Is Privacy A Luxury?

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green balconies in housing block

In Northern Ireland we pretty much take our personal privacy for granted. 

We are lucky not to have the same levels of density as Hong Kong.  Here, to rent or own a three-bedroom semi-detached or terraced house for a family of five is not an excessive expectation. 

We might expect children of the same sex to share a bedroom. Parents will have their own separate room. There are other rooms: living area, kitchen, bathroom – or even a garden –  where family members can go so they do not all have to be in the same space at the same time.

But in Hong Kong people have very different expectations of privacy – based on their experience of high-density space.

In my PhD research (1992) older people often explained away the situation with traditional sayings:

“In Hong Kong an Inch of space is worth a thousand pieces of gold”

Resilient? Fatalistic? Inured? Even if they are not aware of it, Hong Kong people have developed strategies to cope.  Many have externalised  their lifestyles so that their home may just be somewhere to sleep. Others have maintained hyper-realistic expectations; they see that their homespace is much the same as everyone else’s.  

A recurring theme, given the history of HK space, is that if you were moving from say, a squatter hut to a sold concrete building it may have seemed a luxury by comparison. You don’t forget that feeling. As one family declared:

“The hut where we lived before was very small. When we got this big (300 sq feet/27.9 m) flat we were so happy.”

In 1992 50% of the Hong Kong population lived in some sort of public housing accommodation (temporary, Home ownership, rental). Designed to a much lower level than the newer Harmony/Concorde blocks the older style HK public housing blocks ( built in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s) were where most people lived at that time. These self-contained apartments/rooms had their own bathroom and kitchen, but were still effectively a one room space. 

“We eat here, and the TV is just beside us. Our noses can almost touch the screen. Generally we accept it. We Hong Kong people are accustomed to small space.”

When people were allocated a public housing flat  the HKHA imposed rules about what they could/could not do to the space. They could not for example, erect a full-height partition to divide the space. If they wanted visual privacy, partitions must be lower than ceiling height to allow for ventilation – which meant there was little, or no, acoustic privacy.

So how do people maintain privacy in high-density housing?

3 children 2 adults in HK home

This photo was taken in 1992. Since then HK Public Housing has improved  but at that time this was a fairly typical family rental-type home.

Here, mother, father and 3 young daughters lived in a one room space of 250 sq feet/23 sq metres. The double bed takes up the most of the available floorspace and other furniture is placed against the walls. 

There is no bedroom. The only visual privacy the parents have from the rest of the room is from the curtain which they can pull around the bed. The bed is situated right beside the front door. In lieu of bedside tables the bedhead has built-in, useful storage. 

The childrens’ bed is a three level bunkbed. At night the lower bed pulls out from below the lower bunk so that it does not have to occupy during the day. This is just one of the devices that the family use to maintain a flexible use of space.

What strikes me most from this photo is the intense relationship between body and space – because there is so little space.

Bodies occupy space: they move around, they sit, they lie down  – and they do their homework. Five people engaged in individual activities at the same time in one room would create difficulties for any family. 

People may be sleeping, watching TV, cooking or reading all in very close proximity. This demands a special coping mechanism, or very set and defined times  for each activity: Quiet time/noisy time. Moving/ sedentary. Awake/asleep.

Every member of the family has to accommodate each other. They have to learn to adapt to living with restricted privacy and activities. It is only when the children are asleep that the parents have some quiet time and some personal privacy.

Even in a small caravan there may be a separate ‘room’ for children or parents. In this type of housing the only place where there is total privacy is the bathroom. This is not a place apart. It is not luxurious. It is a small space with shower, toilet and sink opening up directly into the kitchen.

The mother in this family talked about how hard it was to keep her daughters focused on their homework –  and yet we were able to conduct this interview and they barely took notice at all. The TV was on the whole time.

She also commented that having three daughters made it easier. Mixed sex siblings would have put increased demand on the space and their personal privacy as they grew up. Her daughters dreamed of having their own room one day.

3 women sitting on floor 2 children doing homework

Privacy and personal space are hugely important psychological needs for personal well being and mental health. In HK, people have developed strategies to cope with density. Nobody pretends it is ideal. It is just something that people have to deal with. And they do it remarkably well.

The difference between density and crowdedness is that you can feel crowded on a bus, but perhaps not at a concert where close proximity to others is a positive part of the experience. Density is a physical measurement of space, crowdedness a negative feeling. 

How much is density does it take before there is a feeling of crowdedness?

E.T.Hall’s study of proxemics  The Hidden Dimension, indicates that there are cultural variables in personal space. HK people generally have a high tolerance of crowds, and an ability to ignore  – or switch off – from the world around them. It’s a bit like sitting on a bus with music on earphones, your own personal space bubble.

Everyone has anecdotal evidence of coping strategies. In Hong Kong the old airport at Kai Tak was famous for its proximity to residential blocks. It was a scary landing, you could almost see in to people’s homes and pray the pilot would not hit the nearby buildings. In Departures you would see school children studying. They had ‘peace and quiet’ and ‘private space’ to study, as well as air-conditioning and light. They made use of it as an amenity. Nobody seemed to mind.

My own students used to tell me they could only use the family dining table to do their work once everyone else had gone to bed.  They would work through the night. It was the only time they had peace, and space, when everyone else was asleep – being careful not disturb them.

A bed of your own was not something everyone could take for granted. In large families the sons often used to sleep on mats on the floor, or on the sofa. If family members worked night shifts they might be expected to hot-bed with other family members day/night use of space.

bed on balcony with washing machine

In one family the only son had a bed of his own –on the balcony.  The family removed the internal window, they installed external windows and had just enough space for a bed.  The problem was his ‘room’ was entirely open to the main living area ( shielded only by a curtain) and every morning he was disturbed by his mother using the washing machine  -which was right beside his bed. He had a bed, a ‘room’, but only had privacy once everyone else went to bed, and before his mother got up and did the laundry.

But of course, at this density, for each family living in the block, on each floor, there are other issues such as: acoustic privacy – where you can hear your neighbours talking, as well as their TV. 

As for  visual privacy…. A makeshift fabric screen attached to the steel shutters  meant that people could leave the door open – for ventilation – and have some degree of visual privacy. But only by sacrificing their acoustic privacy. It is therefore a question of having limited choices, and prioritising one level of comfort over another.

Hong Kong throws up all sorts of challenges to the assumptions we make about domestic space: what it should be, what it must be, how it should look. 

That’s what is so great about it! It disrupts complacent thinking. It makes you re-frame what you know and  what you think you know.

As a designer, You always have to look deeper  to be sure that what you see, what you know, what  people tell you and how they behave all relate – or if they don’t, to question why. There is never a one-size fits all approach. Every culture has their own way of doing things. And everyone has their own idiosyncrasies.

People evaluate, make judgements and decisions based on their worldview. Of course, that can change. Not just by moving countries, but by economic slumps and a re-assessment of personal values. What you want? What you can afford?

Big cities have higher density, more expensive property – and obviously are where people will have to make the most adjustments to their housing expectations. Amsterdam, Singapore, London, New York…  The situation is unlikely to improve.

It means, we will have to design more for density and therefore we need to learn from places such as Hong Kong. In the future we will all have to compromise our expectations of privacy and adjust to new ways of living – whatever they may be. 

central core housing

For Further information check out my book: At Home With Density, Hong Kong University Press, 1998

Follow Nuala Rooney:

Nuala Rooney PhD, is a creative professional and award-winning author, currently developing new approaches to design innovation and spatial research through storytelling. With unique skillsets, developed as a design educator in Higher Education institutions in UK and Hong Kong, her interest lies in exploring 'home' as a human centred space.

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