When Hong Kong Was a City of Villages: Squatter Settlements and Their Legacy

When most Hongkongers return home, they pass through an apartment building lobby and take a lift up to their flat. When Nigel Ko goes home, he walks through narrow lanes, past tiny shops and century-old houses, before arriving at his family’s modest tile-roofed house, which he has adorned with hanging plants and vigorously blooming bougainvillea. “I want to ask 20 or 30 other houses to grow this kind of flower,” he says, gesturing at the fuchsia-hued flowers. “I think it would be a nice image for the village.”

Ko was born and raised in Pok Fu Lam Village, one of the last informal settlements on Hong Kong Island. Founded more than two centuries ago, the village grew substantially after World War II, when refugees from mainland China built tin shacks on its vegetable fields. Today, it stands in sharp contrast to the towers of Chi Fu Fa Yuen, a 1970s-era housing estate that looms in the distance.

Pok Fu Lam Village in 2016. Photo by Christopher DeWolf

Though part of Pok Fu Lam Village sits on land that has been owned by the villagers since the mid-19th century, the government considers it squatter settlement, because much of it was built without authorisation on government land. Hong Kong’s squatter villages are the local equivalent of the favelas that famously climb the hills of Rio de Janeiro – and like those favelas, they represent a city built not by the government or by property developers, but by residents themselves. And while many squatter villages have disappeared over the years, their legacy can still be felt in today’s Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s population boomed after 1939, when the Japanese invasion of China sent thousands of refugees pouring into the British colony. The city’s population doubled over the course of the 1930s, reaching 1.6 million in 1941 – just as the Japanese prepared an attack. While the city’s population collapsed during the Japanese occupation, it surged again after the war. More than 100,000 people poured into the city every year. A few of them had money, but most were not well off. They crowded into subdivided tenements and slept in the streets; most built shacks on the steep hillsides that surrounded the urban areas of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. In 1950, around 330,000 of the city’s 2.2 million people lived in squatter settlements. That number increased to 750,000 in the early 1960s – a full quarter of Hong Kong’s population.

With thousands of shacks crammed together, squatter settlements were particularly vulnerable to fire. A huge inferno ripped through the shacks of Shek Kip Mei on Christmas Eve, 1954, leaving more than 50,000 people homeless, prompting the government to step up its public housing programme. But there were many other blazes. The squatter village at Tai Hang Tung, just north of Boundary Street, suffered a series of fires until the government finally built a resettlement estate in 1955.

Squatter huts above Tai Hang, 1965. Photo courtesy Ko Tim-keung

Many of the squatter huts were rudimentary. Ma Siu-wai, a retired meter reader for CLP, grew up in a 500-square-foot hut on the edge of Nga Tsin Wai. There were three bedrooms and a living room that was home to a rotating cast of friends and family who slept on the floor when they had nowhere else to stay. “Everything was made from wood – there was no stone,” says Ma. “The worst was during the typhoons. The house would sway.” As storms approached, his family hung slabs of granite from the roof to keep it from blowing away.

Though many squatter areas were essentially homeless camps perched on dangerously unstable hillsides, others functioned like complete villages. In his lively book Diamond Hill: Memories of Growing Up in a Hong Kong Squatter Village, pathologist Feng Chi-shun describes a diverse settlement where wooden shacks stood next to gated suburban villas, and where recent mainland immigrants like Feng lived alongside Portuguese and British families. “Apart from the main road, all access roads in Diamond Hill were narrow lanes or paths crisscrossing all over the place,” he writes. “Houses were built in a random fashion, and were of two types: legal ones built of bricks and mortar, and illegal shanty huts built in whatever space was left.”

Feng’s family had been rich, and when they first came to Hong Kong from Wuhan, they lived in a two-storey house with a garden in Tsim Sha Tsui, which at the time was an upscale residential neighbourhood. After his millionaire grandfather speculated on gold, lost his fortune and fled back to China, Feng’s mother died of meningitis, and the family moved into a squalid Sham Shui Po tenement. His father found work as a schoolteacher, remarried and moved the family to Diamond Hill, where they rented a two-bedroom bungalow with “a Western toilet, a front yard covered by cement, and sides cleared of bushes and dead trees.” His family raised chickens in the backyard, though all but one eventually died of bird flu. The sweet aroma of rice wine wafted over from a nearby distillery, mingling with the smell of human feces, which the farmer next door used to fertilise his vegetable patch. “It was actually an improvement on our accommodation in Sham Shui Po,” writes Feng.

Fetching water from a well in a squatter area, 1978. Photo courtesy Ko Tim-keung

In one evocative passage, Feng describes his journey through Diamond Hill from the bus stop at the village entrance. “There was one main road running uphill,” he recalls. Disembarking from the bus, he walked past a bicycle rental shop, a Sichuan restaurant famous for its dan dan mian, a bespoke shoe shop that drew affluent customers from elsewhere in Hong Kong, a stationery store, and a Chinese doctor with “baby mice in Chinese wine.” Further uphill, the road passed through a wet market whose hawkers occupied the entire width of the pavement, scrambling to move out of the way when a car passed through. “All the shops were small and single-storey,” writes Feng. “Narrow lanes separating them led to clusters of bungalows and shacks, vegetable fields, and small factories producing handmade goods such as straw hats, cooking utensils, batteries, and Buddhist religious paraphernalia.”

In the mid-1960s, about 35 percent of all structures in squatter areas were non-residential, and many of these were small factories. Shoemakers, metalworks and plastics manufacturing were some of the most common industries, but there were also film studios, distilleries and furniture makers. These factories produced a lot of noxious side effects—especially water, air and noise pollution—but they played a crucial role in the industrial boom that made Hong Kong the wealthy city it is today.

Pok Fu Lam Village in 2016. Photo by Christopher DeWolf

Though squatter factories accounted for less than 10 percent of Hong Kong’s economic output, they provided “important, even essential, links between different parts of the manufacturing sector,” noted a 1985 study by researchers at the University of Hong Kong. They were also a significant source of employment, with 102,000 workers (13 percent of Hong Kong’s labour force) in 1978, the vast majority of whom lived close to the factories in which they worked. If Hong Kong’s industrial economy were a banyan tree, squatter factories would be the aerial roots that help the tree thrive and expand.

As far as Hong Kong’s government was concerned, however, the risks of squatter areas outweighed the rewards. In 1982, it launched a survey of squatter areas, documenting each structure. It then imposed a moratorium on new development: from then on, no major alterations or additions to squatter structures would be allowed. Large settlements were demolished. Some of them were replaced by new public housing estates, as was the case in Ma Hang, a seaside squatter village in Stanley. Others were reclaimed by nature, like in Tai Hang, where land once covered by hillside shanties is now part of the Tai Tam Country Park. Still others were cleared and left idle. This is what happened to the last remnant of the Diamond Hill squatter area, which was demolished in 2000 and left empty, a strange expanse of fallow land crisscrossed by concrete paths.

Pok Fu Lam Village in 2016. Photo by Christopher DeWolf

But squatter villages remain. A Kung Ngam is a cluster of old stone houses and tin-roofed factories in Shau Kei Wan. In Chai Wan, a village of tin shacks emerges unexpectedly in the midst of several large cemeteries; a row of squatter workshops cut and engrave tombstones. Other squatter settlements that have survived in the urban areas include Wong Chuk Hang Village, Cha Kwo Ling, Lei Yue Mun and portions of Pok Fu Lam Village and Nga Tsin Wai Village. Squatter villages are particularly common in the New Territories, where there is less development pressure. In many historic villages, the line between formal and informal development is blurry.

In his memoir, Feng Chi-shun notes that “there was little community spirit in Diamond Hill,” which he attributes partly to “Chinese pathos” and partly to a refugee mentality. “Diamond Hill to most was a temporary home, a stepping stone until something better came along,” he writes. Things have changed since then. Many of the squatter settlements that remain have fostered a tight-knit sense of community. In 2009, when a New Territories squatter village called Choi Yuen was demolished for high-speed rail construction, villagers banded together and started a new settlement nearby, which has become a hotbed for grassroots political activism. When he first started working in Pok Fu Lam in 2005, social worker Benjamin Sin says he was struck by the sense of community spirit. “Everyone is connected and the trust is so strong,” he says. “I don’t think many people nowadays enjoy that kind of relationship or sense of security.”

That’s not something unique to Hong Kong. German architect Christian Werthmann, who teaches at Leibniz University in Hannover, has researched squatter settlements in Latin America. “There’s a certain social cohesion that you have a hard time finding in newly constructed neighbourhoods by the government or the private sector,” he says. When your front door opens onto your neighbour’s potted bougainvillea, instead of an anonymous apartment tower corridor, it’s a bit easier to forge a connection with your community.

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