Re-housing in Hong Kong

Courtesy of OSPA

by Brian D Wilson (Administrative Officer, Hong Kong 1948-83)
Re-housing in Hong Kong
A visitor to Hong Kong may be surprised at the vast number of high-rise residential blocks filling the skyline on Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and parts of the New Territories. He may be even more surprised to learn that something like half the territory's population of 7 million lives in Government housing. How did this come about?

There is a common and understandable belief that the original and main purpose of the colonial Government's resettlement programme was to provide housing for the homeless. This was not the case. As the Communist forces under Mao Tse-tung swept across Nationalist China after World War II, reaching Kwongchow (formerly Canton) in October 1949, refugees poured into Hong Kong. Shanty towns sprang up on any vacant land. Crown or private. Whole hillsides were taken over, not only for dwelling but also for minor industries. On Christmas Day 1949, fire in a huge squatter area at Shek Kip Mei left thousands homeless. Immediate temporary arrangements had to be made to re-house these squatters. But this one-off measure was rapidly overtaken by an even more pressing need. The Government's programme for new schools, medical facilities, water and electrical supplies, roads and recreation to meet the requirements of the rapidly increasing population was hampered by squatters occupying the sites for the proposed facilities. The priority for resettlement was therefore dictated by the urgency of the need for the sites for public development. Once the boundaries of the site for clearance were known, a team was despatched well in advance to survey all structures there, noting the names of occupants and the type of any industry carried on. As soon as the squatters knew of the survey, outsiders tended to rush in with bogus claims and overnight huts. A rapid and accurate survey was essential to avoid cheating.

Re-housing in Hong Kong
Reclaiming Land
New resettlement blocks large enough to accommodate all those to be cleared had to be completed in good time before the clearance was due to take place. Blocks were of a standard size and design. Each was required to contain a mix of flats of different sizes to meet the needs of families and singletons recorded in the survey. A family of two, three, or four persons needed a flat with the requisite space, and this was originally calculated on the basis of fourteen square feet per person. This was not much but the best that could be offered in hurried circumstances. But at least the flat provided mains water, electricity, security of tenure, flush toilets, and disposal of refuse. The earliest resettlement blocks were completed in a hurry, with basic facilities, and have since been replaced by flats that are more in keeping with public expectations.

Clearances could be traumatic. Squatters in the area to be cleared were told the date for clearance and shown their allocated room which they were free to decorate and occupy in advance of clearance. On the due date, a squad of Resettlement labourers moved in with crowbars, pickaxes, and saws to demolish any remaining structures which were then removed by lorry and destroyed (to forestall attempts to re-use corrugated iron etc). Any squatter who had failed to move was evicted and his structure pulled down. This could lead to violence, for which purpose the Police were always on hand at clearances. But for the most part, clearances were peaceful affairs, with squatters realising that they were better off in public housing, even though it might involve an enormous change in life. But the subsidised rent was low (private landlords were notorious for charging high rents, often with annual increases). There were shops on the ground floor, buses serving the estate, workplaces within reach, and above all security of tenure without the ever-present risk in squatter areas of fire, typhoon, landslips, and dislodged boulders.

Re-housing in Hong Kong
Hong Kong Shanty Town
For small industries cleared from squatter areas, multi-story resettlement factories were provided, catering for an astonishing variety of activities. Apart from the then common industries producing plastic bags, torches, and thong slippers, there was a man turning out gold ornaments and another producing dental chairs. Most of these industries had been operated mechanically by hand when in squatter areas. But, on resettlement, they usually upgraded their machinery to operate electrically. This could raise the electrical loading in the resettlement factory block enormously beyond its designed capacity. Exasperated tenants would break into the fuse box and replace the fuse with a six-inch nail.

The colonial Government's resettlement programme continued non-stop over the years, with new problems arising. Overcrowding was one of the biggest. A family of perhaps four persons might have been initially allocated a flat of the appropriate size but in a few years the family may have increased with the birth of more children. Small children of different sexes originally sharing a bedroom grow up and require separate bedrooms. It was apparent that resettling people was not the end of the story. There were continual problems with overcrowding and the need to move families to larger flats, failure to pay rent and the reluctance to evict, thus creating another squatter, squabbles between neighbours, occasional cases where a tenant had been dead for some time without anyone noticing, attempts at selling or subletting in contravention of the tenancy agreement. On parallel lines, the Government also provided other flats for sale at affordable prices.

The upshot now is that Hong Kong can more or less house all its residents in private or public accommodation, provided the population does not dramatically increase.

Africa Map
1954 Map of Hong Kong
Colony Profile
Hong Kong Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 96: October 2008


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