70 years ago this Christmas, Hong Kong changed forever. It was around 9:30pm on the evening of December 25 when a bucket of molten rubber was accidentally knocked over in the shantytown of Shek Kip Mei. Fire quickly spread through the wooden huts and rudimentary buildings of this vast squatter settlement. By the time the last flames were extinguished, two people were dead and more than 53,000 were left homeless.
It was — and still is — the most devastating fire in Hong Kong’s history. And its aftermath changed the very nature of the city, kickstarting a vast public housing programme that would eventually house more than half the city’s population. But the response to the Shek Kip Mei fire wasn’t as swift or as simple as many people think. Behind the scenes, Hong Kong’s colonial government was immersed in geopolitical intrigue that threatened its very existence.
“The squatter areas were seen as this morass of problems – threats to public order, health, safety, security, even just aesthetics. They were seen as an eyesore,” says Alan Smart, professor emeritus of anthropology and archaeology at the University of Calgary and the author of The Shek Kip Mei Myth: Squatters, Fires and Colonial Rule in Hong Kong, 1950–1963. The government eventually responded to the enormous fire on December 25, 1953 by creating high-density resettlement estates. “It was a really logical solution,” says Smart. “But it took a lot of stuff in between for them to do something that went against their moral principles.”
Squatter settlements have always existed in Hong Kong, but they began multiplying on the fringes of the city in the 1930s, when the Chinese Civil War and the Japanese invasion of China pushed growing numbers of people to flee mainland China for Hong Kong. The carnage of World War II, which was followed by the immediate resumption of the civil war, led to an even greater influx. By the early 1950s, an estimated 25 percent of Hong Kong’s population — about 550,000 people — lived in squatter settlements.
They varied a lot in size and quality of life. Some were perched high up on hillsides, where they were particularly vulnerable to landslides caused by torrential summer rains. Others, like Diamond Hill or Shek Kip Mei, were located next to established neighbourhoods, giving their residents easy access to jobs. And many squatter settlements became centres of employment themselves: while roughly two-thirds of their structures were residential, the rest were commercial or industrial, with family-run shops and small workshops that played a crucial role in the growth of Hong Kong’s industrial economy after World War II.
That is one of the reasons they were so fire prone. As the South China Morning Post reported on the fire’s 50th anniversary, it was in one of those informal workshops that the Shek Kip Mei fire started. “In one hut, a bucket of molten rubber was accidentally knocked over. It spilled onto a kerosene stove. The flaming material cascaded onto untreated plank walls; within seconds, the house was ablaze.”
The newspaper recounted how the fire spread quickly through Shek Kip Mei’s wood and tar-paper shacks. “Fo2 zuk1! Fo2 zuk1! (火燭)” cried neighbours: “Fire! Fire!” “The shouted warnings soon turned to screams. Fanned by strong winter monsoon winds, the flames swept through 20 hectares of cardboard and wooden shacks. Mothers grabbed their babies, quilt and a cooking pot, and ran for safety. Men beat a warning on the walls of surrounding huts, picked up a handful of precious family possessions and dashed through flaming alleys.”
Fires were not unusual in the squatter villages, especially in winter. From Cha Kwo Ling to Tai Hang, and points in between, the dry wind of the northern monsoon raced down the hills, whose trees had long ago been stripped away for fuel; if a fire broke out, there was nothing to slow its spread. In November 1951, two years before the Shek Kip Mei disaster, a fire destroyed the Tung Tau squatter area in Kowloon City, leaving 25,000 people without homes. In response, the Chinese Communist Party organised a “comfort mission” with supplies for the displaced squatters, but it was stopped at the Hong Kong border by British authorities.
A crowd of Communist sympathisers had gathered at Kowloon Station to welcome the mission. When it failed to arrive, they began marching down Nathan Road, where they “attacked police, servicemen and Europeans, overturned and burned vehicles, and smashed property in a roaring riot,” according to a report by the Hong Kong Standard. That worried Hong Kong’s governor at the time, Alexander Grantham. He had espoused a laissez-faire approach to governance and rejected the social welfare proposals of his predecessor, Mark Young. But he was also aware that Hong Kong was vulnerable to Communist advances from mainland China, and its status as a colony meant its government lacked popular support and could easily fall victim to civil unrest.
In early postwar Hong Kong, civil unrest wasn’t an abstract threat. With the flood of mainland refugees, living conditions were atrocious. Multiple families were crammed into tenement flats; even balconies were enclosed to create extra living spaces. Squatter settlements had no sewerage systems or running water, which made them prone to disease. When Tung Tau was destroyed by fire, the government offered only limited support, and families were mostly left to their own devices. One Tung Tau resident, a now-retired garment worker nicknamed Ah Ying, recalled in an interview with Hong Kong Memory how her family ended up sleeping rough on To Kwa Wan Road after the fire. “I felt like crying but I had no more tears,” she said.
Some fire victims were resettled in government-built cottages. But this only exacerbated the lack of housing. “The problem was that it was less efficient in housing people per hectare than the squatter settlements were,” says Alan Smart. “It doesn’t solve the housing problem, it intensifies it. You’re destroying 150 houses and putting up 80.”
For the most part, when their houses were destroyed by fire, squatters were simply directed to squat further away from the urban areas. And the government resisted any investment that would improve squatters’ safety. When the colony’s top fire official recommended building water mains and installing fire hydrants in the squatter villages, he was rebuffed by the Colonial Secretary, the equivalent of today’s Chief Secretary: “Fire precautions are getting a little out of hand,” the secretary wrote in a memo that Smart unearthed during his research.
The Colonial Secretary and other government officials suggested that any measure that made squatter areas safer or more comfortable would reward squatters for illegal activity. In another memo, the government’s Social Welfare Officer wrote that “no hydrants, extinguishers or other fire-fighting apparatus should be installed, and no official encouragement should be given to the formation of local voluntary fire-fighting units in any non-tolerated squatter area. To do otherwise would be to encourage the squatters to count on and to trade on official recognition of their ‘rights.’”
This cold-blooded calculus proved untenable after the Shek Kip Mei fire. The sheer scale of the destruction made the government realise that, if nothing changed, the whole of Hong Kong could become a tinderbox, if not literally then certainly proverbially. But even then, as Smart documents in The Shek Kip Mei Myth, the government’s response was far from swift. It took three months to create a Resettlement Department that would find new places for the Shek Kip Mei squatters to live, and it was explicitly considered a temporary department. It was only by 1956 — after yet another tragic fire, this time in Tsuen Wan — that the government decided it needed a permanent housing solution.
The resettlement housing devised for Shek Kip Mei would later become known as the Mark Blocks. Each was seven storeys tall, with simple 120-square-foot flats along outdoor corridors that housed shared kitchens. Washrooms were communal. It was utilitarian and not particularly comfortable, but it offered a distinct advantage over squatter huts: the concrete structures could easily withstand fires and typhoons. (The late photographer Michael Wolf documented the interior of Mark Block flats in his 100×100 series.) And the shared facilities even replicated the village atmosphere of the old squatter settlements.
“We played football, fought in the corridors, we went to each other’s homes,” a former resident named Lam Wai-lun told the South China Morning Post in 2006, when the earliest Mark Blocks were being prepared for redevelopment into much larger public housing towers. “We were happy. People were warm and helpful.”
The Mark Blocks, which have now been demolished — except for Mei Ho House, which is home to an interesting museum that documents life inside the resettlement estates — laid the groundwork for today’s public housing programme. And they were the first sign of how colonial Hong Kong would evolve towards a modern welfare state – or at least something close to one, and only in fits and starts. As with Shek Kip Mei, government reform was usually prompted by crises like the 1960s water shortages or the 1967 riots, which led to the creation of robust public amenities under the governorship of Murray MacLehose.
Today, 70 years after the Shek Kip Mei fire, Alan Smart says it’s important to remember that the changes it sparked didn’t start with the Mark Blocks, or even the inferno. They started with the challenge posed by the enormous squatter settlements that were growing all over Hong Kong – and the perseverance of the people who lived in them.
“I tried to stress [in my book] that squatters shouldn’t be seen as problems, because in a lot of ways they contributed to forcing the government to do things,” says Smart. “Without them Hong Kong would be in even more of an affordability and livability mess than it is now. It’s hard to imagine Hong Kong without public housing. It couldn’t work in the way that it does.”