become renowned for its cage homes, which are nothing more than dormitories with 5.8 square metres per person.

According to public policy expert Stephen Wong, only 24% of Hong Kong’s land is developed, while 76% is made of natural or semi-natural areas. Wong says that more land needs to be developed and more new residential suburbs must be built in order to meet demand.

Hong Kong’s economy and society have changed dramatically since Britain seized it in 1841, but the housing problem seems to have remained a constant problem. In the 1890s “[h]ouses in the Chinese settlement that had grown on the edge of the Western settlement were tightly packed, overcrowded, devoid of provision for proper drainage,” (see Hong Kong’s Transitions, 1842–1997, eds Judith M. Brown, Rosemary Foot, p, 108). The British government became aware of the problem only after the bubonic plague struck in 1894.

Although sanitary conditions subsequently improved, the housing problem reached a whole new level after the Second World War and the ensuing Chinese Civil War, when millions of refugees from China poured into Hong Kong in search of safety, stability and economic opportunities.

In 1945 Hong Kong’s population was about 600,000. By 1955, it had increased to 2.5 million (Steve Tsang: A Modern History of Hong Kong, 2007, p. 167). In 1961 it was about 3.3 million and by 1986 it had grown to almost 5.4 million. It is obvious that this astounding population growth posed a serious challenge for the British administration. For decades many of those immigrants from mainland China built unregulated squatter settlements with rudimentary houses built of wood and metal sheets (see video below).

In 1953 a fire swept through a squatter settlement in Shek Kip Mei, making over 50,000 people homeless.

The incident prompted the Hong Kong government to take steps to provide housing for the population. It directed the Public Works Department to construct shelters for the homeless Shek Kip Mei residents, and just two months after the fire the first two-storey bungalows were built. At the same time the Urban Council was tasked with finding permanent solutions to the housing crisis.

The same year the Provisional Resettlement Department was set up and the first modern public housing units were constructed. The earliest examples of such buildings were low-cost, 8-storey apartment blocks with communal facilities. The government also supported the Hong Kong Housing Society, a private organization, and established the semi-independent Hong Kong Housing Authority.

Hong Kong hybrid private-public system ultimately led to the construction of entire new towns with residential skyscrapers such as Tsuen Wan, with a population of 300,000, and Tin Shui Wai, which also has around 300,000 residents. Both Tsuen Wan and Tin Shui Wai have metro stations connecting them to the city centre, shopping malls, and sports facilities.

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Tsuen Wan (WiNG / Wikimedia Commons)

Hong Kong’s Housing In Historical Perspective: The 1950s

As we have shown, Hong Kong’s housing shortage has a long history that dates back to the beginnings of the colonial era. In this respect, the present generation shares similar problems with those faced by Hongkongers who lived in the city decades ago.



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In the 1960s Harold Ingrams, a British officer, travelled to Hong Kong and described in a book his impressions of the colony. In the following excerpts, Ingrams explained the situation that he found in tenements and squatter areas:

LIVERPOOL with 860,000 inhabitants or Glasgow with 1,124,000 are great cities covering large areas, yet the cities of Hong Kong and Kowloon with populations of comparable size are in area quite small. One soon has no doubt that the vast majority of the people must live in appalling conditions, but nothing except actual visits can give an adequate idea of the realities of the situation.

Most of the Chinese population live in four-storeyed tenements. Many of them were built in the early days of the Colony when town planning was little practised even in Europe, and Hong Kong has no legislation to require the compulsory demolition of such premises. Those built later have scavenging lanes rendering the provision of proper bathrooms and latrines possible, but the older ones have no lanes and are built back-to- back.

In some ways conditions in this modern and wealthy tropical city of Hong Kong are worse than they were in England in 1840. The report of the Health of Towns Committee in that year spoke of single-storeyed small houses put up by speculative builders in Manchester. ‘They are built back to back; without ventilation or drainage: and like a honeycomb every particle of space is occupied. Double rows of these houses form courts, with perhaps a pump at one end and a privy at the other, common to the occupants of about twenty homes.’

In Hong Kong these tenements are four storeys high, so that conditions are worse. It becomes understandable how human beings are packed at 2,000 and more to the acre. If there is one thing that saves disaster in Hong Kong, it is the labours of the Sanitary Department, but it is wrong that it should have to contend with such conditions.

The upper storeys of practically all the tenements are reached by narrow, dark stairs between two blank walls. They are always steep, the treads narrow, and the hand-rail often broken. They are also generally unswept and untidy. When you find the actual flat, cubicle or bedspace in which a family lives clean and well kept, you wonder at first why passages and stairs are so dirty, and when you have found the reason you have part of the answer to Chinese character. The Chinese is an individualist. A favourite proverb is ‘Sweep the snow from your own doorstep but don’t bother about the ice on your neighbour’s roof’. To a Chinese tenement dweller the stairs and the passages are no more than the street outside.

Led by Dr. Shaw, the deputy Director of Health Services, we went first to such a tenement in Lockhart Road in Wanchai. The first floor had been intended for a one-family flat, and as such, with two to three rooms and a wide verandah, would have been comfortable. There were present eight women, one old man, a youth and two babies, and they admitted to 16 living there. The rooms were all divided into cubicles and part of the verandah had, illegally, been boarded in. On the whole it was pretty well kept but one could see that some cubicle-owners were more particular than others. Its occupants were of the white- collar class and considering the overcrowding it was remarkably clean. It was untidy rather than dirty.

In the communal kitchen a woman was cooking an appetizing-looking lunch for five on an earthen stove. There was a flush toilet in good order. Houses with water-borne sanitation have to have their own well. A visit to the sanitary lane behind this block showed that the overworked sewer was blocked and the lane flooded. Sanitary men were sent for and later we saw them removing obstructions in conditions which had better be left undescribed.

Dr. Shaw then took us through a road so cluttered with pedlars and stalls that it would have been impossible to drive a car through it. Rubbish and muck were accumulating under the stalls and he kept ordering people to sweep up. Suddenly he halted. ‘Look at that!’ ‘That’ was a woman selling meat on a small table of packing-cases, a most heinous offence. Grasping her by the car, he let loose a torrent of Chinese and had no sooner loosed her than she vanished in the crowd. There were a number of cooked-food stalls and all the way the doctor inspected licences and washing-up arrangements. Once he ordered a whole row of obstructions off the pavement. Half an hour later, when we repassed, they were back again.

This time Dr. Shaw chose an ancient wooden tenement for us to visit. The older type of building is always narrow because its width was regulated by the average length of the fir trees used as rafters. Each floor is long because of the Chinese preference for a shop with back shop on the ground floor. The ground floor was occupied by a young contractor who had turned the back shop into a godown for his gear and 30 coal coolies. It was dirty and very dark, for the only light and air came at second-hand through the front shop or from a grating high up in the back wall. Against one wall were piled the baskets and gear used for coaling ships, and on the other were fixed three tiers of six bunks each. Here 25 of the coolies sleep while the other five are housed in the cockloft over the shop. They get £7 10s. a month, from which they pay for their food, but their ‘quarters’ are free. Some of them were sleeping on the bunks wrapped in blankets and sacks. In the small kitchen at the far end a man was cooking his dinner. These men were all from China and had no families with them.

Whenever I see a steamer hand-coaled again I shall think of those pallid, exhausted faces which seemed to have T.B. written on them, lying in that dark cellar-like godown.

Steep and rickety stairs led to the first floor, where 28 were living in a flat that could have held about six reasonably. There were five or six cubicles along one side and double-tiered bunks on the other. Each cubicle or bunk represents ‘home’ to one or more people. At the back was a small dark communal kitchen with a tap and bucket for washing, and a covered wooden bucket for latrine for all these people. (There are good public latrines and baths near by.) Another steep flight took us to the top floor, where the arrangements were the same and where 32 people lived. Most of them were of course out.

Under the one window in the front a boy of about 15 sat on a stool. Before him, laid out on a packing-case top on another stool, were exercise books and a book on mathematics. He went to a night school, the only school he could get into, did odd jobs to earn money and was going to be an engineer. The boy’s mother joined us, a sad-looking, careworn, middle-aged woman. The father was a mason earning 3s. 9d. a day. Five women, two carrying babies, and three young children crowded round us as we sat down to talk, and the boy freed the two stools and betook himself and his books to a bedspace or bunk to continue his work. I felt pretty confident he would be an engineer. His and his parents’ home was one wooden bunk, covered with a clean coloured Chinese straw mat and the wall behind it neatly papered with cheerful wallpaper. On the wall was a little red- papered shrine to the God of the Land. On that bunk, say six feet by four, father, mother and son slept. This was not the most that can get on to a bunk. I heard of one with a husband, wife, concubine, and three children.

Outside the window on treble-banked bamboo poles was the washing of all the inmates. In the kitchen at the back a woman was preparing fish on one of the chatties–the clay stoves used for cooking all over the East–and the red shrine of the Kitchen God brightened its gloom. It was surprising that there was no unpleasant smell in these quarters.

Never in my life, in Africa, in Europe, in Arabia, had I seen slums worse than this, but never had I met slum-dwellers who looked so clean and tidy, so cheerful and welcoming, in such conditions. The Chinese seem able to rise above the drabbest surroundings.

Some time later Mr. U Tat Chee, the famous ‘Ginger King’ of Hong Kong, a man of great kindness and humanity much interested in social work, took us with two of the women workers from his ginger factory to see their homes in Kowloon. Ah Kan lived in Shantung Street. She was not married but, in partnership with a woman friend, was first tenant of a flat. The two shared a double bed on the verandah, letting off the rest of the flat to six families totalling 28 people. The rent was controlled and they got £1 17s. a month for each cubicle and £1 for a bedspace. One of these was home for a couple, their three children and grandmother; another was home for a widow and her small daughter, her two brothers and her mother. All the tenants were extremely cheerful and entertained us with cups of China tea, making jokes about the ‘luxury’ in which they lived. Many were busy working as they talked. One sat cross- legged on her bunk unpicking rags for cotton waste for which she was paid 7d. a pound. She said it took her four or five days of spare time unravelling to do a pound.

Most of the husbands and some of the women were factory workers or street hawkers, and we were told there is great competition for the small communal kitchen when they return from work. Firewood is kept in the bedspaces as it is an expensive commodity. The kitchen is also the bathroom and latrine–a lidded bucket behind the door.

The other factory worker, Ah Lan, took us to Canton Street, where she and her husband share a shelf for £1 1s. a month. She was well dressed in pale blue cotton pyjamas and her face literally lit up when she smiled, for she had a mouthful of flashing gold teeth. Quite a lot of money is banked in mouths in Hong Kong, and indeed most people put their money into gold and ornaments rather than into banks. Hong Kong must be one of the very few colonies where there is not a Government Post Office savings bank.

I noticed that our hostess had a little oil lamp above the bedspace although there was electric light in the flat. She explained it was an economy as the oil cost less than globes. There was a great litter of clothes, papers, powder, and the miscellaneous personal things we all have round us. Outside the window the washing as usual hung on bamboo poles, and one of the other tenants was combing out her long black hair which she had just washed in a bucket. When you live in conditions like this you treat those operations naturally and I saw more long tresses being washed in Hong Kong than I had ever seen before.

The passage-way was cluttered with children and others were asleep on shelves, flopped down in all sorts of attitudes. There were no children going to school in this tenement but both our guides went to a night school run by Mr. U for his adult factory workers. I had thought there were only women and children in the flat at that hour, but passing a cubicle on the way to the kitchen I saw a street hawker lying in a sleep of utter exhaustion across his bunk. Near by he had put down his tray of apples and oranges with their price neatly labelled in red in English and Chinese.

The flat might have held three families comfortably but it had nine. No one had thought of counting how many persons this represented and a guess at 26 was made. I heard later of such a tenement floor with no fewer than 23 families in it. These conditions, it must be remembered, are those in which most of the working-class people of the Colony live. Some surveys have been made: one, covering 1,000 families, showed 687 of them living in one room and 120 on a bedspace. Seventy-four had a whole flat, 30 a hut and 8 a house. The remainder were 8 squatters, 13 on sampans and junks, 23 verandahs, 23 cocklofts, and one on a roof …

As will be seen later, much is being done in trying to improve the lot of these tenement dwellers, and I was interested in some.

(Harold Ingrams, Hong Kong, 1952, pp. 69-74).

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Hong Kong in the 1950s (via Wikimedia Commons)

With regard to the squatter settlements, Ingrams wrote:

ON ALMOST any hillside behind the cities of Hong Kong and Kowloon where the gradient is sufficiently short of the perpendicular to enable a hut to perch, on bombed sites, or on any site momentarily not in use, are to be found squatter settlements. They are in every sense, except the legal, villages and small towns. Legally they just do not exist, but it is competently estimated that at least one-tenth of the urban population are living as squatters. This means 200,000 people! And there is very little to be done about it except tacitly recognize their existence and do what is possible to control them in the interests of health and order. People must have shelter and must be able to find a living, and such is the character of the Chinese that if those conditions are fulfilled they are little trouble.

Squatter colonies broke out in Hong Kong after the war and spread like a rash. People found rents so high and accommodation so difficult to obtain that they bought or collected a sufficiency of waste timber and old tins and built themselves huts. Every available open space and back lane was used, and when those were exhausted whole villages appeared on the roofs of tenements, but roof squatters have probably now for the most part been eliminated.

They are not just collections of hovels occupied by destitute refugees. There are quite wealthy squatters with large houses (but no regular sanitation). There are squatter factories, large and small, squatter cinema studios, squatter restaurants, squatter shops, even squatter opium dens, gambling dens and brothels. In one village there is even a squatter fire brigade and a squatter police force. You have to hand it to these people!

We paid our first visit to a squatter village on the hill behind Causeway Bay with the tempestuous Dr. Shaw, to whom squatter piggeries are as a rag to a good-tempered bull. Dr. Shaw roared at squatters all the way of a hot and tiring climb up the hillside. One saw agitated faces on all sides. Each had a look of guilt. Whether it was because they had uneasy consciences, or because they expected they had done something wrong but weren’t sure what it was, or just because they were illegal as squatters anyhow, I don’t know, but they did not take his good-tempered roaring amiss, in fact they seemed to enjoy it, and I guessed from the way the children crowded round him that he was a pretty popular caller even if he did cause some uneasy moments.

As we went up Shaw searched out piggeries. In the course of it we found other things of interest. The huts were, generally speaking, all of one-inch rough sawn boards, some of them no more than a few feet square, others large and divided into cubicles. I came to the conclusion I would far rather live in a squatter’s hut in the fresh air than in a stuffy, fetid, dark tenement cubicle, though, I am told, it is terrible in the rain, with the leaking and the torrents tumbling down the mountain side. There was a great concrete nullah or storm-drain down the valley. Shaw said it had been blocked with every sort of nuisance from nightsoil to garbage and had needed a hundred coolies to clean it. The squatters had their own ‘council of village representatives’, or Kai Fong, but they did not keep the place clean themselves. This no community seems to do. Huts were set up anyhow with no sort of planning, some of them on stilts with wooden bridges, but the interiors all seemed nice and clean, and even homelike with their simple furniture, curtains and photographs.

In two rooms of one wooden hut we found an electric torch factory in full swing. The back room had a furnace roaring away. Not being insanitary it didn’t worry the doctor, but I expect it would have given a fire brigade fits. Shaw had disappeared over a bridge and up a side alley on a pig hunt, and I was watching a woman washing her hair in a huge tub in a laundry when the usual roar followed by an excited stampede of running feet made me think he had found his quarry in a big way. I went off in the direction of all the rumpus and found him calling to us to come and see an opium den. There were 14 wide divans in the place, each of plain wood covered with Chinese mats. On them were Chinese porcelain pillows and a little lamp with flame steadily burning under a wide glass chimney. The opium was in tiny pillboxes, a black paste. Only one opium pipe had been forgotten in the wild rush through the windows. It seemed very still inside with the lamps burning so steadily and a queer thick smell in the air. When we came out everybody was minding his own business very assiduously. I noticed some amused smiles, but opium den! Oh no. No one had dreamed there was such a thing there.

At last, higher up the mountain, Shaw ran a piggery to earth, tracing it by big wooden tubs of swill. I must say I thought the whole place and the pigs looked very clean and healthy. The torrent of Chinese which fell from his lips meant, I was told, that if they didn’t remove them at once the Governor, the Commissioner of Police, the Admiral, the General and the R.A.F. would be up that afternoon to clear them all out! Led back down the hill by the triumphant doctor, we were joined by dozens of cheering children who gave us a good send- off as we drove away in his car 

(ibid., pp. 76-78)

As to who the squatters were, Ingrams wrote:

If it is not failure of crops which causes them to leave China, it is conscription or the failure of village economy. If an emigrant finds he can get on, he brings his family. The family gets on and their neighbours hear about it and then they come. It happens that thus whole villages transplant themselves piece- meal to Hong Kong!

Screening of squatter colonies has revealed that the vast majority of squatters are not natives of Hong Kong. 

(ibid., p. 79)

From his observations Ingrams drew the conclusion that the relationship between the average Hongkonger and his home was different than in the West:

AFTER WHAT we have seen of the manner of living of the tenement dwellers and squatters it will be appreciated that not many of the Chinese in Hong Kong have a home life in the way in which we understand it. With us home is an instinct; whether the things which really make a home, love, tranquillity of mind, domestic happiness, reasonable comfort, security for family, and the rest, are there or not, we call the place we live in home …

There are many in Hong Kong who have not even a tenement or a squatter hut in which to live. Thousands sleep where they work and any little shack or lean-to shelter will be found to be the only home of some family. Anything that provides cover will be pressed into service in this way. In tropical countries there is generally no particular hardship in having to sleep outside and a very simple construction can house a family quite well. If they have a little bit of ground much of the problem of living is solved: vegetables grow easily and a few chickens can grub about for a living without costing anything for their upkeep. As a Sikh policeman born in Hong Kong and now in Penang said to me: ‘Malaya is a good country for the poor man. He can live in a hut, he can grow his food, it is warm and he has not to bother much about clothes. Hong Kong is a good country for the rich man. A poor man has to spend too much on clothes and food and rent.’

Shelter and warm clothing are necessary in Hong Kong’s climate, but none the less in many a street sleepers are to be found in large numbers any night. They lie on the pavements wrapped in straw mats and sacks, and sometimes they die there. Their bodies are removed by the sanitary men on their morning rounds.

Such is the nature of the housing problem for the bulk of Hong Kong’s population, but there can be no more than a comparatively few thousands who can be regarded as being free of housing problems. The white-collar classes up to quite a high level of income are often seriously overcrowded and living in flats of sub-standard character in considerable discomfort. Prewar flats are rent-controlled but they change hands only with the payment of large sums as key money. Modern flats have very high rentals and the key money is also high. Key money for a flat or office ranges from between £625 and £2,500.

I was often told by Chinese friends that it is not the custom of the ordinary city-dweller to entertain his friends at home. It is rare for anyone save close relations or great intimates to be invited to the place in which his friend lives with his wife and family. The Chinese does his general entertaining at the numerous restaurants or at clubs: of the latter the West Point clubs are a most distinctively traditional Chinese institution. Business men’s clubs abound in Central Hong Kong.

They are Chinese, but they are also Western. Their necessity arises from the Chinese habit of doing most of their important business out of their offices. They serve the purpose which the city coffee- house such as Lloyd’s served in Queen Anne’s days and later. Trevelyan quotes the ‘Wealthy Shopkeeper’s’ day as follows: rise at 5; counting-house till 8; then breakfast on toast and Cheshire cheese; in his shop for two hours, then a neighbouring coffee-house for news; shop again, till dinner at home (over the shop) at 12 on a ‘thundering joint’; 1 o’clock on ‘change; 3 Lloyd’s coffee-house for business; shop again for an hour; then another coffee-house (not Lloyd’s) for recreation, followed by ‘sack shop’ to drink with acquaintances, till home for a ‘light supper’ and so to bed, ‘before Bow Bell rings nine’.

(ibid., pp. 80-82)

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