熱血時報 | Hong Kong Housing: Back to the Past

Hong Kong Housing: Back to the Past

Hong Kong Housing: Back to the Past

Toward the end of the 1940s and in the early 50s, Hong Kong had seen a mass influx of Chinese refugees who were fleeing first from the Nationalist-Communist Chinese Civil War, and then from he rule of the communists when they took power in 1949. However, due to the destruction of housing during World War II and the lack of public housing policies at the time, the British administration of Hong Kong could not accommodate everyone with necessary housing. As a result, they had to tolerate refugees erecting shanty towns made of wooden planks, corrugated iron and other construction scraps around the famed Lion Rock and along the urban fringes in Kowloon, rather than leaving them homeless. The living conditions in these squatter areas and urban slums were extremely poor, but many had to make do while working very hard to improve life for themselves and the next generation. This was the origin of the much exulted “Lion Rock Spirit”.

However, in 1953 a major fire broke out in one of the slums at Shek Kip Mei due to an accident. Vast stretch of the squatter areas were destroyed as a result of the fire, as wood was the common denominator amongst the makeshift housing. In response, many victims of the disaster were resettled in Cottage Resettlement Areas while more formal squatter areas were built. These new squatter areas were low storey flats built on the former shanty towns; slowly they became the precursor of Hong Kong’s public housing programme. Despite such measures, housing was still severely limited as more refugees from China crossed the border to find safe haven in Hong Kong. Before public housing fully came into operation, many of these newcomers still squatted and erected haphazard habitations within urban areas; those with a little more money from working as “coolies” and dock workers rented out bed spaces or a building floor compartmentalised into what had been dubbed “coffin rooms”, the conditions in which they lived in could be found portrayed in later television drama series such as Light of Million Hopes (萬家燈火) from ATV.

Those with a slightly higher income could afford what we would call “shared apartments”, whereby an apartment owner would rent out rooms to individuals, couples or families, all sharing common areas such as bathroom, toilet and kitchen. My own father and his family lived in one of these, as my grandfather was lucky enough to work as a merchant clerk when he moved to Hong Kong at his uncle’s behest before the war with Japan broke out. When my grandmother and father, along with my father’s siblings, escaped from China by stowing away to Hong Kong on boats from Macau, the entire family lived in such a shared apartment. This family of seven would live on their bunk bed, with two or three of my father’s younger siblings sleeping on the upper bed, my grandparents sleeping on the lower bed, and the rest sleeping on makeshift beds made from wooden boards placed upon stools and a temporary mattress and blanket on top. When not sleeping, the board would serve as a table top on which the kids would do their homework or eat their meals, or as a work bench for my grandmother. Again, this sort of living condition was portrayed in future television drama series such as Old Time Buddy:  To Catch A Thief (難兄難弟之神探李奇) and films such as The House of 72 Tenants (七十二家房客).  However, these portrayals were often in sitcoms and did not truly reflect the real conditions, such as how often fights broke out over the use of the kitchen and toilet.

In the 1970s, a great leap was made to solve Hong Kong’s housing needs when the newly instated Governor MacLehose announced his social reform policies to shake up areas that had been allowed to lapse. It has been pointed out that the British administration suddenly became proactive in the betterment of Hong Kong despite their rather laissez faire attitude prior, perhaps as a response to Communist China’s change of mind over Hong Kong’s sovereignty issue. Commentators noted that MacLehose’s plans were to foster a sense of belonging amongst the locals and to establish the Hong Konger identity as opposed to being Chinese, in response to the 1967 Leftist Riot which capitalised on Chinese nationalism in Hong Kong to wreak chaos upon the British administration. Other memorable MacLehose reforms were the establishment of the once famed Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), which provided the model for similar agencies in other Commonwealth nations such as Australia, and the anti-littering campaign that sought to clean up Hong Kong’s public spaces. It could be said that from here on out the Hong Konger identity blossomed.

The MacLehose housing reform would see every Hong Konger being able to have a proper place of residence where the Hong Kong government would play a major role in housing affordability. The plan was to increase the number of public housing available by progressively building more government-owned apartment blocks over the course of ten years, as well as locating conveniences and facilities close to these public housing estates.  However, there was still a continuing influx of Chinese migrants and refugees to Hong Kong that would place pressure on welfare policies such as the public housing programme despite the official abolishment of an open border in 1951. As a result, the Touch Base Policy was implemented in 1974 in the hope of curbing the number of migrants. When even that proved to be ineffective, a total ban on illegal immigrants was enacted in 1980. At the same time of this total ban, the government launched its Home Ownership Scheme, which was a government subsidised and managed sale programme of public housing for those public housing tenants who could afford buying these heavily subsidised and below-market-price apartments, so that public housing rental apartments could be freed up for other Hong Kongers with housing need. The aim was for eligible low income Hong Kongers to afford public rentals first, where they would then have the financial space to save up and later buy one of these subsidized apartments, and perhaps would be able to afford a better privately built apartment in the future. It was said that under this new undertaking, a street cleaning worker could afford to save up enough for his or her son to pay a deposit for an apartment. The housing issue was gradually resolved under the British administration, even though there were still pockets of squatters, bed space rentals, “coffin rooms” and shared apartments to be found throughout Hong Kong.

The Dichotomy: 1997, China happened

Since the Handover of Hong Kong, these beneficial government policies by the British administration have been constantly rolled back by the HKSAR regime. One of the rollbacks is Hong Kong’s public housing policy, and the others being our ICAC and Governor MacLehose’s shakeup of the Hong Kong police force. In terms of ICAC, corruption has seeped into its top ranks, overseen by people with dubious integrity if not outright violators themselves. In terms of the once praised Royal Hong Kong Police Force it needs no further discussion, as it has degenerated into a security forced owned by China and its servants in the HKSAR regime.

If Hong Kong’s public housing development was due to a mass influx of Chinese through our borders, then so is our current housing crisis. However, whereas the former group of Chinese consisted of refugees and migrants fleeing from communist China hoping to restart their lives and to be free from political persecution and economic robbery, the latter are locusts looking out for their next field of crop to devour, and are China’s foot soldiers willingly or unwittingly helping to bring about China’s blight upon Hong Kong and eradicate Hong Kong’s traditional languages, cultures, peoples, thoughts and beliefs. This new influx of Chinese across Hong Kong’s border rose like a flooding river when the HKSAR regime and the Chinese regime promoted Hong Kong to the Chinese civilians as the prime place for migration, when the so-called “family reunion” scheme was implemented, when the HK property market was opened to Chinese “investors” and multiple-entry visa holders, and when the High Court ruled that any Chinese children born in Hong Kong will automatically receive permanent residency, regardless of whether their parents are Hong Kong permanent residents or not.

The nightmare began not long after the Handover ceremony on the First of July, 1997, when the then Chief Executive Tong Chee Hwa announced his plans to build 85,000 new residential units each year so that 70% of Hong Kong families can have a home of their own, in turn vacating public housing for those yet to have a home. However, these residential units caused a dramatic downturn in the property market. Coupled with the financial crisis around that time, many local property investors lost a huge amount of money to the point of bankruptcy. Due to the outcry of local investors, the HKSAR regime stopped not only the “Eighty-Five Thousand Plan” but also put on hold the Home Ownership Scheme put in place by the British Administration in the 1980s, as a way to reduce the market of available properties and to drive up prices. Chinese “investors” were also encouraged to come in to “invest” in Hong Kong properties.

However, the Chinese people who were allowed to cross the border into Hong Kong for residency and to invest in properties have become a problem, as they did not understand the concept of morality. They believed that a free market means that they can buy as many properties as they want, as long as they have the money, without caring for the needs of local Hong Kongers. Chinese “investors” would snap up apartments as they are rolled out, buying them many times above market price to deny any competition, thus driving up the median price exponentially. While the Chinese upper echelons have piles of blood money at their disposal, the everyday Hong Kongers do not and cannot be expected to do the same, as society cannot have everyone to be filthy rich. These “investors” would usually buy a property but leave it unoccupied, refusing to rent it out to Hong Kongers. By 2008-2010, the outcry was that someone had to save from hundreds of years back in the Jin Dynasty in order to afford to pay a deposit at the current time. In recent years, especially during the ‘reign’ of the despised Leung Chun Ying, the HKSAR regime tried to implement property investment policies to “cool down” Hong Kong’s property market, but the proposed measures were totally ineffective. Without affordable housing properties readily available, many Hong Kongers flooded onto the public housing scheme, but with the HKSAR regime giving free rein to China in issuing 150 one-way entry permit into Hong Kong per day, as well as the numerous cases of so-called “family reunions” that saw many Chinese spouses and offspring moving into Hong Kong, the availability of public housing was rapidly being sucked dry. Worse of all, the HKSAR regime established an express lane for these Chinese “new immigrants”, allowing them to jump the queue at needy Hong Kongers’ expense. Hong Kongers’ discontent at the housing problem led the HKSAR regime to resume the Home Ownership Scheme in 2011, but the crisis and the lame duck resolution policies did not create more housing property available at reasonable prices for local Hong Kongers.

Some local opportunists and investors took advantage of this housing crisis to revive the existence of rented bed spaces and “coffin homes” from before the 1970s, as well as partitioned apartments no bigger than a jail cell. Soon, Hong Kong once again saw families of four or five living in one tiny partitioned apartment; the city also once again saw single Hong Kongers having to live in “coffin homes” that look more like a jail cell. The current Finance Secretary’s wife was discovered to own a number of these inhumane housing, and Hong Kong’s primary television station TVB was caught trying to promote that living in these conditions is desirable. A Hong Kong plutocrat even had the gall to declare that so many inhumane housing units were built because they were popular! The HKSAR regime also tries to capitalise on this opportunity by forcing the issue of urbanising the fringes of protected country parks and nature reserves, even contemplating on filling in Hong Kong’s reservoirs to build more apartments, and condemning environmental groups and conservationists in hope of setting Hong Kongers against them. The new Secretary for Housing and Transport, Frank Chan, proposed what he called “shared homes”, which critics exposed as nothing more than the shared apartments of the bygone Hong Kong supposedly seen only in films such as The House of 72 Tenants. Just last week, someone from the plutocracy suggested renovating shipping containers as housing for Hong Kongers, not as temporary housing but as a permanent one, an idea that have people cast their minds back to the days when shanty towns were erected at the foot of the Lion Rock.

The HKSAR regime has always repeated their mantra of progress, progress, and progress, saying that Hong Kongers must give a little and sacrifice a little for Hong Kong to develop. However, is this indeed development when people’s living conditions are dragged backward to the times before 1970s? What is this supposed “development”, and who is it for if not only for the benefit of the plutocracy? No wonder those Hong Kongers who have long memories still long for the days when Hong Kong was a British protectorate and when local Hong Kongers mattered. The first step to truly resolving the housing crisis would be similar to what the British administration had done prior to their effort revamping their public housing policy: limit and control the number of Chinese flocking in through Hong Kong’s borders. Without that, welfare policies are meaningless, and no amount of housing development would be sufficient to cater to the local residents AND the 150+ Chinese coming in on a daily basis -- not even if you tear down every single country park and reservoir, or reclaim every inch of water between Hong Kong’s various island territories to the point of filling in the iconic Victoria Harbour in its entirety.

(Photo:WiNG|CC BY SA 3.0)