“Having lived in Tseung Kwan O for a few years, I can honestly say that living in prison is probably more bearable.”
That’s my friend’s tongue-in-cheek response when I, a Kennedy Town resident, told him that many in other districts envy Tseung Kwan O’s ease of transport connections and discerning urban planning.
For example, Kennedy Town, an aging, tenements-filled neighborhood, didn’t have MTR access until 2014.
On the surface Tseung Kwan O incorporates all the amenities and convenience of a modern, all-in-one new town.
It features large-scale residential developments above mass transit hubs: every inch of land and space is arranged in a well-thought-out masterplan to maximize occupancy, with guaranteed commercial and auxiliary facilities.
It has covered, air-conditioned walkways, chic malls, sleek residential high rises, and, most notably, is free of squalid cocklofts or dilapidated blocks.
Tseung Kwan O appeals to those living in the city’s old districts.
But all these come at a cost: Tseung Kwan O, home to over 400,000, is a city of dead streets.
Nothing on the ground
Dense residential towers of 60 storeys or higher cluster around key transport nodes like Po Lam, Hang Hau and Tiu Keng Leng MTR stations.
At the podium level of these gigantic, screen wall-like blocks are malls and shopping arcades with dispiriting sameness of merchants and chain franchises.
Interconnected footbridges link all blocks, channeling residents to a few pre-designed routes via the malls to train stations or their respective estates.
If you look for a detour you will find that there’s none; if you descend the footbridges or walkways, you will reach the ground level of nothingness: streets have no names, no shops, no pedestrians, just highways and wire fences that keep you away from an otherwise walkable waterfront area.
Parents even warn kids not to go to the ground level as there’s no one down there and it probably isn’t safe.
Mom and pop shops, cha chaan tengs, grocery stores, and all other quintessential elements that give life and variety to the city’s old neighborhoods are scarce in Tseung Kwan O.
Everything is neat and meticulously maintained to run like clockwork and residents are provided a pre-designed lifestyle.
Not too many Tseung Kwan O dwellers may be aware that their district was once known as “Junk Bay”, in reference to the junks in the bay and refuse dumps in the vicinity.
That’s until the colonial government adopted a less derogatory name as it started rehabilitating the place for massive new town developments in the 1980s.
To some, Tseung Kwan O symbolizes an unflattering side of the city where people are mere cogs of a colossal realty-commercial complex who can only work, live and play in a pre-programmed way to keep the wheels of capitalism running.
Progress is achieved at the expense of individual autonomy.
No cha chaan teng? Never mind. No ParknShop? No way!
Yet, a home in Tseung Kwan O is far from cheap: the area now boasts several big-ticket residential developments as it continues to expand with robust land auctions.
Underutilized bus bays and terminals built beneath malls, or “public transport interchanges” in official documents, indicate collusion between the government and big businesses.
In the guise of serving the community, developers volunteer to build large bus interchanges on the ground level of their projects, in exchange for greater plot ratios and higher podium levels.
That means more flats to be sold with fat mark-ups. Never mind that railway is the predominant mode of transport for Tseung Kwan O residents and just a few feeder bus routes serve the district.
Landfill and stinking garbage
The government’s official taglines for Tseung Kwan O, such as “The Healthy City”, provide an ironic twist to the reality there.
The new town lies close to a massive landfill, the 100-hectare South East New Territories Landfill, bordered only by a dusty road called Wan Po Road, which means green or environmental protection in Cantonese.
For years rancid odor was a common grievance among local residents, particularly those living in the southeastern portion of the district.
Complaints about the stink started to fade after LOHAS Park, one of Tseung Kwan O’s largest residential developments, was completed.
The project’s legions of residential towers, some up to 76 storeys tall, provide an olfactory wall that blocks the spread of the stench.
As such, LOHAS Park, despite its fancy name, shows to what extent some Hong Kong developers are willing to go to boost profit margins.
When residents moved into their LOHAS Park homes, none of them ever thought that the authorities would forge ahead with plans for a massive expansion of the landfill some 800 meters away.
As buyers gnashed their teeth after realizing the raw deal they had been given, the chief of the property developer, a realty mogul, is said to have remarked that he smelled nothing wrong during his inspection of the site.
In fact, he said, he found the surroundings “pleasantly refreshing”.
As one of Hong Kong’s youngest new towns that is still expanding, is Tseung Kwan O the answer to the city’s chronic housing woes?
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When urban planning is in the way of home production