Hello I Must Be Going

Shek Kip Mei is where Hong Kong’s first public housing was built. The original, utilitarian seven-storey housing blocks were built in the shape of an “H”, with residential flats at the two flanks and the toilets and washrooms placed on a bridge in between. For more than 50 years, these thoroughly functionalist buildings came to represent an important milestone in Hong Kong’s growth.

But as Hong Kong’s economy matured and its architecture became increasingly sophisticated, they came to look out of place with the rest of the affluent community. It is therefore not surprising that, in the next few months, the government will demolish the last of them. They are to be replaced by slick, modern public housing towers over 40 stories in height.

The story of Shek Kip Mei’s public flats began when a fire broke out on Christmas Eve in 1953, destroying large slum areas in the neighborhood. In response, the government quickly built a few public rental housing blocks for the affected families. Some say the government’s decisive action was designed to win over the poor who might have been drawn towards the Communists, who were then eager to offer generous donations to slum dwellers. No matter what the government’s intent, these primitive blocks marked the beginning of a far-reaching public policy which has since grown to provide housing to nearly half of Hong Kong’s population. Hong Kong, despite being famous for taking a hands-off approach towards the economy, has become the largest landlord in the world.

Now that the last bricks are about to be removed, what people will remember will not be a dramatic improvement in living standards for slum dwellers. On the contrary, it is the image of very poor living conditions in these housing blocks, tiny flats without bedrooms, shared washrooms and kitchens in public hallways, which will be recalled.

And it was definitely not a comfortable living environment, but to the early residents, there were few alternatives. As a result, the crowded living conditions were tolerated rather than gladly accepted. To many of these tenants, public housing was regarded strictly as a temporary abode. They knew they would have to move on, even though it might take 15 or 20 years, to a better flat away from Shek Kip Mei.

Many have indeed left. However, Shek Kip Mei remains a very special place to them. In the final weeks before the demolition, hundreds of elderly residents have come back, taking pictures, meeting old friends and reminiscing about the old days. These buildings, although poorly designed and hastily built, gave them more than shelter – it was a place to find memories. In view of their historical significance, some people have called on the government to preserve them. In response, the government has suggested that only one will be kept and turned into a museum. Mei Ho House, or Block 41, is not of the original design and was chosen probably because it is located at the edge of Shek Kip Mei, so that the redevelopment project will not in any way be jeopardized.

When the slick, modern public housing towers are completed, new families will be moving in. Many of them will be glad that they have been given brand new shelters. This time around, no one will speculate that government has any secret agenda against China. A few will probably notice, however, that by building 40-story public housing towers, the government is actually cramming more people into Shek Kip Mei, as if the area were not already crowded enough. The increase in population will hardly be felt, simply because the tenants will now be housed in modern towers rather than ramshackle housing blocks. But if gross population density can be used as a yardstick to measure the quality of life, Shek Kip Mei will no doubt suffer a decline.

One may speculate that, as improvements to the living conditions appear illusory, there may be another secret agenda in the government’s plans. Is the increase in population intended to free up precious land elsewhere for private property development? Or is it simply that public housing residents deserve only a small improvement in living standards? There is no easy answer. One thing is certain, though. Like previous generations who found shelter in Shek Kip Mei, some of these new tenants will be dreaming of a better place. They may have to wait 15 or 20 years but the time will come. The cycle never ends.