Living at Density: Voices of Hong Kong Residents

Living at high-density affects the daily lives of urban dwellers across Hong Kong’s diverse communities.

What do Hong Kong residents think about their living environments? Do they consider them healthy? How do they feel the density and the design of their neighbourhood impacts on their health and well-being, if at all? LSE Cities and the University of Hong Kong’s Hong Kong Jockey Club Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention conducted interviews with groups of residents in different parts of the city. The aim of this study was to offer more subjective perspectives on the spatial dynamics of health and well-being in one of the densest cities in the world, giving voice to individual residents that goes beyond the spatial analysis of quantitative indicators.
During the summer of 2011, researchers met with a selection of 32 young, middle-aged and elderly people who lived in three distinct areas to get a sense of how different age groups responded to their high-density environments. The first group lives in Whampoa, a relatively new, middle-class estate on the south coast of Kowloon with a residential density1 of 74,200 people per square kilometre. Residents from Sai Ying Pun, one of Hong Kong’s original settlement areas on Hong Kong Island, with a residential density of 79,200 people per square kilometre, made up the second group, while the third was comprised by inhabitants of apartments in Sham Shui Po, Kowloon, a busy shopping and lower-income residential district of older, ‘walk-up’ buildings, with a very high residential density of 92,200 people per square kilometre. While some of the residents live in extremely tall towers more than 30 storeys high and others in older, cramped ten-storey blocks arranged along traditional streets, all three areas in Hong Kong have density levels that are higher than New York’s most concentrated neighbourhoods in the Upper East Side and more than four times as high as the densest areas in London.
The focus group participants were asked to discuss a wide range of issues, including their experiences of living in tall buildings, how they use private and public space, where and how social relationships were enacted, how they rated their neighbourhood in terms of access to amenities and transport, how easy it is to get to work and how pollution and space constraints affect their daily lives. What follows is an initial analysis of their discussions, which begins to develop a narrative of what it means to live at high densities in Hong Kong. Perhaps the overall sentiment is best captured by Shan, an 18-year-old student living in the new development in Whampoa, who states:

Although Hong Kong is dense, it is still convenient. We don’t have to spend a long time travelling to the destination. Amenity-wise … it is good enough.

Or by Ms Fok’s observation, as a 53-year-old retired mother living in Sai Ying Pun, that:

Time matters in Hong Kong.

On balance the responses from all three areas suggest that Hong Kong’s ‘convenience’ and accessibility are highly valued both by young and old residents. ‘Convenience’ was repeatedly used to describe the positive trade-offs that Hong Kong’s dense urban fabric affords to its residents. Public transport is seen as being generally very good – reflecting the city’s highly efficient and extensive Mass Transit Rail (MTR) and bus system – and the range and quantity of services and amenities was considered excellent, including restaurants and canteens serving food from all over the world, swimming pools, badminton courts and sports centres, clinics and hospitals, as well as libraries and community centres. It is the ‘many Hong Kongs’ – the great range of amenities and services provided by even the smaller neighbourhoods – which the residents of Whampoa, Sai Ying Pun and Sham Shui Po seem to value the most.
The three neighbourhoods provide different advantages to residents in terms of convenience and accessibility. Located across the bay from Hong Kong Island in Kowloon, residents of Whampoa are attracted by the spectacular views and access to the harbour and also by the convenient access to a wide range of local amenities, including schools, private clinics, Chinese herbalists, restaurants and shopping malls. The design of multi-storey apartment blocks with ground-level gardens and badminton courts were seen as positive assets. Despite not yet having its own MTR station, local residents considered Whampoa to be highly accessible even though the recent loss of the cross-harbour ferry connection to Central – Hong Kong’s primary business and finance district – was regretted by the young people. As 18-year-old Shan says: ‘There is no traffic jam in the sea.’
In the much older and poorer district of Sham Shui Po, in northwest Kowloon, residents appreciate the presence of a nearby MTR station and the many bus connections: Aunt Kwok, a disabled and retired 73-year-old says, ‘I think we have the best transport here. I moved into the area here just because of this.’ Immediate access to goods, shops and markets in a relatively low-cost area is seen as an advantage, given the availability of ‘cheap and fresh food, groceries [and] affordable rents’, noted by Mr Fung, a 63-year-old resident of the area. While Sham Shui Po is often defined by its relatively out-dated and often overcrowded walk-up blocks, it clearly also provides amenities
and connections that its lower-income residents value.
In the historical district of Sai Ying Pun on Hong Kong Island, residents appreciate its proximity to a number of civic amenities such as schools, markets and libraries as well as easy access to the extensive job market provided by the offices and shops of Central. The presence of open public spaces was a major talking point for focus group participants, including the King George V Memorial Park and the University of Hong Kong, with their extensive grounds and facilities, accessible to the public, which provide open space and clean air right at the heart of this highly built-up district of Hong Kong. Located in a part of the city with steep gradients, residents (especially elderly ones) regretted the lack of a local MTR station, though they appreciated good bus services to Central. Residents were clear about the trade-offs of living in a relatively congested yet well-connected area. In Whampoa, Edmond, aged 44 and self-employed, offered his analysis of the trade-offs facing all
Hong Kongers:

You cannot have your cake and eat it … if you live in Tai Po [in the New Territories], there are more trees and plants, but it takes you longer to travel to Kowloon. You’ve got to make a choice: either a better environment or a more convenient place.

While to varying degrees, Hong Kong’s ‘convenience’ comes at a cost in terms of living and leisure spaces, it was nonetheless striking to hear that, despite these trade-offs, some focus group members dreamt of living above where they worked in order to save travelling time. Others aspired to living in larger houses, a sentiment expressed by Mrs Shek, a 45-year-old mother living in Sai Ying Pun, who noted, ‘of course I wish to live in a house, when I went to Canada, I was envious of their houses … sure! There’s a front yard and backyard for planting, and the air is good … this is a dream!’ Such dreams seemed to be out of reach for many residents, a problem exacerbated by the recent property price rises in Hong Kong. As Helen, a 33-year-old woman who works in finance and lives in Whampoa, said: ‘It’s tough for people like me … to buy a larger flat … It would be easier to achieve this dream in the old days because the property price now is really high.’ As in other cities, income inequality is reflected in the property market, reaching the sort of extremes identified by 22-year-old Peter, who works in a luxurious Kowloon development and lives in Sham Shui Po: ‘Some people own an indoor 800-square-foot swimming pool that is eight times as big as my apartment. We are just talking about their swimming pool.’
A good location helps adults to juggle demanding jobs, long working hours and family and domestic responsibilities. Middle-aged people tend to choose a location that is close to their children’s schools and their place of work, often sacrificing space and comfort in the process. Ms Fok, the 53-year-old retired mother living in Sai Ying Pun, says, ‘We have kids, and we have to cater for their needs. My daughter studies here too, and she said it’s very convenient because she works in Central. It only costs HK$2 (US 25 cents) to travel by tram. She goes to work at 9.30am, and she could get up at 8.30am … so she thinks it’s ok.’ She concludes that, ‘time matters in Hong Kong’; a comment that seems to capture the particular nature of this city’s socio-spatial character.
The focus group discussions brought connections between these Hong Kong residents’ demand for space and work pressures into sharp focus. It was clear that many of the middle-aged residents were so busy working that they spent little time at home. As a result, the size of their living space and the quality of the local environment were not such a high priority as they might otherwise have been. Victor, a 46-year-old manufacturing worker living in Whampoa, explains: ‘I have long working hours so when I go home, I mainly want to get myself rested’. This is a view echoed by Mrs Shek, who commented: ‘I may choose convenience because … honestly, when I go home after work, it’s dark outside, so no matter how wonderful the views are, I can’t enjoy [them].’
For the most deprived Hong Kongers, however, the trade-offs between convenience and living environment can mean living in extremely cramped conditions – in subdivided or partitioned flats, cubicles or even ‘cage homes’. The older buildings of Sham Shui Po have in many cases been adapted in this way to accommodate as many tenants as possible. For Aunt Kwok the stress and anxiety of ending up in such conditions is palpable. ‘Those subdivided flats are not suitable for me’, she states, ‘all those rooms have two raised-levels [in order to hide the re-adjusted pipes and ducts], I cannot raise my legs [to move from one level to another] … For those flats that aren’t subdivided, people are not willing to rent them to a single old-lady … I cannot find [one]. My head is aching.’
But lack of space at home does not just trouble those at the lower end of Hong Kong’s social scale, as Mrs Shek notes:

I think it directly influences our living and our social lives … I don’t really want to have babies too, so I just have one … my son is 17 years old … our home is too cramped. His own space is just his room, he could reach it one step after entering the flat, and one more step to his desk, another to his bed.

Despite the rationalisation of the choices they make, living in such small spaces was a cause of concern for most of the Hong Kongers we spoke to. When Lemo, a 31-year-old graduate student, moved to Sai Ying Pun from mainland China, he changed his social habits to adjust to Hong Kong’s smaller living spaces. He explained: ‘In Hong Kong I won’t ask to visit my friends’ houses because our flats are too small, I don’t even know where to place my legs … my friends from the mainland came to my place and they asked whether they could sleep on the floor and I said no, so I won’t invite them to my place. I’ve formed this habit since I came to Hong Kong.’ Mrs Fok, the 53-year-old retiree living in the same area, also changed her behaviour after an embarrassing experience some years ago: ‘I wasn’t experienced and I was so happy that I invited my colleagues to my home. The gross floor area was merely 300 feet, it was so cramped that … everyone sat in rows as if they were at the cinema … they said I had overestimated myself because I invited my friends to such a tiny flat, so since then I’ve never invited anyone to my home.’ Apart from the impositions on individual habits and routines caused by the physical constraints of small apartments, impacts on patterns of socialisation with friends and family were also clearly felt by many residents, whether old or young, newly arrived or long established.
The physical proximity to neighbouring properties was felt by many residents to have negative consequences on the quality of life within their already small living spaces, requiring them to further adapt to their micro-environments, in particular to defend their sense of privacy. As Mrs Ng, a 58-year-old retired woman living in Sai Ying Pun explained: ‘you can touch the flat next to yours if you reach out your hands’. Adapting to the proximity of others involves closing windows and curtains in order to avoid seeing and been seen by neighbours, to avoid watching their TVs, smelling their food or hearing their quarrels at night. Helen, the Whampoa resident, says, ‘I have to draw the curtains when I’m at home, because it really makes me uncomfortable. It’s not a matter of whether I can do what I want, but it’s just too close to the next flat that I can even notice [when] they walk, sit and watch TV.’ Apart from the obvious amenity value afforded by better views and daylight, higher-level apartments are often valuable and desired because of the relative privacy they afford residents. Phoebe, a 29-year-old resident of Sham Shui Po says, ‘I [would] prefer living on a higher floor … You get a better view. It’s not just about that. It’s also about the distance between you and your neighbour, the sense of spaciousness.’
Focus group participants reported that, on the whole, there was little interaction with immediate neighbours, and that residents preferred not to intrude on each others’ private space. Phoebe explained it further, ‘Hong Kong people are quite cool and detached. People seldom greet their neighbour because they are quite concerned about their private space. People may find it disturbing.’ Ivan, Anthony and Michael, three young residents of Whampoa, discussed the same issue. Ivan said, ‘it’s difficult to ask for their names. My dad would ask … it’s never like the old days,’ while Anthony felt that the interaction between neighbours ‘cannot apply to the Hong Kong context and culture. We would not say “hi” to others on the street. It’s weird.’ Michael elaborated, ‘if someone says “hi” to me [in the hallway], I will be scared’. The contradiction between physical proximity and social distance seems be captured by the observations of these young Hong Kong residents.
Environmental problems, especially noise and air pollution, loom large in the concerns of this group of Hong Kongers, and in many cases cause them to further protect and enclose their already small living spaces. Lemo, the 31-year-old graduate student living in Sai Ying Pun, provides a clear explanation for his desire to go high, stating that ‘the air is poor from the first floor to the fourth floor because the roads are so busy and the noise pollution is serious … so in Sai Ying Pun I would choose [to live in] high-rise buildings’. Residents are often compelled to close their windows or buy extra thick curtains to escape from the pollution, despite the stifling temperatures that accompany the summer months in Hong Kong. Ms Shek notes that ‘there are ways to escape from noise … any method will do’, while Ms Kwong, a 61-year-old living in Sham Shui Po explains, ‘if the neighbouring flat has their air conditioner turned on, the hot air from their air conditioner would affect you. So everyone now has to turn on their air conditioners. Otherwise you’ll have to tolerate the hot air … The air quality is not so good and I always cough.’ Such comments give a sense of how closely built form, health and well-being relate in these high-density living environments.
Residents of Sham Shui Po, the most deprived and dense of the three neighbourhoods, seemed to experience particularly severe environmental problems. Mr Au, aged 65 and retired, explained: ‘If you want to know whether it’s dirty here, you just place a fan at home, and if it doesn’t turn dusty after one week, it means the air is fresh. But if it turns dusty, it means the air is not good. It’s that simple … I have to clean mine every week.’ He connected the problem of air pollution to the planning and design of Hong Kong’s high-density environment, saying, ‘There were only four buildings in Un Chau Estate. Now, the air-flow is blocked by the “walled buildings” … You think of it, Feng Shui is not something useless … It is so hot after the south [passage] was blocked … It wasn’t so dusty in the past. The environment keeps deteriorating.’
The effects of living in small areas and in close proximity to others can be better understood if we also take into account how residents look to ‘compensate’ for their limited privacy by creating their own private space within the public realm, making use of the street, restaurants, shopping malls and sports facilities both for meeting friends and for having time to themselves. As Mrs Shek from Sai Ying Pun says,

People would chat on street at night … especially teenagers, [who] don’t have their own space at home, it isn’t big enough … they all grab a beer and sit in front of Kau Yan [school].

Edmond, the 44-year-old living in the new developments in Whampoa, reflected, ‘maybe people in Hong Kong are used to not having a private space, so we don’t mind not having one … and we’re not desirous of it … when you really need a private space you can actually create one … even a 24-hour Cha Chaan Teng [Chinese eatery] can be a private space’. For Helen, the finance worker living in Whampoa, the main thing is getting out of the house: ‘I’m usually in Whampoa … we go to have something to eat … We also go to the cinema … Yes, karaoke … swimming … eating … cinema … I don’t like staying at home so I just wander around in Whampoa.’ Many options are available. As Mr Kwok, a retired man from Sham Shui Po, says: ‘I like playing horizontal bar and gymnastics and I can do that in Un Chau Estate, where I live … Yes, there are many kinds of activities provided … There is the library, basketball and squash courts, as well as table tennis.’ Some places used for exercising turned out to be quite surprising. Ms Fok, the 53-year-old retiree from Sai Ying Pun, explained how the nearby Cargo Working Area is used at night, when it is empty, by elderly people for exercising. She says, ‘at least that is really a public space where you can have some activities there … how could you move in your tiny flat? You couldn’t!’ For many of the young residents, who are accustomed to contemporary technologies, listening to music through earphones contributes to the creation of a personal space, even when surrounded by other people. Cherry, an 18-year-old student living in Whampoa, said, ‘it’s like quarantining myself … we do not bother each other even though we sit there next to each other … no one can intrude’.
However, most of the focus group participants from the three areas agreed that Hong Kong and its services, public spaces and facilities were overcrowded to the point where they could not access them or where they had to adjust their behaviour significantly in order to do so. Steve, a 31-year-old worker living in Whampoa, explains the phenomenon clearly: ‘When you shop and eat in a particular community … if there are a lot of people, you may have to queue, and then you don’t want to shop anymore. Like if you were at a crowded supermarket, you would lose the intention to shop. When you dine out, if you had to wait, you would lose the intention again.’ In order to avoid this, residents time their visits to particularly busy areas or shops carefully. Those who can afford to, join private sports clubs and gyms in order to avoid having to battle for access to a public badminton court, where sessions often get booked up within five minutes of reservations opening.
While the ‘bustling’ nature of Hong Kong seemed attractive to some residents, there was an overriding sense among most focus group participants that the pace of life and fierceness of competition in Hong Kong was putting increasing pressure on their capacity to cope with the demands of life. As Peter, the 22-year-old living in Sham Shui Po and working in Kowloon, explains:

The pressure at work … competition … I think most people in Hong Kong are suffering from some mental problems such as pressures or stress … Maybe we are more stressed because we live in a financial centre.

The older focus group participants compared Hong Kong to the ‘old’ (colonial) days, finding life harder today and worrying about the pace of change. As Mr Au, the 65-year-old retiree from Sham Sui Po, says of the change in labour conditions: ‘Back in the old days during the colonial period, it was not too hard to earn a living, as long as you were hard-working. Right now, you can’t get a job even if you are hard-working … Back in the old days, who would collect the garbage and newspapers from the streets? No one would do that during the colonial period. Now you can see many old ladies and younger ones doing so.’
In Sai Ying Pun, the urban renewal programmes underway involve the loss of familiar places and loved restaurants. Parks and playgrounds are being turned into construction sites for the MTR, or replaced by high-rise and high-end hotels and apartment buildings. Mrs Chan, a 65-year-old widow who lives in the district, says, ‘I can’t see anything beneficial yet [about urban renewal] … If they build up new ones, the population will increase. There will be more people buying food. Then … I’m affected [by lack of food].’ Mr Leung, a 63-year-old widower, fears a degradation of his living conditions: ‘When they finish building at the place of the Bank of East Asia, I won’t have much space around my home … [I’m] unlikely to be able to look at the sea [from my home]. When they finish building, maybe it’ll block the view.’
For younger people, the pressures of work often felt overwhelming. Marcus, a 27-year-old graduate living in Sham Shui Po, said, ‘the mental stress is unimaginable for those who sleep for only three hours every night after tedious work … you cannot just be an average person or you will be eliminated. You either outrun the competition or you lose. You don’t really have a choice.’ Young people in Whampoa felt the same. As Shan, the 18-year-old student, said,

A healthy city is not all about economy and finance. The pace of living is too fast and it’s hard to breathe. People need some time to relax and cool themselves off from the pressure … You know, people with pressure makes the city unhealthy … healthiness includes physical and mental [health].

Victor, the 46-year-old manufacturing worker living in Whampoa, concurred: ‘Of course bad air quality caused us [to develop] nasal allergies, but what influences the health of Hong Kong people most is the pressure from work … it doesn’t matter if one is living in a tiny flat, but the pressure from work and the long working hour directly worsen one’s health.’
The six focus groups held with the 32 residents of three neighbourhoods provide a sense of the ways in which density is felt to impact on health and well-being by residents of different areas and different ages, and this, in turn, begins to make clear how density might be better designed. But more than anything, the discussions make visible the multiple and complex ways in which Hong Kongers themselves make density work, by adapting their behaviour and negotiating their environments. As such, this qualitative research brings to light the many interactions and co-dependencies between the physical and the social environment in some of Hong Kong’s dense neighbourhoods.
Looking more closely, it is also possible to identify some clear differences between the views and experiences of different age groups and residents of different areas. Concern about the increasing pace of life in Hong Kong and the fierce demands of competitive working life was strongest amongst the youngest participants (aged 18–29). For middle-aged participants (aged 30–59), these concerns were further complicated by the need to juggle working and family life, especially in small living spaces. Comparing Hong Kong to the colonial days, older participants (aged over 60) felt times were harder today, and felt a sense of loss as the development of Hong Kong continued. Amongst the residents of the three different areas, it was clear that residents of Sham Shui Po experienced their local environments as being more unhealthy than residents of Whampoa and Sai Ying Pun – relatively more affluent areas with newer and higher-quality buildings, and less polluted environments. These differences emphasise the ways in which Hong Kong residents of different ages and generations relate to their urban environment, and start to make visible the ways in which urban design and planning, density and health and well-being interrelate.
Perhaps the clearest message emerging from these findings is that Hong Kong is strongly valued by its residents for the convenience and opportunities it affords them. They sacrifice the quality and size of their living environments in order to access and benefit from these opportunities, and adjust their social and family lives accordingly. For many, this is a sacrifice they are willing to make, as they adjust their behaviour in a complex and constant negotiation with the constraints and regulations of their environment. For others, the equation is becoming increasingly difficult to balance – poor environmental quality is eroding living environments, rising real estate prices are further shrinking floor space and the demands of surviving in competitive employment markets are placing workers under increasing stress. At the same time Hong Kong’s urban fabric is becoming ever denser and processes of urban renewal and infrastructure development destroy public spaces and local amenities, replacing them with high-end hotels and apartment buildings that the real estate market both demands and supplies, generating a sense of loss for many residents. The stories and experiences told by these 32 residents of Whampoa, Sai Ying Pun and Sham Shui Po suggest that living in Hong Kong comes with a price that could be on the verge of becoming too much to pay. This sentiment is perhaps most powerfully communicated by a brief exchange between two young residents of Whampoa, Ivan and Sam (both 22 years of age):

Ivan: I worry that it [the pace of living in Hong Kong] will become even faster.

Sam: I cannot accept any faster.

As one of the world’s densest and healthiest cities, at least in terms of its high life expectancy and low infant mortality, Hong Kong’s experiences may offer insights to city makers and dwellers traversing processes of change in other parts of the world.

Research and Text by Myfanwy Taylor and Cristina Inclan-Valadez, LSE Cities, with Paul S. F. Yip, Sophia G. Chak and Phil Leung, University of Hong Kong.