Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Alt-Hong Kong: Sham Shui Po and Mong Kok

Hong Kong
Flowers from the Mong Kok Flower Market in Hong Kong.
Tourists visit Hong Kong for the stunning skyline along Victoria Harbor framed by Victoria Peak, and tax-free luxury items at plush malls. 

Who wouldn't love one of these scrumptious, elegant pouches in her purse?  --Photo taken at the IFC mall in Hong Kong.  
This isn't the only face of Hong Kong, however.  Last weekend I took a tour of the Mong Kok, Prince Edward, and Sham Shui Po neighbohoods and discovered interesting bygone traditions, startling facts about rent, and the unfortunate living conditions for many residents of this crowded city. 

Highs and Lows

Touched by a rainbow--the Sham Shui Po nighborhood of Hong Kong, taken from the Dragon Center Shopping Mall.  30% of these buildings house people in cages and coffin rooms.  These tiny dwellings, the size of a twin bed, raise questions about human dignity and a government's role in caring for its citizens.
Lifestyles in Hong Kong run the gamut.  Billionaires and millionaires live at beach homes on Repulse Bay or in posh high-rises overlooking Victoria Harbor.  

At the other extreme, 20% of Hongkongers live below the povery line, and can afford only a cage or coffin bed.  These spaces are created by sub-dividing apartments into tiny spaces the size of a twin bed.  

A Government Problem?  

I was surprised to learn from my tour that 76% of Hong Kong's land is undeveloped, and that the government is sitting on loads of cash.

With so much congestion in neighborhoods like Sham Shui Po and Mong Kok (Mong Kok is in fact the most densely populated place on earth), you'd think the government would be eager to build on HK's undeveloped land.  Developers actually face huge obstacles from government to build

Property tax is the government's main source of income; at 30%, it's way higher than the 16% income tax.  Our guide said the government wants to create housing scarcity as it increases the price of rent, and in turn the tax.  The city charges no sales tax at all.   

--Skyrocketing rents indeed.  A 500-square-foot apartment in Sham Shui Po (one of Hong Kong's least-posh neighborhoods) costs $1 million USD.  As minimum wage is 37 HKD dollars an hour (about $4.50 USD), many Hongkongers earn less than $10,000 USD/year and so couldn't come close to owning even a modest one-bedroom apartment.

These families, then, resort to living in single 10' by 10' rooms inside old buildings.  Although the buildings are so dangerous they're illegal, the government turns a blind eye.

My room in Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong.  The building had one exit.  The room was about 50 square feet, less than two feet wide.  Entire families live in spaces only slightly large then this one, in dangerous buildings that aren't at all up to code.  
As the icing on the cake, the Hong Kong government has no debt, and foreign reserves of $431 billion USD--enough for the city to run for 2.5 years! 

The majority of seats in government, it may be no surprise to learn, aren't determined by the citizens, but rather wealthy corporations.  This scenario in part explains why the protestors are demanding universal suffrage.

Mong Kok & Sham Shui Po Neighborhoods

Here are some photos from the rest of my tour.

This bubble-tea shop in Mong Kok rents for about $25,000 USD/month.  That's a lot of bubble tea to sell! 
This animal store across the street, likewise, rents for $25,000.  As it couldn't possibly sell this many fish,
it's either operating as a money launderer or the shopowners own the building themselves.   
This magnolia flower used to be a popular perfume women would rub it behind their ear.  However, this is a dying tradition as retrieving the flower from the magnolia trees is quite a bit of work and the flowers only sell for about 50 cents USD a bag.  
The bird market, alongside the flower market in Hong Kong, is also a dying industry.  As little as 20-30 years ago, men would proudly display their birds in extravagant artisan cages, bringing them to tai chi and local restaurants.  The outbreak of bird flu in '97, in which 1.5 million birds were killed in two days, contributed to the decline in this tradition. 
 Boundary Street in Sham Shui Po.  When the British won the 2nd Opium War in 1860, they acquired Kowloon, the peninsula across the harbor from Hong Kong Island.  Boundary Street marked the boarder where Kowloon ended and China's territory began.  
Hong Kong's streets teem with luxury vehicles.  And guess what?  The owners are paying 100% import tax for these cars!   This is what our tour guide reported, in any event (disclaimer!).
Have you visited Hong Kong?  What are your best memories?  


  1. I feel so sad that many people in Hongkong have to live in such tiny places :(

  2. Wow! I had no idea. I knew they were protesting but really didn't know the details. It's wonderful to know outright that your government is only out for itself. It's horrible that so many human beings have to live like this. I know we have homelessness in the USA but this runs pretty close to that and it seems like the majority of the citizenship live in these tiny dwellings. I have to wonder how the people who are able to afford $80 and $100,000. vehicles live. I imagine Hong Kong is quite an interesting city to experience and I'd love to do it at least once. What an amazing place for you to experience (though your room is soooooo tiny)!


    1. Yes, I think you'd like Hong Kong, Ruth, especially for the clothing. Women have great fashion sense here.
      I guess if you look closely at any government you'll see terrible corruption.
      From what I've seen teaching at homes in Hong Kong, everyone lives in pretty small spaces--including the wealthy. Much larger than a coffin, though.

  3. I've been wanting to visit Hong Kong again for the longest. I love their shopping centers. Their gem pouches are so cute!! It is unfortunate that there are a lot of people who live in cramped spaces. I've seen some of the cages and feel so bad. I'm shocked at the disparity between the rich and poor, but realized that is happening in a lot of places.

    Nancy ♥


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