17 June 2011

Those Who Live in Glass Houses 住在玻璃屋的人

In a city where space is at a premium, where a luxury apartment on the Peak costs more than the GDP of a small nation, and where a serviced apartment in Wanchai can rent for three times the average household income, there is a surprisingly easy way to create space. With a few buckets of cement and a bamboo scaffolding, a contractor can turn your balcony into an extra bedroom or add a solarium on the other side of the back wall. If you live on the top floor, you can even build an entire glass house on the rooftop complete with its own kitchen and bathroom. When it comes to creating livable space, your imagination – and audacity – are the only limit.




Unauthorized building alterations are everywhere in Hong Kong. They are also against the law. Like jaywalking and downloading movies online, the building of illegal structures is one of those offenses that many commit but no one expects to get caught. While a majority of the city’s illegal structures are safe, many of them pose fire and other public safety risks. Every now and then we hear news stories about...

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Read the rest of this article in No City for Slow Men, published by Blacksmith Books, available at major bookstores in in Hong Kong and at Blacksmith Books.


20 comments:

  1. Enjoyed reading it. A good piece of article with strong arguments, especailly with your personal experience!

    LM

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  2. Interesting - you always point out aspects of HK life that I sensed in my peripheral vision, but whose existence I never fully owned. Of course I've seen these flimsy structures, but I never put two and two together before and processed what they represent. Thanks for another terrific piece!

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  3. Jason,

    I liked the 'name the shame' list with pictures of those in authority who are supposed to be role models in policing and yet could not stop short their own greed to have some more extra space by illegal means in their already comfortable living. In early 70's, my parents have also built an illegal 'iron cage' cemented verandah extra for drying of clothes after wash, which indeed was of great use during rain. The "eyesore" structure was eventually dismantled in late 80's for safety reasons.

    Now that the urban city and so-called rural village illegal structures are identified, it would be interesting to see the outcome of the Buildings Department's next steps on their demolition or permanent retention.

    Great article. Look forward to the next one.

    Martie

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  4. "Those who lost their lives to illegal structures achieved martyrdom in our collective struggle against capitalistic oppression personified by the Lees and the Kwoks, for they and the companies they run are the very reason why illegal structures existed in the first place."

    Is that a joke?

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  5. Thanks, all, especially to Martie who shared his own experience of an illegal laundry room!

    Jason

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  6. Hi Guy,

    Yes and no, you know what I mean. I thought some readers might find that sentence a bit off-color and you certainly picked up on it!

    Jason

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  7. Jason, I think this is your best post yet. Its well written and informative but also incisive in pinpointing the root cause of this problem. Brilliant!

    Steve

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  8. Traversed your new glasshouse piece already and for I split second I conjured up the image of people living in greenhouse, if only anyone in HK could be that healthy. Come to think of it, a small enclosed area in my kitchen at home was reputedly an illegal structure, thought some folks from nowhere have come up to check on it long before the present saga and I have no idea how we got away with it. At least it is still a koala to our main flat.

    The picture you portrayed is so uncomfortably true though, and I alternate between laughing (due to your witty writing style) and crying over some of the the lines you have written. it is a sad plight we have gotten ourselves into, especially for us younger generations who are trying to secure a home of our own.

    Christine

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  9. Jason, I spent a lovely Hong Kong Sunday reading your book. You got a new eager follower to your blog. I love your way to love Hong Kong and join you in it. Thanks!

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  10. Thank you. Please keep reading and tell your friends! :-)

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  11. Hey Jason, Just found your blog by accident. I've thought once to visit the city again!

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  12. "Lees & Kwoks" don't you mean /shouldn't you include the Li(s) as well as CULPRITS??

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  13. Just read ....agree with your POV....

    BB

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  14. The 2 white colour flag pole erected near the roof of the Legislative Council building is also illegally 'insert'.

    S.C.

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  15. For a split second, I imagine people living in greenhouses just on reading your title, but obviously it is nothing half as healthy, right ? And certainly people don't sprout well at all in these glass houses as the inhabitants of well looked-after greenhouses.

    Your starting lines are so very true, the way that the property prices have been sky-rocketing and showing no signs of return at all; and it's so sad and ridiculous, we have all been made slaves in order to earn a decent shelter. Whenever you mention "jaywalking", my mind whirled to your earlier piece "I Died Three Saturdays Ago". Thank goodness you are still alive to pen these marvellous articles. I laughed and cried at the same time on reading your second paragraph: at your witty comments and your subtle yet pointed way that encapsulate the prevalent development scams. I work in a diamond-shaped office and it is outrageous as to how it can test your physical dexterity. A government too cozy with greedy property companies (and these companies are working their way up to Mainland China too)(and I thought Hong Kong is still governed by the Rule of Law?) And my heart grew so heavy on recalling those tragic incidents that have cost the lives of so many just because of the avarice of a few. We are so numbed by the sheer number of these accidents that a new one of the front page of the paper may not even capture my attention anymore. If I have lost a family member due to an illegal structure related incident, am I ever going to live in the same premises and let the shadow hover over me for the rest of my life? If I move elsewhere, I am barricaded by ever-rising costs of other housing and moving again. There is no guarantee that I don't need to portrude another double-deckered bed from my new apartment given that over half the property market is the domain of the Lees and the Kwoks. Then will I be the next one to sky-dive down?

    [To be continued]

    Christine

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  16. As for the government small houses policy and the like, it seems that our government can never make any long-term plan that's viable nowadays, and though I can't say the society of Hong Kong has degenerated altogether like the recent havocs we have seen overseas. For how much longer can we still hold together as a society? I know it is not easy to manage a big family such as Hong Kong, but we have seen collapses in policies and decisions again and again it's really disheartening. The weekly demonstrations is a vivid indication of our discontent and it is getting more and more frequent over more and more outrageous issues. No one, I dare say, would ever have dreamt that they would ever surface. I can write to the government and tell them I have got enough stock of fiction at home already so please spare me of further concoctions.

    I can still remember the flat I was born in, in Happy Valley, plus the rooftop though the rooftop is not our family's sole domain it was pleasant to play up there with my brother and my family and to look out into the distant scenery and occurrences. Actually there is an enclosure at my place in Shiu Fai Terrace now that is somewhat illegal, given that it has been enclosed when it shouldn't. Thought someone from whichever government department has come to check on it a long time ago and as they didn't kick up a fuss, it's still a koala to my place.

    You final paragraph shows your aptitude in lateral thinking very well, presenting all the alternatives but very sadly, none will save the day for the government, nor for our livelihood. "But short of solving the fundamental housing problem in Hong Kong, whatever the government decides to do will only get at the symptoms and not the cause." My answer is: that's our government (most of the times anyway), what do you expect? And it suddently struck me that, we are facing keen competition for a decent abode, both for home residences and for hospital spaces with the influx of the tycoons and their babies from the Mainland too ! A newly constructed block off my apartment fetches over HK$300 million per flat, and only two flats have been sold in the entire block: both to PRC folks, I have heard. I don't even know how many generations of savings I need to make before I can set foot into one of those apartments...

    Christine

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  17. Thanks, Christine, for your comment, and especially the part about your childhood home. Incidentally, my late uncle used to live in Shui Fai Terrace. I remember visiting his apartment when I was four or five years old and feeling that I was in a football stadium -- the units were huge!

    On a more serious note, it does seem that there are no good solutions to the illegal structures issue. It all comes down to one fundamental problem: affordable housing in Hong Kong has become a thing of the past.

    Jason

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  18. I just realized I got so many typos in my comments in my haste to collate my thoughts : p My home in Shiu Fai Terrace now is not really that big though it is spacious and we get decent partitions and higher ceilings, which is nice. But that $300 million per flat block opposite my block supposedly got over 3,000 sq feet per apartment, though everyone can only surmise how much of it is actually usable and the caretakers have already told me that the common areas and podium gardens etc are all included in there. The next thing I know I'll be sleeping in the firestairs at this rate !!! Apart from affordable housing, I am also beginning to think HK is getting to be a more and more uninhabitable place with all these collapses in government policies and pollution and all that, sad that we are forced on another emigration epic after the 1997 one.......

    Christine : >

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  19. Dear Jason,

    I had no idea that your parents had lived in an illegal structure building before. Very Interesting! This article must definitely be heart warming to talk about coming from personal experiences.

    I have to agree, the illegal structure problems in HK poses a physical danger to civilians as well as to the general aesthetic of the city. I think this is a result of the poor government's management and enforcement of building codes. If you compare other major cities in the world - Tokyo, NY, London - while these problems may exist, it is nowhere as bad as what we have in HK.

    I do hope the problem will get resolved soon.

    With love,
    AB

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