An Inch of Space…. Is Worth A Thousand Pieces of Gold 

In 1998 my film, “A Thousand Pieces of Gold”,  won a Gold award in the Documentary section of the Hong Kong Independent Short Film and Video Awards (IFVA).

It is a glimpse, a record and now, a historical perspective into the lives of  two families living in older style Hong Kong public housing flats.

Because space is so expensive in Hong Kong density is a way of life. Inevitably, this means people’s homes are very small.

The title of the film is a common saying in Hong Kong reflecting a fatalistic acceptance of high-density space: ” An inch of space is worth a thousand pieces of gold”.

The film features two families – and their homes.

How do four adults live in 300 sq. feet?

For 27 years the  Ng family shared (originally also with grandparents) this one room non-partitioned 300 sq feet space; a small kitchen on the verandah and basic toilet bathroom facilities.

At the point of filming (1998) this family (now 4) were about to move into a new style public 600 sq feet flat with 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms. 

2 men, 1 woman in crowded Hk Public housing flat. Thousand Pieces of gold

Moving out of this very cramped space, their home life and lives were about to change.

They were looking forward to having more space, more privacy and most of all the opportunity to create/design a new home. 

We will have more privacy in the new place - mother  in Hk flat. Still from Thousand Pieces of gold

The mother embraces the idea of having a ‘proper’ home.

That is: a place where her son wouldn’t have to sleep on the sofa and having to  stay up late  until everyone else has gone to bed.

And, where her daughter will have her own room  – not just a bed in the living area.

Son lying on sofa reaching to open fridge door. Still from a Thousand Pieces of Gold

With double the space, and a proper fixed rooms the move will dramatically improve family life. 

The mother has great plans.

She knows exactly what she wants for the new place and how she wants it to look.

In her current home she had to adapt and make the most of what is a very poor situation. In her new home she is in now in a position to make considered design choices.

She carries a sense of the new space in her head and compares it to where she lives now.

Mother visually marking out new layout. Still from A Thousand pieces of Gold

She has seen a sofa that would be perfect for the new place – but her husband is not so keen. He is perhaps more cautious about spending and somewhat worried she is getting carried away.

mother and father arguing about sofa. Still from A Thousand Pieces of gold

The father’s hobby is to keep fish. ‘When one lot dies, he buys another’

 He’s adamant, and laughs, it is not about fung-shui.

3 people viewed through window with fish. Still from A Thousand Pieces of Gold

Their new home is not just about consumption and decor.

Prominently displayed in their current home there is a small altar.

This is a visible connection to their ancestors that reflects an important and deep traditional cultural worldview. Before they move, the mother declares she will consult the almanac for an auspicious day.

“So we can have peace in our hearts.”

3 people sitting talking about auspicious day for moving flat. Still from A Thousand pieces of Gold.

Their home is a typical high-density, highly compromised space. As the son points out: ‘ only the sleeping area is not occupied‘.

This is a space that is packed full with their belongings. Every space – floor to ceiling – is used up. There is no space left.

For this family, their new home is not just about having a bigger space, it is about creating an opportunity to live better.

They can design their home to suit their lifestyle and needs – rather than ‘making do’. This move, this new home, is a whole new beginning.

tv set in wall unit with lucky cats

For 14 years the Yung family have been living in this 320sq feet flat.  

How do they think their home compares to others?

For 14 years the Yung family have been living in this 320sq feet flat.  

The flat is divided into two bedrooms and has a separate kitchen bathroom and utility space.

bed with green pillow and window. Still from A Thousand pieces of Gold.

Previously the two daughters shared a bunkbed.

When one got married and moved out, their brother  – who had been sleeping in the sofa –   took over the spare bunkbed.

two HK elderly people  sitting on two sofas. Still from Thousand Pieces of Gold.

Like many people in Hong Kong, the parents came to Hong Kong as refugees from China.

At first they lived in a rented room. There were 5 or 6 other families sharing one flat, sharing one kitchen and bathroom. They were then allocated one of the early seven-storey Housing Authority – 120 sq feet rooms, with shared external bathroom and cooking areas. 

They vividly remember: ‘Conditions there were very bad’.

This past experience of dwelling clearly informs how they look at, and appreciate, their current home. 

 And now, everything is  inside the flat, we can call this place a real home.

elderly HK man beside fridge. Still from A Thousand Pieces of Gold.

 “The best thing about this flat is the windows. We have windows opening in three directions.

As a corner unit their flat has windows on three sides.

There are only  4 other units like this on each floor of the building. The other units have windows on one side only: “ therefore I have the best flat in this building’. 

Their daughter spoke of her time as a student in New York. 

She considers Hong Kong to be more ‘ cramped’ than New York. But also, that people in New York ‘ don’t have to be rich to have a stylish place‘.

In her opinion in Hong Kong.. “ even if you have money, you may not have taste.” 

girl sitting on top bunkbed. Still from film A Thousand Pieces of Gold.

She says her mother makes all the design, organisation and aesthetic decisions.

In this respect her mother has total control and manages the space very well.

She imposes  a system of order throughout her home to maintain tidiness.

teacups in cabinet with lace doilies

A dedicated and hard-working housewife, she knows where everything is and where, and how, it should be stored. 

All day, she is busy, active and fully engaged with the space.

She does all the laundry – hanging on the washing on bamboo poles – and cooking, and cleaning and tidying.

This is her domain. And it is immaculate.

Still from 'A Thousand Pieces of gold'. Woman and washing machine. Hong Kong flat.

To help solve the problem of storage she cleverly uses up all available space:  above cupboards and below the sewing machine, under the sofa and beds.

And yet, the place does not look cluttered or packed.

woman with storage boxes under sewing machine. Still from  A Thousand Pieces of Gold.

Everything is wrapped up to protect it from humidity and mould.

man pointing to picture on wall

The father describes the hidden meaning behind the picture in the living room.

In the kitchen there is an altar for the ancestors.

According to the father this is because there is…  “no other suitable place for it, so we put it in the kitchen.” 

He admits they could put it in the living area, but he would prefer to put up a picture there instead.

“It’s nothing to do with fung shui.. “

man and woman sitting beside table in HK home. Still from A Thousand Pieces of Gold.

The father comments that  Hong Kong public housing is for the working class. ‘You have to pay a lot for a homeownership scheme flat.

Although they have made the most of this space they are aware of its limitations. 

The layout is fixed. We just have to live with it. We can’t change anything.” 

view of HK home, kitchen living area, bedroom

However, it is evident he is very content living here.

He has his home, his life, his family and a strong sense that life is not better elsewhere.

“Compared to other countries Hong Kong is fine. Life is not bad living here.” 

Still from A Thousand Pieces of Gold.

A Thousand Pieces of Gold

Documented by Nuala Rooney and Wai-lun Kwok, William

Produced by the Media Resources and Services, Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Camera: Yu Sang, Sound: Fook-yin Lau, Francis, Grip: Kan-tong Ching, Editor: Kim-keung Hung, Co-ordinator: Milly Mok

Nuala Rooney

I am designer, educator and researcher developing creative and holistic human-centred insights within the social/spatial sphere.

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