Apartments in ‘Small Shen’

We must have moved house at least four times while we were living in Hong Kong. I was a desperately annoying Expat Wife and always complained that we didn’t have enough space – particularly after we’d employed a full-time live-in housekeeper, and our second child was born – there wasn’t room for the five of us in our six-hundred-square-foot three-bedroom apartment.

We spent a lot of time house-hunting with real estate agents, and at the time we were also looking for places for relatives as well. I have something of a collection of photos of apartments that I took while we were house-hunting – after a while they all merge together into a blur – to help me sort out which were the most dreadful.

I called upon this when I was writing ‘Small Shen’, when Michelle’s brother Daniel is looking for cheap accommodation in Hong Kong. Now, as anybody who’s been there any length of time knows, cheap accommodation in Hong Kong – doesn’t exist. This is particularly heart-wrenching for the people who live on low wage in this extremely expensive city, but I’ll come to that later.

Here’s photos of the apartments that Gold, Michelle, Leo and Daniel go and visit while they’re house-hunting for Daniel; these places are most definitely real:

The first one, a ‘studio’ is about two hundred square feet and HK$6,000 a month:


(View from the door way, looking towards the windows.) As you can see, the bed nearly fits from one side to the other. This isn’t one of the bedrooms; this is the whole studio. If you turn around and look the other way:


You can see the front door, with a hotel-room like partition across to form the bathroom. Here’s what the inside of the bathroom looks like:


That’s the shower head hanging over the toilet, off the flow-through gas hot water system (damn these things were sometimes the bane of my life; older ones often won’t light from the pilot light and you’re standing there naked for ages pressing the damn button to make the thing go!)

That’s the whole studio apartment. Of course no kitchen. Daniel asks for one with a kitchen, and they move on to one further West that is about the same size, but has a kitchen:


This is looking at the front door, with the bed on the right and the TV next to it. A very clever use of space to have the wardrobe over the bed like this. Once again, not a bedroom; this is the whole flat. If you look right towards the bed:


You can see that the bed fills the studio from one side the other. There’s a beige couch next to it, facing the TV.  The large pillars and beams sticking out of the walls and ceiling indicate that this flat is on a low floor and there’s a lot of space taken up by load-bearing in the walls.

Looking the other way, away from the bed towards the kitchen:


A compact little kitchen, a bar fridge, double-burner electric cooktop, and even a washer under the bench. The bathroom, off to the right of the kitchen:


This little flat demonstrates really intelligent use of space that is very common in Hong Kong. At seven thousand a month, it’s the equivalent of about a thousand US a month. Still way out of the reach of low-income Hong Kong earners.

The final flat is one we were considering for the extended family; a two-bedroom flat in the most western part of Western District. Here’s the living room:


‘Part furnished’ – there was a torn couch against the wall and on the left there’s a laminated chipboard TV unit with a bar fridge perched on it. The two doors on the left are the bedrooms, and the door at the end (note that it’s only about two-thirds the width of a normal door) is the kitchen and bathroom.


Main bedroom, with the ‘thick’ mattress. With a double-sized mattress in this room there’s no room for any other furniture. And this is the big bedroom. We stayed in a loan flat for a while that had a double-sized bedstead in the main bedroom, and it had to be jammed in diagonally because it wouldn’t fit from one side the other, and the door couldn’t be closed. Another loan flat had a bed in the corner of the bedroom with the corner cut out of the mattress to fit the pillar in the corner. Here’s the second bedroom:


You’d put bunk beds in this room, across from the wardrobe. A family of four would normally live in an apartment like this. Once again, clever use of space; there’s a storage cupboard suspended from the ceiling.

Here’s the kitchen, this is a normal size for even a larger apartment:


A double-burner gas stove goes on the bench to the right, with the gas bottle underneath it. Yes, that’s mould covering the grout between the tiles; in a damp place like Hong Kong there’s no avoiding it. If an apartment is left unoccupied for too long, the walls will go mouldy; this happened to our house in the New Territories one awful damp summer. On the left is the sink with the single cold water tap; to have hot water in the kitchen you need to install your own flow-through hot water system. The ladder to the right of the picture is a leftover from the painters, who were ‘renovating’ this flat, which basically meant splashing cheap whitewash all over the walls, which dried to an awful powdery finish that would come off against anything that touched it.

Here’s the bathroom, to the left of the kitchen:


Note how far away from the toilet the toilet roll holder is! What a nuisance! The shower head is on the near side of this room under another flow-through hot water system and you shower… wherever.

This flat would be about 11 or 12 thousand a month: about fifteen hundred US a month. This isn’t considered small by Hong Kong standards; it’s a pretty average-sized apartment.

Now, many Hong Kong people don’t make the sort of money that means they can afford a flat like this. The government has provided public housing, and my husband’s family lived in one of the older public housing estates, once again in Western district. During the Cultural Revolution, a large number of mainland people escaped into Hong Kong to survive the mass starvation in China (millions died) and built shanty towns on the hillsides. A fire ripped through one of these tent cities and thousands died; and the government was forced to act. They constructed the public housing estates, which were roughly-put-together concrete boxes thrown up in a tremendous hurry.

More modern government housing units (including the notorious ‘Harmony’ flats) are more spacious, but still in many cases only one room and if you want bedrooms you have to put in partitions yourself. Here’s a link to a summary page with all the standard government housing floor plans; before you relax and say ‘oh, they’re quite spacious’, check the scale – some of the bedrooms are smaller than lift cars, and the lift cars are about 1.5 m to a side.

My in-laws lived in one of the much older ‘slab’ style housing estates, and here’s what the floor plan looks like:


Each ‘box’ is a single apartment. No room dividers; just a single rectangular space. I’ve included the scale at the bottom so you can see that each ‘box’ is less than three metres wide. The two ‘rooms’ at the end are the balcony, and the tiny bathroom (less than a metre to a side) off the end of the balcony. The things sticking out the end are the cylindrical holes in the wall to hold the washing poles.

Here’s what one of these slabs looks like from the outside (this is the entrance to Kwun Lung Lau, where the family lived):



Each opening is actually the balcony, so each is one apartment. The buildings were built in a circle around the hillside, and you had to drive through the building to get into the centre of the estate. The beige sections between balconies, with the horizontal metal louvres, are actually the two tiny bathrooms jammed next to each other for each adjoining flat. You can see the washing hanging from the bamboo poles sticking out of the wall. The family lived above this entrance, on the eighteenth floor. Here’s what the whole estate looked like from further down the hill:


The open area on the corner is the lift lobbies; there was one bank of six lifts for the entire estate, that only stopped at every fourth floor. It was five buildings joined together, twenty-two storeys for each building, giving a total (I counted) of 122 flats per floor. Put five people (on average) in each unit and you have more than ten thousand people in this tiny area – and very little violent crime. Each ‘window’ is the balcony of a separate apartment, and there were the same number on the other side of the building. Everybody would watch the same television channel in the evening and the sound of it would echo around the hillside.

Here’s what it looked like inside my in-law’s flat in this building:


The table was a folding table that usually sat against the wall. The door on the far end leads out to the balcony. On the left there’s a wood panel wall; my father-in-law put this divider down the middle of the box to separate it into two tiny bedrooms on the left. It’s not terribly visible because of all the nails banged into it at the top to hold clothes on coat hangers. You can see, along the wall on the right, the rough edges of the original formwork used to make the concrete; it was never smoothed. This is what the apartment looks like from the other direction:


The area to the right of the partition is the same size as the area to the left of the door. The lounge my sister-in-law is sitting on actually folded out to a divan, where my brother-in-law slept. The two tiny bedrooms were taken up by my sister-in-law in one, and my parents-in-law in the other. When we stayed with them, my father-in-law moved out and slept in his office.

One time we visited the family, they arranged for a loan flat for us, a one-bedroom flat in a building across the road, that was significantly smaller than this. I don’t have any photos of that unit, only a video, and if you see me in person ask to see it!

This isn’t considered terribly small by Hong Kong standards. This apartment was about HK$3,600 a month, or US$460; government units are heavily subsidised.
There is a waiting list, however, and if you’re a very low income earner, you have to find somewhere to live while your government flat is approved (also, newer government flats are slightly larger – although still mostly one room – and much more expensive.) So there are a couple of – admittedly horrific – solutions.

The first is to live in a flat that’s been subdivided. Here’s some images from the Society for Community Organization in Hong Kong, which is trying to bring attention to the terrible conditions that some residents live in. (I have the album of these photos on order from the SOCO; these are images from the promotional posters.) The only way to photograph them is from above; the tiny visible floor space is where the door opens, everything else is full.

soco1 soco2 soco3 soco4

And then, you have cage homes, which are one level above homelessness. These are stacked three high in most cases and – well, I’ll just show you.

Photo 4 cage home

I was deeply shocked when I first realized exactly how tiny my in-law’s flat was; it took me a while to get used to it. And then I discovered that by their standards, this shoe box was roomy.  Sometimes you aren’t even aware of your own first-world privilege until something like this jars you out of your complacency.



13 responses to “Apartments from Small Shen”

  1. Cassandra says:

    We don’t realise how lucky we are to live like we do, for example as an Aussie such as myself, until you see images like this. That’s when it really hits home they we call Australia ‘The Lucky Country’ for a reason!!

  2. Manda says:

    Wow, that’s… that’s incredible. It’s one thing reading it in a fiction novel – another thing altogether to actually see that the living conditions aren’t exagerated.

    Just out of curiosity, when Emma is living with Louise at the beginning of White Tiger, what type of flat were they in?

  3. Smitty says:

    That poor bastard in pic #2 is living in something smaller than my toiler :(. No wonder all the kids from China/HK that are over here studying English and business never want to leave!

  4. Roy Rumaner says:

    I cannot imagine what someone would do if they were claustrophobic. Those places are smaller than my home office and I feel cramped in there. We never know how good we have it until we see how someone else lives. And the prices are insane for them. $1500 a month for a 200 sq foot place? I pay a mortgage that is less than that for a 3000 sq foot house. All I can say is wow!

    • kylie-admin says:

      The first year in Hong Kong was very hard for me, our apartment – luxurious by Hong Kong standards – was for me ridiculously small. It took me a long time to get used to it, and I breathed deep and long when we returned to Australia to our large house here. You’re right about us not knowing how good we have it!

  5. Brenda Ware says:

    OMG some of the kids over here need to see this!! I will be showing my children how lucky they are this afternoon… We have six kids altogether (not always here at the same time) and they have to share two large bedrooms and think they have it bad :-/ thanks for sharing and bringing us all back to reality…

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  7. David says:

    I lived in Hong Kong when I was a child/teenager for about 6 years (this was pre 1997). We were lucky because my Dad’s employer (an airline) paid the rent for a house in Hong Lok Yuen in the New Territories.

  8. Niwa says:

    Eventhough I live in Australia, Im used to my tiny little place I have. I’m a tetris queen and make my room seem bigger than it is. But I do have the funds and makeshift skills to make it this way, Seeing these apartments with what I assume little left over to be seen as a homly home is a little sad to see. I dont possess a lot of possessions, but I do make the things I have look nice. Comparing Australia to Japans little places, I seem to run with very little apartments and be happy and I feel like empty space if the place is concidered normal for most people.
    Living in china seems very tight even in the streets, i wonder what melbournes like compared to such a big industrial city like china!

    Btw, Kylie? Mrs Chan? sickest writter in town? *what should I call you?ww
    Was the peak real? If it is, do you have the ground plans for it? I’d love to see how different ive been veiwing it in my mind all these years!

    Xuan Wuuuuuuuuuuuuu W< Niwa

    • Paul says:

      I’m an Australian living in Japan and I have certainly lived in my share of “little boxes” 🙂 My first thought on seeing these places was actually how nice (and roomy) they looked. Then I noticed the subtle ways in which they are slightly more cramped than a Japanese apartment of equivalent size. But still, nice apartments (or nicer than they were described in the text 😉 I knew when I read Small Shen that Daniel was missing out on a good thing.

  9. Jen says:

    Puts it all into perspective. I have been complaining about how “tiny”my 3 bedroom HOUSE is and seeing your pics has made me realise I live in a palace.
    I love Hong Kong though and I bet the food makes it worth the cramped living space!

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