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.  In Northern Ireland, to rent or own a three-bedroom semi-detached or terraced house for a family of five is not a wildly excessive expectation. 

Children of the same sex may share a bedroom – but more often than not they will have their own rooms. Parents will normally have their own separate room. Do we think of this as a necessity, or a luxury? Is it a basic expectation, or an aspiration? And there are usually other rooms in the house – or even a garden –  where family members can go so they are not all 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. My PhD study into high-density living ( At Home with Density: Spatial Representation in HK Public Housing) revealed deep-rooted cultural contexts affecting how – and what – people thought about space. Older people in particular, 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 limited expectations because they see that nearly everyone is in the same boat.  

Given the history of HK space, if you moved from a squatter hut to a solid concrete building it would seem like 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). These older blocks built in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, were designed to a much lower level than the newer Harmony/Concorde blocks, but this was were most people lived at that time. These self-contained apartments/rooms had their own bathroom and kitchen-space, but were still effectively a one room. As one daughter in her twenties explained:

“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 were not permitted to 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. 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 a curtain which they can pull around the bed. The bed is situated right beside the front door.

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 – just one of the solutions the family use to maintain a more flexible use of space.

While at home, people engage in activities and occupy space: they do their homework, housework, play games, watch TV. Five people engaged in individual activities at the same time in one room would create difficulties for most families. In Hong Kong where  people may be sleeping, watching TV, cooking or trying to read, all in very close proximity this demands a special coping mechanism and due consideration of others.

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. But she said 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 well being and mental health. In HK, people have developed strategies to cope with density. It is not ideal. It is just something that people have to deal with. Which they do, remarkably well.

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 the airport lounge 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. And 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.  Then they would work through the night. This was the only time they had peace, and space, when everyone else was asleep – while being careful not disturb them.

In HK 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 creating a day/night use of space.

bed on balcony with washing machine

In this image, the family created a room for their son – on the balcony.  The family removed the internal window and installed external windows which gave 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 located right beside his bed. He had the ‘luxury’ of a bed, and a ‘room’, but ‘privacy’ only once everyone else went to bed, and before his mother got up to do the laundry.

At this level of density there are issues with acoustic privacy – where you can clearly hear your neighbours talking, or their TV. You are never alone in a housing block. There is always a sense of others around you.

Ventilation is also an issue in these older blocks. Most people would leave their doors onto the corridor open. They would add a makeshift fabric screen attached to the steel shutters so they could have air flow and some degree of visual privacy. But this also meant they had to sacrifice their acoustic privacy. In high-density, having limited choices means having to prioritise 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 and how it should look. 

People make judgements and decisions based on their view of the world. Of course, that can change. Big cities with higher density have more expensive property. If you want to live in Amsterdam, Singapore, London, Tokyo or New York…  you will have to make major adjustments to your housing expectations, based on what you can afford.

In the future we will have to design more for density – especially in cities. We need to learn from places such as Hong Kong. City-living means we will all have to compromise our expectations of privacy and adjust to new ways of living, whatever, and wherever 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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