The Sardines Fight Back

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COMMUNITY ACTION [image, unknown] Housing in Hong Kong

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The Sardines fight back
Hong Kong's less fortunate millions are crowded sardine-fashion into multistorey boxes on Resettlement Estates. Eileen Sudworth describes the battle by residents of Taihangtung to make their hell-hole environment work.

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Photo: Camera Press

'WE CONTRIBUTE to society not only labour but also our sense of social justice’, says Choi Chi Wa of the Taihangtung Resettlement Estate.

Chi Wai came to Taihangtung as a babe in arms. His life has never known privacy. Probably it never will. He joined the People’s Committee in 1977 — a particularly hard time for the Choi family when ‘seven people were crammed into one small room and sometimes in summer we slept outside in the park’.

Taihangtung is one of the oldest government-built estates in Hong Kong. With a population of around 30,000 it comprises 14 blocks of eight-storey reinforced concrete buildings. Conditions there show the dark side of Hong Kong’s ‘economic miracle’ with just 24 square feet of floor space officially allocated for each adult. Most ‘housing UK units’ are actually single rooms of about 10 feet by 12 with an average of six people living, eating and sleeping in each of them.

Ventilation, especially in the stifling summer months, is hopelessly inadequate and privacy non-existent. Cooking is done in open corridors between rooms and sanitary conditions are appalling.
But such conditions are the rule rather than the exception in a country with five million people concentrated into 404 square miles. Hong Kong is officially designated as ‘Chinese territory under British rule’. It is a defacto colony but with no plans for decolonisation or independence — though, through the 1981 Nationality Bill, Britain is effectively washing its hands of its citizens in Hong Kong.

The population is still expanding rapidly, both through natural growth and immigration. Refugees from Vietnam and immigrants from China increased the numbers by around 400,000 between 1978 and 1981.

Land scarcity and population growth explain to a large extent the housing pressures and the strain on social services. But they do not account for the glaring disparities in wealth — and consequently in housing — so evident in Hong Kong. Apart from its harbour and the industry of its people, Hong Kong has virtually no natural resources. The chosen path for economic development has been export-led industrialisation.

This is a policy that has created a paradise for industrial entrepreneurs, property developers and land speculators. But for most of Hong Kong’s workers social justice has been sacrificed on the altar of economic growth.

Thus while a prosperous elite, the real beneficiaries of the economic boom, enjoy their living space, unbearably claustrophobic conditions are the lot of the majority.

A tiny minority at the top end of the private housing sector can afford an average of 700 square feet per person. But those in the public sector are forced into a meagre 13-21 square feet.

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Photo: United Nations

All land in Hong Kong is owned by the Crown so the government has a key role in land and housing policy. Intervention, however, in the form of subsidised public housing, is limited and with land sales forming a major source of government revenue — 29 per cent in 1980-81 — it arguably has a vested interest in the current rocketing land prices and soaring rents.

It was against a backdrop like this that in 1970 the Society for Community Organisation — SoCo — emerged as a catalyst to mobilise people to struggle for their rights. It organised the Taihangtung’s People’s Committee with 30 representatives from the 14 blocks. Most were squatters left homeless after a fire in 1953 — fires in old tenement blocks are very common. And another disaster in 1973 — a severe rainstorm that left many homeless — also spurred the formation of the People’s Committee.

In the early days they concentrated on immediate problems: the renovation of toilets or of leaking roofs. But while most of the actions produced concrete results, in the words of SoCo, ‘the consciousness of the people was short-lived’. From sporadic forays into action most of the residents retreated into hopelessness and apathy.

The reasons were not difficult to find. Mobilising people for much needed improvements is far easier than stimulating an awareness of the causes of their problems. This is particularly true in Hong Kong where there is not even a facade of democracy or of people’s participation in decision-making. If the living and working conditions are often Dickensian the political structures are likewise a relic of nineteenth century colonialism.

The administration can at best be described as paternalistic. The government is essentially that of a caretaker — but one bent on securing the maximum financial gain before the 99-year lease from China on the New Territories runs out in 1997. In the interim, political democracy remains a pipe dream and attempts to pressure government towards greater social justice are viewed by officialdom with suspicion or hostility.

Despite these difficulties the People’s Committee continues to campaign for the rights of the Taihangtung residents. Though still dealing with urgent problems they have shifted the focus ‘from self-interest to social concern.

‘I realised’, says Tsui, their chairman, ‘that it was relations with people — with their feelings, sufferings and happiness — that makes life interesting and hopeful.’

Now there is an analysis of overall community problems — poverty, health, old age. And residents have formed a variety of groups to tackle them.

The health group, formed in 1978, deals not only with physical and psychological well-being but with social health and the need to change the dangerous environment. Its leaders have been trained as para-medics to advise on nutrition and hygiene and to treat common ailments and diseases.

A labour group advises on labour law and takes action on labour-related problems. The editorial group has started a community newspaper Voice of Taihantung with some 6,000 copies distributed free each quarter to every family on the estate.

A group for the aged has also been formed — they comprise around a fifth of the community — and residents are particularly sensitive to those who are left unattended.

The environment improvement group supervises housing management and works with housing officials on problems related to repair and maintenance — a dialogue that is seen as a particularly important breakthrough. ‘It is encouraging to the residents’, says one SoCo workers, ‘that after so many years of negotiation and struggle they are now able to talk with government officials on an equal footing.’

A 22 year old garment worker captures the spirit of Taihangtung: ‘I’m not the smart type. But the People’s Committee has helped by giving me responsibility. I know that I have messed up many tasks, but still they accept me — and for that I am satisfied.’

Eileen Sudworth is based in Sydney with the Asia Partnership for Human Development which, through SoCo, has assisted the Taihangtung People’s Committee.

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New Internationalist issue 106 magazine cover This article is from the December 1981 issue of New Internationalist.
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