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 for many tenants. By Elizabeth Flux.

Apartment living in Hong Kong

Old-style Hong Kong housing.
Old-style Hong Kong housing.

Here I am with my dark brown hair and my white-passing face looking exactly like what I am: lost. 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 wheelie bag, and there is a satchel slung over my shoulder. I’m sweating a bit, having just caught a minibus, then a train, then another minibus, and I’m pretty sure my backpack is hitching my dress up too high.

Here I am with my dark brown hair and my white-passing face looking exactly like what I am not: a tourist. 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 appearance 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.

By Australian standards 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.

I was born in Hong Kong in 1989, eight years before the territory would be handed back to China, and one year after the gates were opened for people to move to Tseung Kwan O New Town – a territory predominantly built on reclaimed land. It’s where my cousin lives and where I stay when I visit.

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.

Having moved away at a young age, 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. Basketball courts. Hairdressers. Parks. The food here is the weird, 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 Westerners 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.

My love of these apartment complexes is bolstered by both novelty and nostalgia. You can’t extract the place from the memory – of my ah poh (maternal grandmother) taking me by the hand and going to the 7-Eleven for ice-cream every night when I visited as a child. Of going a week without speaking or hearing a word of English. Of eating breakfast with my cousin at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that has only a Chinese-language menu while a metre away an old man goes for broke on the exercise machine provided by the government to promote better health.

But there are problems, too. To name the estate you live in automatically gives an indication of your financial situation, your class. As with suburbs in Australia, 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 divided into micro apartments, ranging between 40 and 60 square feet. For context, a king-sized bed is about 42 square feet (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.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 13, 2019 as "Apartment complexities".

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Elizabeth Flux is a writer, editor and critic.

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