The Son’s House: Hong Kong’s Plexes

Village house, Tai Po

Ding uk in Kam Sham Village, Tai Po

I never thought I’d find a triplex in Hong Kong but it turns out there’s thousands of them. While Montreal’s triplexes were mostly built in the early twentieth century, the ones in Hong Kong, known in Cantonese as ding uk, are actually fairly recent.

While ding uk are usually called “village houses” in English, this isn’t a very precise translation: the term actually means “sons’ houses.” They’re a product of a 1972 law that allows the first-born sons of Hong Kong’s indigenous families to build a house in their ancestral villages without having to pay for the land. There are hundreds of such villages in the New Territories of Hong Kong, which were granted special rights, including a certain degree of self-determination, when they were annexed by Britain in 1898. In order to regulate the demand for housing, the law limited ding uk to three stories in height and 2,100 square feet of floor space.

This led to a massive increase in the size of Hong Kong’s villages, which began to sprawl outwards as families built new, modern houses for themselves, other family members and tenants whose rent helped pay the bills. The earliest houses had a certain flair to them, with tile walls, nicely-patterend floors and decorative cornices. By the 1980s, though, a standard and rather odd vernacular, often referred to as the “Spanish villa,” had emerged. Most houses had white or beige tile cladding, large exterior balconies on each floor and red tile roofs. Many other village buildings adopted this vernacular, too, so that parts of the New Territories now look like they’ve been plucked out of Southern California or the Costa del Sol.

Tai Po Tsai is one of those bizarrely Iberian villages, at least when you look at it from certain angles. When I lived there last year, it was in a 1987-built house that was typical of the ding uk‘s second generation. Each floor consists of a single flat, exactly 700 square feet in size, that has three bedrooms, a large living room, a small kitchen and a tiny bathroom. The bottom floor has a front terrace while the upper floors has balconies. The roof was used for storage and drying laundry, but many other houses in the village used their roofs for recreation; some also had illegal rooftop additions for extra rental income.

Tai Po Tsai Village

Upper Tai Po Tsai Village, developed after 1972

While the 1972 law essentially created a template for village houses (which is similar to how building codes created a template for triplexes in early-twentieth-century Montreal), the government has done nothing to plan or regulate their growth. As a result, Hong Kong’s villages have continued to sprawl outwards in the same haphazard, organic way that they always have. Auto access is limited and most village streets are actually footpaths just a few metres wide. Despite the modern buildings, walking through a Hong Kong village is sometimes reminiscent of walking through a medieval European town, if only because of the similar scale and density.

With no cars and aimless, winding roads, interspersed by small squares and parks, Hong Kong’s villages are often more pleasant than its highrise, traffic-plagued urban areas. They have a sense of place and history that is absent from many of the city’s newest housing estates and urban renewal projects. Although ding uk replaced many ancient village houses, they have at least kept Hong Kong’s villages alive by providing them with a form of cheap, small-scale housing.

Old and new village houses, Sheung Shui

Old village house surrounded by ding uk, Sheung Shui

That said, the law that led to the creation of ding uk has probably outlived its usefulness. It’s flawed in many ways, starting with the fact that it’s inherently sexist; if a family has only daughters, they lose their right to build or pass on a village house. It has also been exploited by villagers who take advantage of the law to cheaply build houses to flip for profit; there are plenty of indigenous villagers who’ve made big money from playing the property market and who now live in Sydney or Vancouver. Ding uk in some of the nicer villages of Sai Kung and Clear Water Bay have become popular with expats, while students often rent apartments in villages near universities, including Tai Po Tsai, which is next to the University of Science and Technology.

There’s also the problem of space: an estimated 250,000 people are eligible to build ding uk, which could potentially mean a quarter of a million new houses built in the New Territories, a big threat to some of the sensitive natural areas that surround many villages. In response, the government has proposed allowing larger apartment buildings to be built in villages, which might be a good idea — as long as it doesn’t lead to the abandonment of a housing form that is fundamentally quite sound.

Pui O village house

Typical ding uk in Pui O, Lantau Island

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Thursday July 09 2009at 11:07 am , filed under Architecture, Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, History, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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