23 October 2016
A file photo shows a family sharing a dinner inside a 50-square-foot tong fong. Photo: Benny Lam
A file photo shows a family sharing a dinner inside a 50-square-foot tong fong. Photo: Benny Lam

Who should we blame for our small living spaces?

A seller of a 1,000-square-foot apartment in Hong Kong recently advertised his property as a “palace”.

We can consider it dark humor but the exaggerated claim indeed reflects the disquieting truth about the city’s housing reality. 

With the city’s property prices among the world’s highest, space is at a premium, forcing most locals into cramped quarters.

While the middle classes settle for tiny flats — the home of an average Hong Kong family measures less than 700 square feet in size — the underprivileged have to make do with pigeonhole units, tong fong (sub-divided units), or even cage-like dwellings.

How have things come to such a pass in a place that brags about its “world city” status?

The blame can be laid on many, looking from a historical perspective.

Among the first would be Charles Elliot, a British colonizer who first set foot in Hong Kong in the 19th century.

Elliot, a chief trade plenipotentiary to the Qing dynasty, picked a mosquito-ridden rock east of the Pearl River estuary as the crown prize in 1841 following the First Opium War.

That was how Hong Kong’s colonial history began.

Records of that era show that Elliot’s choice of Hong Kong was considered arbitrary, not endorsed at all by London in the first place, since the territory was merely “a barren, precipitous cliff in the sea with hardly a house on it”.

It is said that the British had actually considered Zhoushan (舟山), near the Yangtze River estuary, as the preferred location to establish a colony.

There was barely any developable level land on the Hong Kong island. 

Elliot was sacked soon for his presumptuous choice of such a harsh, cragged place before he could become the first governor of Hong Kong.

Subsequent treaties added Kowloon and the New Territories, along with a nearby archipelago of desolate islets, into the colony, yet most of the land annexed from China featured mountainous terrain and steep topography.

Fast forward to present day, built-up area in Hong Kong still accounts for just a little over 30 percent of the total territory of 1,110 square kilometers, according to government data.

Vast expanses of mountain ranges and country parks, like Lion Rock, Plover Cove Country Park and Sai Kung East Country Park, have meant that urbanization was concentrated in just a few strips of plain land.

Hong Kong’s entire 7.3 million population is effectively housed in an area measuring 77 sq km.

The second person to blame is Mao Zedong (毛澤東).

After China fell to Mao in 1949, many fled the country to Hong Kong. The Cultural Revolution in the mid-60s subsequently triggered a fresh exodus as people sought to avoid political tumult or famine.

Hong Kong saw an influx of around 2 million people, who were granted residency by the colonial authorities under a policy to shelter those ravaged by calamities across the border.

The newcomers from China exacerbated Hong Kong’s already acute housing undersupply.

As many immigrants were living as squatters, in make-shift homes or in the streets, the government had to rush the construction of resettlement blocks with an aim to merely put a roof over people’s heads.

Spacious housing was but an impossible luxury — a 120-square-foot shoe box was designed to house at least five adults, according to the Housing Authority archive.

Today, another group is also making the limited living space of the majority even smaller. They are indigenous inhabitants in the New Territories.

Out of Hong Kong’s 77 sq km of land for residential purpose, almost half of it, or 35 sq km, is for rural settlement only, which houses a paltry 7 percent of the city’s total domestic households.

Meanwhile, over 90 percent of Hongkongers occupy the remainder of 42 sq km.

Such dire disparity is the result of the government’s policies related to indigenous villagers’ land. A male villager can, once in a lifetime, erect a villa-like small house within his village.

Such privilege is allowed regardless of whether the people already have alternative accommodation in the city or have emigrated overseas.

There were up to 240,000 such eligible applicants as per the rural council’s estimate some years ago.

The government has reserved large swaths of plots, about 12 sq km, for them, while numerous other citizens have to squeeze themselves into cubicles just because they are non-indigenous residents.

The small house concessionary right can be passed onto male members of the next generation, in a seemingly ad infinitum manner, but Hong Kong’s land resources can only get scarcer.

Apart from these, there’s the greed of the city’s property developers.

Media reports say Henderson Land, Sun Hung Kai Properties, New World Development and Cheung Kong sit on a combined land bank of over 10 sq km in the New Territories – Henderson alone has 45 million sq feet, according to its 2015 annual report.

These firms tend to hoard plots when they feel the land premium to be paid for developing the sites is too high.

As we continue the blame game, let’s also not forget the role of Sir Murray MacLehose, the British colonial governor who lorded over Hong Kong for more than a decade from November 1971.

An enthusiastic hiker, MacLehose rezoned extensive portions of the land as country parks during his tenure.

Today, country parks and special areas cover a total of 443 sq km, two fifths of the entire Hong Kong.

– Contact us at [email protected]

Read more:

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

Vast land supply hiding in plain sight, so where’s the problem?

Time for HK to rethink its old Small House Policy


An influx of people from across the border and anomalies in land rezoning and distribution have exacerbated Hong Kong’s housing woes. Photo: Andy Yeung

British Trade Plenipotentiary Charles Elliot picked Hong Kong Island as the new crown colony after the First Opium War, without London’s prior consent. Photo:

Villa-like small houses built by indigenous inhabitants in the New Territories. While numerous people are scraping by in subdivided units, the government has reserved 12 sq km of land for male villagers to build homes. Photo: Internet

Hong Kong’s vast country parks, shown in green, occupy two fifths of the entire territory. Photo: HK Govt

EJ Insight writer

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