After sheltering many people for over five decades and bearing mute witness to changes in the city’s social and economic vicissitudes, residential blocks at three of Hong Kong’s earliest public housing estates — Shek Kip Mei Estate in Sham Shui Po, So Uk Estate in Cheung Sha Wan, and Lower Ngau Tau Kok Estate in Kwun Tong — had to yield ground to make way for newer, more livable towers.
The three estates have assumed a new look after ten years of progressive renovation and redevelopment by the Hong Kong Housing Authority (HA), work that saw many of the squatter and tenement blocks dating back to more than 50 years being torn down and replaced by modern high-rises that can provide more spacious homes for grassroots families.
Built in 1954, Shek Kip Mei Estate was Hong Kong’s first government-funded housing project for the poor, marking the birth of the city’s public housing program. Since then the face of the massive high-density residential quarter for more than 21,000 has kept changing. Today low-rise old resettlement blocks with toilets and showers in the communal area stand shoulder to shoulder with newly-built towers of up to 40 floors, under a project that is scheduled for completion in 2018. One old, H-shaped block, Mei Ho House, has been preserved as a museum of public housing with a spacious open-air arena in the rear courtyard.
So Uk Estate was once one of the largest residential projects in the Far East. Standing on a large slope, most of the units of the 16 blocks commanded seaview, and were supported by ample amenities. The estate was called the cradle for Hong Kong’s middle class. Redevelopment commenced in 2006 and the new towers of the first phase welcomed back many of the old-time tenants last year.
Lower Ngau Tau Kok Estate was one of the few public housing estates built in the 1960s that had lifts as well as an individual bathroom and kitchen in each unit. Hit hard by the SARS pandemic in 2003, the estate was entirely demolished. A brand new Lower Ngau Tau Kok Estate, consisting of some of the city’s tallest public housing towers — 48 floors — was inaugurated in 2012.
While bricks and mortar can be demolished, what cannot, and ought not, be forgotten is the intimate neighborliness established over the past decades. Also, the residents’ fond memories of yesteryears in these old estates.
To keep the memories of life in the old public housing estates alive, the HA maintains an archive featuring three series of photographic collections and documentary videos by local artists Wong Kan-tai, Ducky Tse and John Choy, preserving the historic vistas of the estates, as well as the elapsing lifestyle and emotional ties of the residents.
Veteran photographer Wong Kan-tai was commissioned by the HA to take pictures of Shek Kip Mei Estate between 2006 and 2007, when it was already in the last stage of clearance and most of the residents had moved away. Most of the housing units as shown in the photos are empty. However, remnants of the décor can still be seen in the images, providing a glimpse of the lifestyle of the former residents.
Photographer Ducky Tse was engaged by the HA to take photos of the So Uk Estate in the end of 2008. Fascinated by its special aura, Tse captured images of the estate in many facets, from which one can still see the elegance and vitality of the complex despite its weathered appearance. The daily lives and stories of the residents are brought alive from the vivid pictures.
As for Lower Ngau Tau Kok Estate, the HA appointed photographer John Choy for a photographic project in the estate. Choy spent several months in the estate around the end of 2008, acquainting with the residents and shop tenants. With a mutual trust built, he was very much a “kaifong” (Cantonese for neighbor) to them. This enabled him to churn out a photo collection full of human touch and riotous colors of the traditional rituals practised by the residents.
Many people find the faces and places shown in the photos and videos both touching and akin to their childhood experience.
Those who want to watch the photographic images of the three historic estates can browse the HA’s online archive here.
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