High Density from the Ground


At the centre of Whampoa Garden Estate, close to Hung Hom station in the southeastern coast of Kowloon, is a boat; dry docked and stranded in a concrete sea. This is ‘The Whampoa’, a fibreglass shopping mall with seafood restaurants, a Jusco department store and one of seven themed shopping experiences that form ‘The Wonderful Worlds of Whampoa’. Most of the shopping worlds, however, are simply broad-brush themes for ground floor podium and underground levels that form the bases for residential towers. There are total of 12 development areas containing 88 tower blocks, 10,431 units and a total population of around 50,000 people. The residents are mainly middle-income families with the flat sale price being approximately US$1,028 (HK$8,000) per square foot in 2011. A three-bedroom, 93-square-metre (1,000-square-foot) flat would therefore cost around US$1.13 million (HK$8.8 million) to buy or US$3,200 (HK$25,000) a month to rent. However, this population also has access to 426,720 square metres (4.6 million square feet) of commercial activity, forming a staggering 85 square metres (915 square feet) per person, which is approximately the same size as a small residential unit.

The estate was developed by the private developer, Hutchison Whampoa, which is part of business tycoon, Li-Ka Shing’s, Cheung Kong Group. Hutchison Whampoa is the result of a series of business amalgamations and acquisitions that originated from the operator of the Hong Kong and Whampoa Dock in 1863. These docks, located on the South East coast of Kowloon were closed in 1985 with the new estate being completed in 1991. Unlike other dockland developments around the world there is no trace of the area’s previous industrial heritage. This was erased and the docks were filled in. The new estate is like a condensed version of Le Corbusier’s Ville Contemporaine (1922), a developer’s utopia of a happy, mixed-use populace complete with 188,975 square metres (188,975 square feet) of open space, 300 shops, kindergartens, elderly centres, recreation facilities and a sea promenade.

The Podium levels are accessed by stairs connected to the street or via the external courtyards of the shopping centres, and are linked together with bridge walkways. They contain seating, gardens, playgrounds and badminton, tennis and basketball courts and provide access to the residential towers. Densely packed, the towers’ snowflake-plan provides an increased surface area for light and ventilation through four deep vertical light-wells. The majority of residents here commute to work. Although not directly connected to the Mass Transit Railway (MTR), the area is served by buses, mini-buses and taxis, with a free shuttle bus operated by the shopping centre that connects nearby districts. The area is close to Hung Hom station with trains to the New Territories and to mainland China and a ferry runs to North Point on Hong Kong Island.

The area feels spacious and relaxed despite the density of population. However the mono-culture of shopping operated by a single corporation sets limits on the types of commercial and leisure activities that fit within their controlling remit. The attempts at ‘themes’ to provide further identity and diversity ultimately are meaningless – they are the same types of spaces and often sell similar products. Nevertheless this is Hong Kong and this development fits very well with the desires of the middle class: clean and controlled; with air-conditioned malls and open recreation spaces in equal abundance and linked effortlessly to lots and lots of shopping.

Sham Shui Po

There are two main reasons to go to Sham Shui Po: to buy fabric or electrical components. Lace, thread, clasps, zips, buttons, and any other accoutrements of clothing manufacturing, can be purchased and lights, fuses, wiring, speakers, monitors and other technical gadgets can be bought in the market thoroughfare of Ap Liu Street. The textile trade originates from the area’s historical development in the 1950s as a sub-production area for the garment industry, containing smaller factories for finishing or producing small machined parts. Like many of Hong Kong’s industries these have now shifted to China, however, the commercial aspects have remained. Located close to Boundary Street, the demarcation between the British Colony and the mainland from 1860–98, Sham Shui Po was renowned for border trade and smuggling, and has been a popular settling place for new migrants since the 1950s.

Today the area is well connected by the MTR and a plethora of bus routes and smaller minibus companies that link to Kowloon, the New Territories and Hong Kong Island. Exiting from the MTR you are subsumed by a barrage of signs, street vendors, shops and food stalls, extending in layers of activities from shops at street level. This commercial organisation has evolved from the traditional Tong Lau or Shop House, which had an arcade at ground level, creating a covered pedestrian walkway along the street.

Each urban block was split into two, allowing a service alley to run between the blocks for ventilation and light. The 1950s brought a new building ordinance that raised the allowable building height in response to the need to create more housing for new migrants. The original Tong Lau were replaced, but certain features remained: the covered colonnade took the form of a cantilever, maintaining the set back and protected public area, and the basic footprint of the urban grid was unchanged. At street level the shops are interspersed with staircases that connect to the residences above. The number of inhabitants per flat varies drastically from a single family paying US$260–510 (HK$2,000–4000) per month to the flat being divided into six rooms of 4.5–6 square metres (48–64½ square feet) per room at US$193 (HK$1,500) per month, which are typically occupied by elderly couples or poor migrant families. Unimaginably the rooms are sometimes further subdivided into units of just 2 square metres (21½ square feet) made up of simply a door opening to a bed frame. Even these can be vertically broken into two stacked units, known as ‘cage homes’, which offer beds for US$115 (HK$900) per month and can lead to densities of 40 people per flat. Advertised illegally through signs plastered at the staircase entrance these rooms can also be rented per hour and sometimes used as one-room brothels or ‘love hotels’.

The residents of Sham Shui Po are relatively poor and elderly, with 28.9 per cent falling below the poverty line and 20.2 per cent over the age of 60. Public space is squeezed in where possible: a few benches outside of the MTR station; small pocket parks in the rare gaps between buildings or, bizarrely, a strip-park running between the traffic lanes of Nam Cheong Street, which is approximately 2.5 metres (8 feet) wide by 700 metres (2,296 feet) in length and fairly devoid of activity. This was formerly a drainage channel, or nullah, probably created to manage the water flow following the dramatic destruction of three hills and consequential land reclamation from 1912–29 in order to create the territory of the district itself.

Like many of Hong Kong’s older districts, Sham Shui Po’s urban fabric is being gradually replaced through real-estate pressure and by the government’s Urban Renewal Authority, which is replacing blocks designated unfit for living. Displaced residents relocate to other areas through compensation schemes, or take up places in public housing estates. Of course this is a desire for many residents given their inadequate living conditions, yet the strong ties of the social network of the neighbourhood may erode.

Sai Ying Pun

Sai Ying Pun is one of Hong Kong’s original settlement areas. As early as 1841, the British military decided it should be one of two strategic locations for a military base, with the other being close to the Albany Nullah and what is now present-day Central. A rough road, laid out by army engineers, connected the two sites and later became the main coastal thoroughfare of Queen’s Road. The barracks at Sai Ying Pun soon attracted further settlers through the construction of a large warehouse or ‘Godown’ by Jardine Matheson & Co., initiating the development of an informal Chinese settlement of shopkeepers and labourers. Within the same year, A. R. Johnston, Hong Kong’s Deputy Superintendent at the time, began land subdivision, setting up plots for sale that ranged in scale from marine lots with waterfront access, to denser town lots, and more spacious suburban lots. In Sai Ying Pun an orthogonal grid was established with three main vertical streets, aptly named Eastern Street, Centre Street and Western Street, running north–south from the water up to the hill and crossed by Queen’s Road, First, Second and Third Street and at the top edge of the square, High Street. Owing to the extreme topography, land subdivision was organised around a terraced and stepped grid, which soon became full of three- and four-storey tenement buildings, interspersed with a fine network of back alleys and lanes. This organisational form of the settlement in the latter part of the nineteenth century has formed the origin point for all further transformation.

This was challenged in the post-war period due to the double pressures of bomb-damaged buildings and a massive increase in population. Temporary settlements and illegal roof structures were constructed to meet the demand and it wasn’t until the 1960s and ‘70s that the smaller tenements were replaced with five- and six-storey flat-roofed shop-houses. Despite the pressures, the small plots remained until the late 1970s and ‘80s, when real estate profits drew investors who bought up several plots at once to develop large, pencil towers of 20 to 30 storeys on three-storey podium bases. These linked processes of land accumulation and the gradual reduction of building parcels have been accompanied by a shift away from small-scale owner-operated businesses to a residential, middle-income community working in the nearby business districts.

Change is likely to continue apace in Sai Ying Pun. The Island MTR line is being extended to the neighbourhood, and a public street escalator is under construction on one of the area’s three main uphill streets. At the same time, Hong Kong’s Urban Renewal Authority is buying up properties in the area, replacing small plots with large towers. The Island Crest development, for example, replaces 30 buildings by two high-rise towers sitting on a three-storey podium. It offers flats of much larger sizes than in older buildings (365 square metres/1,200 square feet rather than 152 square metres/500 square feet), which sold for approximately US$2,150 (HK$16,737) per square foot in 2011.

These changes in the urban fabric of Sai Ying Pun are removing its network of smaller-scale voids and cracks, which provided space for social interaction, workspaces, drying areas or simply for wild plants to grow. Still, the neighbourhood remains one of Hong Kong’s most complex and dramatic. The vertical cuts down to the sea between precipice buildings, dilapidated walls and the indestructible banyan tree, whose roots remain firmly wrapped around many older buildings and walls, offer glimpses of the forces that have transformed Hong Kong from a military outpost into one of the densest urban agglomerations in the world.

Text: Joshua Bolchover, Associate Professor, Department of Architecture, University of Hong Kong
Images: Joshua Bolchover, Hui Kin Fung Keith, Ngan Ching Ying Sunnie, Chan Wang Fung, Department of Architecture, University of Hong Kong.