If any kind of urban form defines the Hong Kong experience, it’s the skyscraper. Just look out from any window: there are thousands of them. But what preceded those high-rises, and even gave birth to them, were the vast shantytowns built throughout the twentieth century by refugees from mainland China. In the decades following the Japanese invasion of China and the Chinese civil war, informal settlements home to tens of thousands of people sprawled outwards from the edges of urban Hong Kong and Kowloon. In the mid-1950s, huge fires destroyed shantytowns in Tai Hang Tung and Shek Kip Mei, leaving up to 60,000 homeless. In response, the Hong Kong government began providing public housing for squatters, gradually clearing away squatter settlements throughout the city.
But squatters remained an entrenched part of the Hong Kong landscape for decades after the fire, partly because the government could not keep pace with the flow of new refugees from the mainland. In the above video, shot in 1964 around Diamond Hill and Shek Kip Mei, you can see squatter settlements of the most primitive sort, with wooden shacks built on steep hills criss-crossed by muddy, unpaved paths. Landslides—which were a danger even to the established urban areas of Hong Kong, let alone flimsy shanties—killed hundreds of squatters in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Squatters didn’t just live in crude hillside villages, though: they also made homes on rooftops and in the Kowloon Walled City, which was perhaps the most impressive informal settlement in human history.
Hong Kong’s squatter population reached its peak in the 1980s, but squatter clearance and the construction of new housing estates has left few traces of the old shantytowns. Between 1984 and 1992 alone, more than 62,000 squatters were cleared, with tens of thousands more relocated in the 1990s. Still, according to a survey in 2005, more than 10,000 squatters remain throughout Hong Kong, many of them in marginal areas of the territory, like on Lantau Island or in the New Territories. Most are there by choice, choosing to stay in the shacks they have inhabited for decades over a flat in public housing.
Last month, I stumbled across what seemed to be the remnants of an old squatter settlement on the edge of Shek Wu Hui, a busy neighbourhood in the northern New Territories. Several shacks are clustered along a narrow lane next to a parking lot. Their walls and roofs are made from sheets of corrugated metal and many seem built with scavenged doors, windows and other fixtures. From the outside, it seems as though whoever lives in these shacks would have to deal with unspeakable squalour, but the air conditioners betray the fact that things might not be quite as they appear. Residents here often leave their doors open and, while passing by one shack, I peered inside to observe something completely unexpected: polished parquet floors, a TV and at least one piece of IKEA furniture.
Tags: Exploring the City, Hong Kong, Informal Settlements, Kowloon, Squatters