Hong Kong is one of the most expensive places in the world to live.

And it is also one of most densely packed cities in the world.

Providing adequate housing in such constrained spatial circumstances is a phenomenal task. 

Hong Kong dense housing blocks

In Hong Kong they have literally moved mountains, and reclaimed land to build housing.

Despite a low birthrate, through immigration the HK Government has to plan for a fast-growing population.

This, in a land mass that is part country park, part island, part totally unbuildable, and much already densely overbuilt.

And yet, very quickly and efficiently, they seem to be able to develop new infrastructures, brand new urban habitats.

To put this into perspective.

Hong Kong has a population of nearly 7.5 million in a land mass 1,050 km² (405 sq miles).  By comparison, County Armagh in Northern Ireland is 1326 km² with a population of 174, 792  (2011).

Northern Ireland’s total population is currently 1.8 million.  

It is very hard to imagine 7.5 million people living in County Armagh.

Where would they live?

But in Hong Kong, it’s not all that it seems.

Inside Hong Kong’s Caged Homes, ( 2018) is an excellent video by Vox Borders. It shows how some people in Hong Kong are forced to live in very cramped, unhealthy and appalling conditions.

In the video it is very clear this situation is not just down to the lack of available, or buildable land.

It is the Hong Kong’ Government’s policy of restricting land leases that is the issue. Basically, this is what pushes housing prices up and up.

And beyond most people’s reach.

Given the lack of natural resources and the level of density, Hong Kong shouldn’t work – and yet somehow it does

That all comes down to the people of Hong Kong’s natural sense of entrepreneurship. They have an attitude of just getting on with it and an incredible ability to adapt and live in high density – inside and out.

High density affects everyone in Hong Kong.

Every Sunday the streets in the centre of Hong Kong are closed.

With nowhere else to meet on their one day off, the space is appropriated and occupied by hundreds of live-in domestic helpers.

Throughout the Central District, these (mainly  Filipina) women will set up temporary cardboard ‘camps’  on the walkways, roads, gardens and pavements.

They create their own pitch. This becomes ‘ a place’ where they can ‘meet’ their friends.

To designate their spot they place the tent or cardboard flat on the ground, or use it to box-in a space.

And so, on a Sunday, this spot becomes ‘their place. That is: a temporary ‘home’ all of their own.

The next day the street is once again occupied by cars and buses and city business people.

Until a week later, when they reclaim the space again.

Hong Kong density buildings
Back and White view of housing density

For Hong Kong people it will be more affordable to live in a newly developed area in the far reaches of Hong Kong where you can have a bigger, newer home.

And yet, many people still like living in the urban areas.

There are some advantages to density. That is, when everything is close to hand and close to home it means it is more convenient.

Moving to a newly developed area they will gain more space however, if the infrastructure is not so well developed it may not suit everyone.

boats and houses on river

It is somewhat of a culture shock to see just how little space you get for your money in Hong Kong.

Foreigners in Hong Kong on lower incomes tend to live in islands such as Lamma and Lantau.

That is because rents are much cheaper In the outlying islands and the pace of life is generally slower.

In these rural, village settings people can still commute by ferry into Central. However, on other parts of Lantau transport and housing have dramatically improved as part of the airport infrastructure.  

crowds in street density

Why is Hong Kong so dense and so crowded?

Pre and post-www II brought an influx of immigrants from China into Hong Kong.

At that time the British territory was still coming to terms with rebuilding what they had lost in the war, accommodation was expensive and thin on the ground.

With nowhere to live the new refugees set up home in illegal squatter villages on hillsides, on top of buildings, in factories and under stair wells. 

Basically, wherever they could find a space, they could make it a home.

Throughout the 1950’s and ‘60’s tenement housing was divided, sub-divided and sub-divided again.

Families shared with other families – not just kitchen and bathing facilities but also floor space.

They erected ‘cock lofts’ in head height in factories and used triple height space bunkbeds, where each bedspace was ‘home’ for each family.

In Hong Kong, high-density, crowded conditions, poor accommodation and lack of privacy was the norm.

People developed coping mechanisms; they learned to live an externalised lifestyle – outside of the home.  

With some many people creating homes anywhere they could, it almost became a free-for-all in organic building.

Kowloon Walled City is a perfect example of what can happen when legal issues mean that existing planning laws cannot be applied. From the original footprint Kowloon Walled City  morphed into a massive precarious structure. At its height, an estimated 33-50,000 people were living there in just 2.7 hectares.

This was density  – at its very worst.

Until it was finally demolished in 1994 Kowloon Walled City was a hell hole of darkness and decrepitude.

And, as a space that grew outside of any imposed laws and rules it was a known focus of Triad activity, illegal construction and light industry.

Kowloon Walled City was built ad hoc, unrestricted and unplanned.

As a result, it was a shocking amorphous structure, a sci-fi post-apocalyptic world like something out of Bladerunner. A dark, dystopian, space with water dripping into the access corridors.

As awful as it was, people adjusted to living there. They adapted and coped.

They got used to the space and to living a life inside the ‘city’.

Despite its dangerous and appalling physical state some still have fond memories of living there. That says a lot about HK people’s resilience and their ability to adapt.

In the post-war period,  Squatter villages, such as Diamond Hill, Pok Fu Lam Shek Kip Mei housed thousands of people – all in shacks.

As accommodation, many of these homes were actually better than people would have had living in the tenements.

Although illegal, because they were built on Crown land, these villages were tolerated and closely monitored, by the local authorities.  

Fires were a constant hazard.

But, it was when 53,000 people lost their homes in Shek Kip Mei fire on Christmas night 1953, that the authorities finally stepped in to create with a more lasting solution to the critical shortage of housing.

old housing blocks density

This was the start of what was to become a massive housing programme. 

Designed initially, as ’emergency housing’ it was a ‘no frills’ design.

Barrack-like buildings housed back to back ‘rooms’. Families shared communal latrines. All cooking was done outside the ‘room’ on the external balcony.

It was ‘ housing’ insomuch as people were ‘housed’ – in a space that was just about as basic as it was possible to be. And yet, 40 years on, this was still in use as viable housing.

From these lowly beginnings the Hong Kong Housing Authority has gone on to achieve phenomenal success.

Housing estates  such as Choi Hung, built (1962-64)  accommodates over 40,000 people. And, over the years, step by step, the design and quality of its housing has gradually improved.

colourful housing block and play area

Throughout Hong Kong, these vast public housing estates dominate the urban and suburban environment.

Built complete with shops, wet markets, restaurants and schools, this is urbanisation in a grand scale – and at high density. 

Think British New Towns: only more brutal, more concrete, more condensed. 

These are huge blocks inhabited by many, many people. And yet, these estates are successful largely because the infrastructure and density means that amenities are close to hand.  

With the growth of an urban sprawl   local village areas were subsumed, squatter villages eradicated and urban green areas built upon, or concreted over.

To make the best use of space, schools were built on the rooftops of the re-settlement blocks. Later, this developed into  a situation where the same building might be used by two schools – one am, the other pm sessions.

These were totally separate schools with their own principals, teachers and students, using the same desks, rooms and space.

In Hong Kong flexibility of use, dual purpose space is just another effect of density.

green balconies housing block

Density is part of Hong Kong.

For Hong Kong people density is part of their lived experience.

It is how they experience space and design and home.

It is part of their everyday life.

See also: Rooney, Nuala (2003) At Home with Density, Hong Kong: HKU Press

List of illustrations

Far-Far: Unsplash

  1. Kotaro-Maruyam: Unsplash
  2. Nuala Rooney
  3. Nuala Rooney
  4. Damon Lam: Unsplash
  5. Keith Hardy: Unsplash
  6. Nuala Rooney
  7. Nuala Rooney
  8. Nuala Rooney
  9. Nuala Rooney
  10. Nuala Rooney
  11. Creative Commons
  12. Banter-snaps: Unsplash
  13. Nuala Rooney
  14. Chromatagraph: Unsplash

Nuala Rooney

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

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.