What do Richard Nixon, Queen Elizabeth, Margaret Thatcher and Prince Axel of Denmark all have in common? They all spent time in Hong Kong’s public housing estates. For decades, no dignitary passed through Hong Kong without first inspecting the places where most Hongkongers live. When he visited the newly built Wah Kwai Estate in 1994, Prince Charles carefully examined the site’s blueprints. Richard Nixon played a vigorous game of ping pong with the residents of Choi Hung Estate in 1964. Her Majesty the Queen smiled politely as she made her way down the outdoor corridors of Oi Man Estate in 1975.

Choi Hung Estate.

It’s a testament to how much public housing underpins modern Hong Kong society. More than 3.2 million people live in one of Hong Kong’s 235 public housing estates. That’s nearly half the population. Some estates offer cheap rent, while others contain subsidised flats sold to families that couldn’t otherwise afford to become homeowners. With few exceptions, these housing estates consist of high-rise apartment blocks, many of them 40 storeys or taller. More than anything else, it was the development of public housing that planted the seed for Hong Kong to become the world’s most vertical city.

The story of how the government of Hong Kong became the city’s biggest landlord usually starts with the Shek Kip Mei fire of 1953, when flames ripped through a shantytown on Christmas Eve, leaving more than 50,000 people hopeless. That led to the construction of temporary resettlement housing that eventually became the public housing programme that exists today.

But public housing was actually the product of another traumatic event: World War II. The war’s devastation, combined with renewed fighting between Communists and Nationalists, drove hundreds of thousands of people from China to British-controlled Hong Kong. As tenements swelled with newcomers and shantytowns creeped up the hillsides, the Lord Mayor of London donated £14,00o (worth £494,000 or HK$4.8 million today) to help alleviate the situation. That was used as seed money for the Hong Kong Housing Society, which built the city’s first public housing complex, Sheung Lei Uk Estate, in Sham Shui Po in 1952. Around the same time, another independently-financed public housing project, the Model Housing Estate, was completed in North Point.

The first resettlement estate for victims of the Shek Kip Mei fire opened in 1954, with 29 blocks of housing, each shaped like an H and structured around two concrete courtyards. Living conditions were rudimentary. Families slept in 100-square-foot rooms; cooking and cleaning was done on the open-air corridors that wrapped around each floor. Schoolchildren attended class on the roof while their mothers played mahjong downstairs. Enterprising ground-floor tenants converted their housing units into shops and restaurants.

Shek Kip Mei 22 – Photo Courtesy of Christopher DeWolf

Today, just one of these early blocks survives: Mei Ho House, which is now a museum, youth hostel and café. Iris Tsang, CEO of the Hong Kong Youth Hostel Association, collected oral histories from former residents while the building was being adapted for reuse. “Neighbours were very close with one another,” she says. “They didn’t lock their doors. They helped take care of each other’s kids. When I did the interviews, the residents could always recall a lot of stories – not always happy, they did sometimes argue with each other, but it’s always a warm feeling.”

It took years to develop that tight-knit sense of community, however. In the late 1950s, many resettlement estates were squalid, dangerous places. “The housing blocks were like matchboxes – they were built fast and they were shabby,” says Ah Ying, a retired garment worker who moved into the Tai Hang Tung Resettlement Estate as a child. Her family had been living in a squatter village in Lo Fu Ngam — now known as Lok Fu — when fire swept through the village in 1954. Their home and all of their possessions consumed by flames, her family moved into a tent on To Kwa Wan Road.

Three years later, Ah Ying and her family were assigned one and a half rooms inside the Tai Hang Tung Resettlement Estate. They had one room to themselves and another they shared with a single man, a wood partition between them. While this was a step up from living in the street, it was hardly comfortable. The family’s room was draughty and cold because it faced north. Things kept disappearing; they suspected the man who shared their room was stealing from them. And the bathrooms were atrocious. “There was only one toilet room and one shower room on each floor, so we always had to wait in long queues to use them,” says Ah Ying. There were no doors or curtains, and men often peeped on women who were using the toilet. The toilets were so filthy, people did their business in the showers instead. Nobody bothered to clean it up. At night, heroin addicts used the shower rooms as shooting galleries.

North Point Estate, completed in 1957, demolished in 2002.

Not all housing estates were as bad. In 1957, the government completed the North Point Estate, which consisted of seven 11-storey blocks containing 1,956 flats. Compared to the resettlement estates, which were temporary, the North Point Estate was meant to be a proper home. Each building was served by a lift and every apartment had its own bathroom, kitchen and balcony. Somewhat ironically, the North Point Estate was cleared for redevelopment in 2003, while the last of Hong Kong’s resettlement estates remained until 2007, when the original blocks of Shek Kip Mei Estate were torn down and replaced by modern towers.

Public housing has changed dramatically over the years. First it grew taller, with rectangular high-rise slabs like those in Wah Fu Estate or Choi Hung Estate, both landmark developments from the 1960s. Then came innovations like cruciform- and trident-shaped towers, which were designed to boost capacity while still providing each housing unit with fresh air and natural light. Each block was based on a template: the same basic design replicated over and over again. All told, there are 15 styles of housing blocks in use, from the cruciform Concord to the conjoined Twin Tower.

Photo – Courtesy of Instagrammer Nukeproofsuit

Because each building is similar, the Housing Authority — which has run most of Hong Kong’s public housing estates since 1973 — is able to prefabricate parts of the building and install them quickly and cheaply. Stairwells, kitchens and entire façades are precast, shipped to the construction site and popped together – not exactly like a Lego set, but close.

The buildings aren’t the only things that have changed over the years. Like Hong Kong as a whole, public housing estates were once home to family-run shops, dai pai dongs and other independent businesses. Most estates have wet markets, and many estates built in the 1970s and 80s include dining pavilions known as mushroom huts (dung1 gu1 ting4 冬菇亭) because of the distinctive shape of their roofs. Like dai pai dongs, mushroom huts are a reliably satisfying destination for an affordable lunch or greasy late-night feasts.

In recent years, however, many of those small businesses have been replaced by chains. In 2004, the government privatised the commercial space in nearly 151 estates by selling them to Link REIT for HK$22 billion. In the Cheung Fat Estate wet market on Tsing Yi, rents doubled after Link took over, prompting merchants to strike in 2010 and 2016. Earlier this year, in Leung King Estate in Tuen Mun, a subcontractor hired by Link to manage the estate’s commercial areas was accused of sending thugs to beat up illegal hawkers who were selling street food.

In fairness, Link has made an effort to renovate dilapidated wet markets and mushroom huts, and housing estates like Tai Yuen and Siu Sai Wan now have some of the most pleasant markets in Hong Kong. Still, the trend towards higher rents and chain stores seems entrenched. Many of Hong Kong’s newest housing estates, like those built on the site of the former Kai Tak Airport, have commercial spaces dominated by corporate businesses.

One way in which housing estates have definitely improved is in the quality of their public space. Urban greening expert Jim Chi-yung, known locally as the Tree Professor, once remarked that if you want to live in a green and pleasant environment in Hong Kong, you’re better off in a public housing estate than in a private one. Many of the newest public housing estates feature lush gardens, green roofs and living walls. Older housing estates are being retrofitted with community gardens. 20 percent of each new estate built by the Housing Authority is devoted to green space, and the authority plants one tree for every 15 residents.

These days, the biggest problem with public housing in Hong Kong is that there isn’t enough of it. Hong Kong is now the least affordable place in the world to buy housing – the average Hong Kong household would have to save its entire income for 19 years just to afford a typical flat, according to the Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey. Yet the construction of public housing has not kept up with demand. By the end of September 2016, there were 286,500 people on the waiting list for a subsidised flat. Most of them will wait up to 4.5 years to get one.

With that in mind, architect David Erdman, who taught at the University of Hong Kong before moving to the Pratt Institute in New York, has proposed a dramatic way to increase the supply of public housing: built new flats on top of existing towers, like how a tree grows new branches. “There are some tricky ways we’ve figured out how to add onto buildings 35 storeys or higher,” says Erdman. Public housing blocks built in the 1980s and 90s have load-bearing concrete walls, so it would be possible to crown them with as many as 20 extra floors of lightweight prefabricated steel.

Erdman says the Housing Authority has expressed interest in his project, which is called Altered (e)states, though it will require more research to find out how exactly it could be implemented. If his plan does come to pass, it could add up to 30 percent more housing units per estate without removing any ground-level public space. And who knows – Hong Kong’s public housing estates might once again be a must-see attraction for visiting dignitaries.