It’s an architectural feat to squeeze in seven million people on just over 1,000 sq km. Hong Kong has managed to do just that and the frenzy to keep building, adding, extending, excavating and reclaiming goes on. Hong Kong is growing ever higher upward and ever denser inward.
The big developers scramble for the best pieces of this scarce land. Asia’s richest man and leading property developer, Hong Kong’s Li Ka-Shing, won a bid to build a residential and commercial complex above a rail station just last week, cashing up a record HKD9.6bn (€1bn) to get his hands on the site.
Though the Hong Kong government controls land here in an effort to balance development, it does so by releasing it bit-by-bit through auctions. As at any auction, the land goes to the highest bidder. Some bidders probably have benevolent plans for their new land plots though building affordable housing doesn’t seem to figure high on their lists. Currently just over 10,000 new homes are built every year, in comparison to more than double that in the 1990s.
One obvious effect is a housing shortage. Recent news reports about families living in in-humanly cramped spaces – apartments that have been subdivided with plywood, turning a small-sized living space into several miniature apartments, many with no windows – are examples of what the housing shortage means for the everyday person here.
Another effect is the need to build more. Unless land-control policies change, the cycle to build upward and denser will continue – there’s simply no escaping the fact that people need living space. So out goes the slightly scruffy but delightful 1950s low-rise and in comes the shiny high-rise with iron gates that lock the neighbourhood out.
There’s still hope though. Take Tai Hang, a tiny neighbourhood that grew from a shantytown in colonial era Hong Kong to what is today one of the city’s loveliest areas. It may only be roughly five streets wide but on those streets are a heady and well-balanced mix of the old and the new. You have the car-mechanics who’ve been around forever. You have curbside restaurants serving up breakfast and the sweet shops that tantalise the area’s school children.
On top of that, you have the newcomers – the small design agencies, the independent cafes, the vintage furniture shops. And you have the humanly scaled walk-ups – they may not have elevators but they have charm. From their old-school tin mail boxes to ramshackle rooftop terraces on apartments with high ceilings (something that is impossible to find in newer properties), they’re a vestige of old Hong Kong that works perfectly in a modern urban environment.
The fabric of a place like Tai Hang is always threatened – the bulldozers lurk just around the corner and chopstick-thin high buildings are closing in on the neighbourhood – but so far, the gem remains. It should serve as a reminder that Hong Kong already has a lot of property stock. With a fresh coat of paint they could serve generations to come. The need to build shiny new things remains but Hong Kong-ers should take heed that their city is loosing its character to those with the deepest pockets.