On January 26, 2018, coincidentally Hong Kong’s Foundation Day (when the British first lay claim and established the city-state colony), Alec Michael John Wright, CMG, passed away at the age of 105. For many people, including Hong Kongers of the post-1997 generation, his name may not mean much, but this architect was responsible for giving the poor in Hong Kong the dignity they deserved via addressing one of mankind’s most essential needs: housing. This great man provided four to five decades of low-income Hong Kongers with access to public housing that befits any dignified human being. This is in great contrast to the current Hong Kong, where the SAR regime would have Hong Kongers live in a concrete cage that is worse than a prison cell, or tell them to live in refurbished shipping containers.
Michael Wright was a Hong Konger of Anglo-Saxon descent born in Hong Kong before the Great War in 1912. His life’s work was in Hong Kong’s civil service, whether in Hong Kong or abroad in London. He participated in the Battle of Hong Kong during the Japanese invasion (yes, the British fought in HK, contrary to what many pro-China people would say) and taken as a POW by the Japanese military. After the end of the war, Wright became the chief architect of the Hong Kong Public Works Department. Not long after, the Shek Kip Mei fire broke out and left hundreds and thousands of Hong Konger without a home, after the shanty towns made of wood and corrugated iron boards were burnt to the ground. Since the British administration had to quickly relocate and house these dispossessed residents, they hastily built housing complexes that were more akin to barracks than homes, where residents had to share communal bathrooms and kitchen, often leading to conflict and scuffles. What Michael Wright did was to design affordable public housing where each apartment unit had its own toilet and kitchen, with acceptable living space for the residents, at a minimal cost for the Hong Kong government at the time.
My maternal grandmother used to live in public housing at Choi Hung Estate (“Rainbow Estate”), one of the oldest public housing estates in HK, the construction of which Michael Wright would have been responsible for. Her apartment unit whom she shared with my grandfather and my uncle (both had since passed away) consisted of two “bedrooms” divided by a wooden wall, a decent-sized living area, and a decent-sized kitchen with a toilet and shower attached. Each bedroom was large enough to fit two single-sized bunk beds side by side, with more than enough head room for the top bunk. The living area was big enough for everyone to sit comfortably during our holiday get-togethers as families. The kitchen had ample room to move around, even though the shower and toilet were somewhat small and cramped. This is a far cry from most private housing in Hong Kong this day and age, where a recently advertised “ensuite” apartment unit for singles (actually a “battery unit”, “cage unit” or “coffin home”) only consists of enough space for a single-sized bed, with the toilet seat right beside it. Heck, even a prison cell in Hong Kong nowadays is larger than this “ensuite” unit.
Amidst the continuous and unstoppable influx of “migrants” – more like colonists – from China, Hong Kong is experiencing its second major housing crisis. Unlike the one that occurred during Hong Kong’s British days, however, there is no Michael Wright to give people their right to live as human beings. Rather, we are made to live like pigs in a sty, chickens in battery cages, or slaves with living spaces worse than a prison inmate’s. In the latter half of 2017, the SAR regime, under Carrie Lam, proposed to use shipping containers – yes, shipping containers – as public housing units. While the idea of utilizing shipping containers as housing units is not new, the containers proposed to be used in Hong Kong are “in and of itself”, rather those renovated ones in the West that are cut and designed for comfortable living. By “in and of itself”, I mean that the person living inside will be enclosed by the container; the space within it is all that they will have (which would have to include the kitchen and basic amenities). This cannot be further away from the way shipping containers are used in housing projects in the West, where they are often turned into independent, stand-alone houses with their own surrounding open space.
Rather than building more public housing to alleviate the lack of proper, affordable housing for local Hong Kongers, the SAR regime plans – in addition to the suggestion to use shipping containers for housing – to sell apartment units at a discount (30% off the current market price), except that 30% off a sky-high price is still beyond the average person’s affordability. Instead of regulating the price and living space for private housing so that young Hong Kongers can have the hope of owning a home to start a family, the SAR regime insists on “minimal government intervention” in the property market. Property developers in Hong Kong are even more shameless, suggesting that “mini-apartment” (coffin homes) are popular because many young Hong Kongers are buying them, when in fact it is only because there is no better option available that these young Hong Kongers are forced to snap up such inhumane housing options. Even more ridiculous are suggestions such as building apartments over garbage collection centres and docking areas or in the gaps between existing apartment blocks as solutions to Hong Kong’s housing problem, rather than using Hong Kong’s constitutional power to control the number of Chinese immigrants through the borders that is proving to be a burden upon Hong Kong’s availability to provide social welfare to its local residents.
Even though some people reject Hong Kong’s British days due to their “nationalistic” fervour, the housing policies back then had been a blessing for generations of Hong Kongers, allowing them to climb the social ladder for a better life and bringing growth to the entire Hong Kong population. Many of those who have benefited from the British administration’s public housing policies, ironically, are exactly the ones denouncing the British days and condemning young Hong Kongers for protesting against the lack of affordable housing. For those of us who have the grace to be thankful, let us thank Michael Wright for his crucial role in designing and providing our forebearers with humane and affordable public housing which then allowed them to raise us into existence. Rest in peace, Mr. Wright.