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

25 years ago 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) 1998.

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.

The title is a common saying that people relate to a fatalistic acceptance of high-density in Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong because space is so expensive density is a way of life. Which means that people’s homes are small.

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.

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.

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

Before they lived here they lived in a shared tenement – in conditions far worse that this.

Moving from this crowded, cramped space their home life lives were about to change.

We will have more privacy in the new place - mother  in Hk flat

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

That is, a place where her son wouldn’t have to sleep on the sofa –  staying 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

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 a poor situations. With this new home she is can now make considered design choices – where she couldn’t before. 

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

mother visually marking out new layout

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

mother and father arguing about sofa

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

 He’s adamant it is not for fung-shui.

3 people viewed through window with fish

In the home space, prominently displayed, is a small altar.

It is a visible connection to ancestors and deeper traditional cultural views. 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

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

For this family this move to a new home, a bigger space, a better design, 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

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.

Like many people in Hong Kong, the parents arrived in Hong Kong as refugees from China in 1939.

two HK elderly people  sitting on two sofas

At first they lived in a rented room. 5 or 6 other families sharing one flat, sharing one kitchen and bathroom. They were 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 experience 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

 “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

She says her mother makes all the organisation and aesthetic decisions concerning the design and space in flat. 

teacups in cabinet with lace doilies

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.

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 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 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

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

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 content to live here.

He has his home, his life, his family and a sense that in  other places life is not much better.

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

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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