When I look at this photo, I want to cry.
It’s not because I’m appalled by the living conditions or the monotonous architecture. Or the fact that many people have no choice but to live in these buildings. (In fact I’m not appalled by any of this. I love the architecture.)
When I say I want to cry, it’s because these public housing estates represent a miracle like no other.
In the early 1950s, Chinese refugees poured into British Hong Kong by foot, boat, or swimming across the Shenzhen River. Once safely in the British colony, the refugees built shanties constructed from corrugated metal and cardboard–not an ideal shelter anywhere, especially during the typhoon season.
Then on Christmas Eve in 1953, a devastating fire swept through Shep Kip Mei in Kowloon, leaving 53,000 refugees completely homeless. The fire blazed into the early hours of Christmas Day. (December 25th hasn’t exactly been an auspicious date in Hong Kong history. It was also the day, in 1941, when the Japanese invaded the territory, occupying it until the end of the war.)
But back to the Shek Kip Mei fire. The government, headed by Alexander Grantham, built public housing blocks in 1953 to resettle the displaced refugees. The government also spearheaded a drive to settle all shanty dwellers. The public housing boom started in the early 1960s, around the time my mom first visited Hong Kong.
When she arrived in Hong Kong in the summer of 1962, she said no one believed the government could actually resettle all those refugees. They kept pouring in. As things in China fell apart with programs like The Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Hong Kong seemed like the Promised Land.
So as the public housing estates sprouted up across the territory, like the one in this photo, the refugees settled into fire- and flood-protected structures, even if they were tiny (some only 300 square feet for five people). Anything had to be better than those shanties.
I spent a lot of time in the ground floor businesses of public housing estates, shopping and eating. Many estates housed Chinese fast food restaurants like Cafe de Coral, Maxim’s, or Fairwood. The public housing estates in many ways were like small satellite towns, with a post office, hardware store, noodle and rice shops, clothing shops, and wet markets. When the weather grew oppressively hot and humid, or damp and cool during Hong Kong’s three weeks of winter, nothing mattered more than convenience.
Still, as I rode the bus from my home in the New Territories to the old Kai Tak airport, I always gasped after leaving Tate’s Cairn Tunnel. When we rounded a corner near Lok Fu in Kowloon, shanties covered a nearby hill like shingles on a roof. This was more than 40 years after the Shek Kip Mei fire. I’ve heard those structures are now gone and the people in them have been resettled. Housing is still in a shortage and many conditions are less than stellar.
But without the public housing estates, Hong Kong never would have come of age in the 60s, marking a place for itself in international commerce and tourism.