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Hong Kong Diaries 6: High Rise

31 March 16 words: Ben Zabulis
"Whereas Hyson Green was given over to minimal housing, Shek Kip Mei morphed into a larger version of its old self with 8 new blocks of 36-storeys"

Nottingham NAE’s recent exhibition by designer Bahbak Hashemi-Nezhad explores the citizen-led initiative which, in the 70s, transformed the lawless garages of Hyson Green Flats in to usable community space. Over in my parallel universe, Hong Kong, this got me thinking on how the ‘modern’ concrete-box approach to social housing bombed spectacularly in UK but succeeded directly out here under the unlikely auspices of a British administration; a tale of two cities, same government, 6000 miles apart.

The Hyson Green complex was a 60s monstrosity, sorry, planner’s dream, in which the recipients of slum clearance were graced with the latest concept in city living. For many it was quite an improvement as crumbling terraces and outside loos gave way to all mod cons and space design.  I went to school in the Forest Fields area and the place never failed to entice, as kids the facility’s adventure playground was nowhere near as good as the building itself, sandpits and concrete pipes to crawl through couldn’t compete with tearing up and down futuristic ramps, elevated walkways, nooks and crannies – for this was the future, we’d been told so and myriad sci-fi productions had portrayed it thus, how could they be wrong ? Alas they were, the sharp Brutalist architecture (not that we knew it as such back then) didn’t favour humans and consequently the rot, both structural and societal, set in. Although the degeneration wasn’t quite as bleak as that offered in JG Ballard’s novel High Rise, experts accepted that change was due.

And so it changed; fast-forward fifteen years and with school a distant memory I found myself, under Neil’s astral gaze, taking spot levels for the roads and drainage of a proposed ASDA supermarket. Neil had been reproduced, in staggering size and detail, on the old boiler house wall which, together with the stack, was all that remained of Hyson Green Flats – it too would be gone within a month. I couldn’t help but ruminate on the poignancy of Neil’s ‘giant leap for mankind’, reproduced within the brave new world - and a hopeful world at that - of the modern housing complex, now strewn before me as rubble and dust; Neil would be next. Only the trusty Victorian facades of Noel Street looked on, safe as houses: an ironic disjunction.

Fast forward another decade and work often took me past the Shek Kip Mei Estate in Kowloon; ear-marked for demolition, I couldn’t help but submit to a sense of déjà vu - no Neil however. Like Hyson Green there’s quite a story to Shek Kip Mei, both conceived as a means of rehousing on a massive scale. Hong Kong’s population stood at barely half a million after WWII but it would swell rapidly (100,000 some months) as a result of countless upheavals across the border. The government needed to act quickly, numerous squatter camps sprang up in which a major fire on Christmas Eve 1953 rendered 53,000 people instantly homeless. Consequently, utilitarian Shek Kip Mei Estate arose: initially eight resettlement blocks of seven-storeys (Hyson Green had five) containing 60 flats per floor. Interestingly, talk about cosy, each flat was a mere 120 square-feet housing at least 5 adults, food was cooked on the open walkways and ablutions communal; nonetheless a vast improvement on shacks or sleeping rough. It was Hong Kong’s first stab at social housing and would form the model for many subsequent schemes. Shek Kip Mei, give or take a few refurbs, would serve for 52 years (23 for Hyson Green) before, tired and obsolete, it too faced the wrecker’s ball. In common, ex-residents of both estates fondly recall happy days.

What happened next defines the tale of two cities. Whereas Hyson Green was given over principally to ASDA plus parking plus minimal housing, Shek Kip Mei morphed into a larger version of its old self with eight new blocks of 36-storeys. Whereas we Brits were once content with a horizontal cheek by jowl existence, adding neighbours above and below was clearly a step too near; Hong Kong on the other hand thought differently. Space restrictions influenced and any sprawling housing estates would simply have to sprawl vertically if at all, and so they did. The high-rise is certainly the city’s des-res with nearly 60% of the population, over 4 million folk, embracing the ideal. But high-rise estates in Hong Kong are very different in essence to the soulless, ultimately no-go zones of 70s UK. The introduction of busy commercial areas at low level, markets, shops, banks, food-courts and constant comings and goings opens a place up, probably deters crime and injects a certain harmony to which an absence of racial tension doubtless contributes. If anything, estates here have emerged as self-contained mini-cities, everything available, convenience assured and, population densities considered, literally miles removed from Ballard’s dystopian High-Rise – here it works, and very well too.

By the way, I desist nowadays from tearing up and down futuristic ramps, elevated walkways etc., instead I’m bemused by something much more commonplace: laundry. Hyson’s Mrs Jones would never countenance such common displays – visible to all, projecting rods bearing the day’s wash. A colourful splash of humanisation across an impenetrable concrete façade, not unusual for Ms Wong’s knickers or baby Mei-Mei’s Hello Kitty bib to detach and blow asunder. Nevertheless, signs of life within, the missing ingredient in those solid UK versions? Either-or, public estates here exist exactly as those 60s planners dreamt, seemingly hospitable and virtually free of the expected hordes of delinquent loonies, and I should know, it takes one to know one after all…

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Shek Kip Mei: Then and now.

Postscript: whereas Hyson Green Flats live on in memory only, Shek Kip Mei Estate’s redevelopment allowed for something more tangible. With a nod to the region’s social housing history, one old block was saved, refurbished and re-born as Mei Ho House Youth Hostel and estate museum, rightly bagging the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Award for Cultural Heritage Conservation (2015). Worth a visit, worth a stay!

Ben Zabulis is the author of Chartered Territory An Engineer Abroad.

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