17 November 2019
A luxury residential high-rise stands amid tenement blocks where cramped subdivided flats are normally found. Photo: Internet
A luxury residential high-rise stands amid tenement blocks where cramped subdivided flats are normally found. Photo: Internet

How the HK govt is solving the tong fong problem – on paper

Subdivided flats, or tong fong (劏房) in local parlance, are a disgrace to Hong Kong.

We call our city a global metropolis, and yet we allow those cramped and dilapidated units to be used as living quarters of some of our underprivileged citizens.

What has the government done so far to make the problem a little less acute and ignominious? Hasn’t it said that housing is on top of its policy agenda?

The CY Leung administration has been keeping itself busy in this regard, but what it has done so far is to hide the problem, gloss it over and pretend that it can somehow be legitimized.

The first trick it has been using is to fabricate evidence that tong fong is the kind of sin that cannot be avoided in a free market.

Based on an official tong fong survey, it has been suggested that there is “genuine market demand” for these subdivided, smaller-than-shoebox cubicles.

The survey, conducted by the Census and Statistics Department from June to November last year, found that “51.9 percent chose to live in the units at the time of enumeration because of more affordable rents and 37.5 percent found it convenient to go to work or school”.

“It seems that the survey is hinting that some tenants indeed ‘choose’ to live in tong fong and thus the hidden line is that it’s not entirely a social problem nor a government failure to alleviate the housing shortage,” says Chan Siu-ming, a member of Shadow Long Term Housing Strategy Steering Committee, a non-governmental organization, in a recent op-ed in the Hong Kong Economic Journal.

The survey report is trying to give people the impression that tong fong has its unique, “value for money” functionality in a free housing market, and such a notion, as obliquely endorsed and echoed by officials and pro-government commentators, has effectively become a convenient refuge of the authorities’ detestable nonfeasance under the disguise of “positive non-interventionism”.

As Chan puts it, tong fong tenants never had any genuine choice, and even if they had, they could only choose from tong fong, bedspace or sleeping on the streets.

“With such logic, can we presume that those street sleepers choose to sleep on the streets and dream next to people’s footsteps because there is a ‘market demand’ as a result of a free economy?” he asks.

The report is a classic example of digression and non sequitur. Instead of admitting that the rent for an undivided unit is just unaffordable to grassroots tenants, it notes that “the rent of tong fong is affordable”.

By the same token, it stresses that tong fong offers convenience to tenants in commuting to work or school while avoiding the fact that their household income is such that they need to cut transport expenses. 

So, in view of the leading questionnaire used in the survey, respondents are forced to answer that tong fong has its own virtues, and, ergo, officials should not be blamed for their inaction.

The second trick deployed is to grossly understate the seriousness of the issue.

The official survey only found 86,400 tong fong housing 195,500 tenants across the territory.

Chan says the situation on the ground can only be far worse than what the government is willing to admit.

The survey’s methodology is problematic in the first place: only private domestic or composite buildings aged 25 years and above were included while the government willfully ignores tong fong in rundown or derelict industrial estates that typically cluster in Kwun Tong, To Kwa Wan and Yuen Long.

Secretary for Development Paul Chan Mo-po noted in a reply to Legislative Council questions in June that the Buildings Department does not have statistics on the total number of tong fong built in industrial buildings.

“To conduct such survey, the department would need to enter around 1,900 such buildings in the territory for inspection, which would involve practical difficulties and substantial manpower and resources,” he told the legislators.

However, the Society for Community Organization, a non-governmental and human rights advocacy group, estimated that there were no less than 20,000 tong fong tenants living in industrial buildings. That figure is on the conservative side as the unofficial survey was made in 2012.

Tong fong in village houses and in other unconventional forms are outside the visual field of government statisticians, too.

Many underprivileged Hongkongers have become remarkably “innovative” in the face of exorbitant rents: they now dwell in subdivided village houses, floating homes in a typhoon shelter or even mini flats renovated from an abandoned piggery in Yuen Long as reported by media last year.

How the government statisticians collect their data is also questionable. They determine if a residential unit has been subdivided by counting the number of door bells, mailboxes or water and electric meters, or they merely rely on information from neighbors or the estate’s caretakers.

Also, when it comes to the size of tong fong, the government chooses to highlight the average living space per person, which is 60 square feet, rather than the more realistic median figure of 43.5 sq ft, in its report.

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A file photo shows a family sharing a dinner inside a 50-square-foot tong fong. Photo: Internet

Rundown residential blocks and industrial estates serve as home to the city’s underprivileged. Photo: Sing Pao

Shek Kip Mei Estate, one of Hong Kong’s oldest public housing estates. Photo: Bloomberg

EJ Insight writer