Living on the Edge

Rooftop houses, Kwun Tong, Kowloon

Rooftop houses in Kwun Tong

By the end of this year, Hong Kong’s Buildings Department plans to finish clearing illegal rooftop structures from single-staircase buildings, marking the end of a clearance programme that began in 2001. But illegal rooftop communities continue to thrive, fed by a shortage of centrally located public housing and perennially high rents in the private sector.

Nine floors above Li Tak Street, in Tai Kok Tsui, more than 100 people live in haphazard shacks on the roof of a large block of flats.

Sam Fong, 23, who studies English at Polytechnic University and is an amateur photographer, moved to the rooftop two years ago, when he left Guangzhou to join his father, mother and sister in Hong Kong. They share a sheet-metal shack with small kitchen, living room and bedroom.

“Hong Kong is just like a jungle. You have to fight for your survival here,” said Fong, who recently started working part-time in a nearby supermarket. His father is a building concierge, his mother is a waitress and his sister works in a clothing store.

Because Fong, his mother and sister have not lived in Hong Kong for seven years, the family cannot apply for public housing, a common problem faced by poor immigrants.

According to social workers who deal with housing problems in Kowloon, most roof dwellers are recent arrivals from the mainland, while others are immigrants or asylum-seekers from South Asia or Africa.

Some residents are barred from public housing because they make too much money — the limit is HK$15,800 a month for a family of four — but they still cannot afford other private accommodation.

“The government doesn’t supply enough housing,” said Sze Lai-shan, an organizer with the Society for Community Organization. “If they move [rooftop dwellers], they’ll make them homeless, so they just let them stay put.” As a result, tens of thousands of people across Hong Kong continue to live in rooftop communities.

Unauthorised rooftop structures pose a fire hazard, especially to those buildings with just one staircase, said Grace Yeung Siu-ping, principal information officer for the Buildings Department.

Over the past seven years, the department has cleared rooftop structures from more than 5,000 single-staircase buildings. After this year, however, “there is no plan to initiate a similar programme for other buildings,” Yeung said.

Despite their illegality, rooftop houses are often bought, sold and rented like any other kind of property, said Phoebe Lo Siu-ping, a social worker with the Neighbourhood Action-Advice Council, an NGO that helps roof dwellers find alternative housing.

“Some know what they’re getting into, but others have no idea that their houses are illegal. They don’t know that they won’t receive compensation if they’re forced to move.”

Still, she added, “Many people refuse to move because they think that living on a rooftop is better than living in public housing.”

Despite all the problems with living on a roof — heat, drainage and the long walk up flights of stairs — many people are willing to put up with it for its affordability and convenience.

Rooftop houses range from 100 to 300 square feet and sell for HK$30,000 to HK$40,000. Rents are from HK$700 to HK$2,000 per month. By comparison, the cheapest flat on sale in Tai Kok Tsui costs HK$280,000 and is just 218 square feet.

Yim Wong-wing, 51, bought a two-bedroom rooftop house from his brother when he moved to Hong Kong from Bangkok two years ago.

He would not say how much he paid, beyond “a small amount,” but he said it was the best option available on his restaurant cook’s salary.

His two children, aged 11 and 15, share one bedroom, while he and his wife sleep in another. Beneath a Buddhist shrine and a portrait of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, new appliances and a large fish tank fill the tidy living room. Although the walls are made of thin wooden panels, Yim said there had never been any problems during a storm.

“I know these structures are illegal, and if we have to move out, we will,” he said. “It would be safer for the kids to live in a building with a lift in case there’s a fire. But the neighbours here are very close.”

He has applied for public housing, and hopes to be given a flat in Kowloon, near his children’s school.

Down a narrow pathway from Yim’s house, in a collection of rooms built around the entrance to one of the building’s staircases, Yu Wing-hong, 57, has lived on the roof for more than 30 years.

He first moved there to house-sit for a friend who had left for the mainland. His friend never returned, so Yu stayed. He fashioned a bathroom, which has a toilet and shower, out of sheet metal. Next door is a small kitchen with a gas stove and a refrigerator. Around the corner, a steep wooden staircase leads to an upstairs living room and an air-conditioned bedroom.

Yu, who works for a building contractor, applied for public housing years ago, and was given the option of a flat in Tuen Mun, in Tung Chung or on one of the outlying islands. He cancelled the application after deciding he would rather stay in Kowloon.

“If I have to live on the islands, I’d rather be dead,” he said. “I’d have to learn my way around the city again, and the transport costs alone would eat up all of my income.”

One of Yu’s neighbours, a Pakistani man, pays HK$350 a month for a small room that he shares with a friend. He has applied for public housing — he hopes to bring his wife and daughter here from Pakistan — but even the subsidised rent of a housing-estate flat would be hard to meet on his security-guard income.

For Sam Fong, the village-like atmosphere of the roof makes up for the stress of making ends meet. Amid a forest of laundry and television aerials are potted plants, shrines and Chinese decorations. Fong’s neighbours pad around the roof in their undershirts and pyjamas, chatting with his parents, who spend their evenings sitting in the small open area in front of their house.

Every year, he said, they use the space to host a large Mid-Autumn Festival feast. “We live with our neighbours rather than just living next to them. When it’s raining, my mum will step outside and yell, `Sau saam la [bring in the clothes],’ like in a village. We depend on each other.”

Recently, Fong and his neighbours received news that an investment company, Richfield Group Holdings, has been buying up flats inside their building.

“We still don’t know how to respond or what kind of fate we will meet in the future,” Fong said. “All we can do is to be here for each other.”

This story was originally published in the September 7, 2009 edition of the Sunday Morning Post.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Sunday September 06 2009at 11:09 am , filed under Asia Pacific, Interior Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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