Hong Kong’s housing crisis is among one of the city’s most pressing issues. While there’s no arguing that shortage of housing is an awful problem, sometimes we just need to take a step back and decompress, so here’s something housing-related that rings positive instead. We present to you five historical housing estates in Hong Kong; some photogenic and famous, others less so, but they all have their place in this city’s history, and you should know at least a little about them.
Oi Man is the largest public housing estate in the Kowloon City District. In the 1950s, Hong Kong faced an immigration surge from mainland China, which put a major strain on housing supply. This was further compounded in 1953 when a large slum in Shek Kip Mei burned down on Christmas Day and left thousands homeless and destitute. British governor Alexander Grantham then launched the public housing programme, introducing multi-storey housing for low-income citizens. These standardised residential buildings were built to be fire- and flood-resistant, substantially improving living conditions for those who used to live in mere slums and huts. This mass public housing programme continues to this day.
Oi Man Estate was officially opened in late 1975, consisting of 12 blocks that offered a total of 6,200 flats. The estate was designed to house approximately 46,000 residents, though this was later revised along with improvements in space allocation standards. Its concept was “a little town within a city”, and so is a fairly self-contained estate with a three-storey air-conditioned commercial complex, banks, markets, and other amenities. Oi Man is also famous for its cooked food centre, colloquially referred to as “mushroom huts” due to the shape of the structures they’re housed in. Head to Tin Ma Fast Food for amazing burgers done with a local taste.
The estate marked such vast improvements in Hong Kong’s public housing standards that it was added onto the itinerary for Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to the city in 1975. Two years later, Margaret Thatcher also visited, and reportedly commented on the modern living conditions for its time and the estate’s good air circulation. As the area has played a big role in Hong Kong’s residential history, the public housing headquarters and the Hong Kong Housing Authority Exhibition Centre are both located in Ho Man Tin nearby. The latter is where you’d go if you want to learn more about public housing development in Hong Kong—it’s free of charge with guided tours available for booking.
Oi Man Estate is also a popular place to take photos. Its blocks consist of two columns joined at opposite corners; this figure-of-eight configuration creates two open sky wells of sorts in each block. Gaze up or down these structures and admire the beauty in architectural symmetry. We should mention that the estate is not officially open to public visits, so if you do sneak in, make sure you’re not a nuisance to its residents
Located in Ngau Chi Wan in the Wong Tai Sin District, Choi Hung Estate is one of Hong Kong’s oldest public housing estates. Designed by Palmer & Turner, the architectural firm behind projects such as Prince’s Building, Jardine House, and the original Bank of China building, the 11 residential blocks accommodated approximately 43,000 people, and was the largest public housing estate of its time when it opened in 1963.
The estate also consisted of a car park, five schools, a post office, two markets, as well as various retail and food and beverage businesses on the ground floor of each block. The idea was that residents needn’t leave the compound to fulfil their daily needs, but transport is also very convenient from Choi Hung, with a bus terminus connected directly to the estate and two exits of the Choi Hung MTR station with direct access.
Similar to Oi Man Estate, Choi Hung was a development that set a milestone in Hong Kong’s housing history, and subsequently attracted several prominent visitors, including Richard Nixon in 1964 before his presidency, Princess Margaret in 1966, and Princess Alexandra in 1967.
Anyone who has scrolled through the Hong Kong tag on Instagram will also know that Choi Hung’s modern relevance is due to the estate being incredibly photogenic. Choi Hung means “rainbow” in Cantonese, and the estate’s blocks have therefore been painted in various gradient shades of the rainbow to match. The most photographed part of the estate is undoubtedly the colourful basketball court on top of the car park with the rainbow blocks behind as a backdrop. Korean boy band Seventeen and girl band LOONA have also shot two of their music videos—Check-In and Love&Live, respectively—in Choi Hung, which only served to heighten its popularity with fans of Kpop.
Located in Lai Chi Kok and regularly referred to as simply Mei Foo, this is Hong Kong’s first large-scale private housing estate, and was considered one of the world’s largest privately financed residential projects of its time. Its surrounding amenities include supermarkets, retail outlets, restaurants, medical facilities, as well as several schools. The estate’s convenient transport links also contributed greatly to its popularity; the Mei Foo MTR station is connected to both the Tsuen Wan and West Rail lines, and there is also a major bus terminus nearby.
Mei Foo is an indelible part of Hong Kong’s housing history because it essentially facilitated the rise of the city’s middle class. The residential project saw the move away from overcrowded tenement housing, which was prevalent until the late 1970s, accommodating up to 80,000 residents in the 13,500-apartment complex. Every unit offers at least two rooms as well as a balcony, ranging from 600 to 1,800 square feet, and was considered to be an affluent choice of accommodation for the standards of the time. Before the coastline was reclaimed in the 1990s, those living in Mei Foo even got to enjoy a view of the waterfront.
The architectural design was actually modelled after Swiss architect Le Corbusier’s 1925 proposal for buildings in central Paris to be replaced by uniform towers with public spaces. 99 blocks are connected by a massive garden podium with both shops and car parking space underneath. Because of how popular it proved to be, Mei Foo ended up becoming a model for dozens of other private housing estates—after its completion, the dockyards in Hung Hom were developed into Whampoa Garden, and the oil depot and power station area in Ap Lei Chau became South Horizons.
Despite its age, Mei Foo is still a highly popular housing estate in Hong Kong, whose prices are often seen as a pacesetter for the real estate market.
Completed in the late 1980s, Taikoo Shing is located in Quarry Bay and was developed by Swire Properties, along with the nearby Cityplaza, Taikoo Place, and EAST Hotel. As Taikoo is Swire’s Chinese name, Taikoo Shing can literally mean “Swire City” in Cantonese. It was the construction of this housing estate which propelled Swire to become one of Hong Kong’s largest property developers.
Before it became a residential area, the site of Taikoo Shing used to be the Taikoo Dockyard, and its foundation stone lies beside the Cityplaza shopping mall to this day. The entire estate covers an area of 21.5 hectares and consists of 61 residential towers which house close to 12,700 units, ranging from 585 to 1,237 square feet.
Similar to Mei Foo Sun Chuen, Taikoo Shing was built to accommodate and maximise middle-class residential capacity. Initially, its popularity meant that traffic in the area was so heavily congested in Island East that Swire convinced the government to establish a hover ferry route to link Taikoo Shing with Central. Luckily these problems were very much alleviated when the MTR extended the Island Line to the eastern side of Hong Kong and opened Taikoo Station.
Residential blocks in Taikoo Shing are divided into six “terraces” and two “gardens”; the blocks or “mansions” under these eight groups are then named with specific themes in mind. For example, Ko Shan Terrace consists of 13 mansions, all with the Chinese character for mountain in their names because their theme is famous mountains in China; Harbour View Gardens consists of 11 mansions all named after various flora, such as Banyan Mansion and Wisteria Mansion. Some terraces have podiums which provide public and retail spaces, and others have access to amenities such as swimming pools and sporting facilities.
Flats in Taikoo Shing remain very popular amongst property buyers and speculators, and its prices were used as an indicator of the health of Hong Kong’s housing market for much of the decade between the 1980s and 1990s. The area used to be popular among the Japanese expatriate community in the 90s, and this interest has since shifted towards Korean favour. Because of the significant Japanese and Korean settlement, Taikoo Shing also has a higher concentration of Japanese and Korean restaurants, businesses, and establishments. There is also an international school, the Delia School of Canada, connected to the estate.
Wah Fu Estate is a public housing development built in 1967 for low-income families, situated between Aberdeen and Pok Fu Lam. Despite its target residents, Wah Fu was actually considered relatively luxurious, especially at a time when many in Hong Kong were still living in resettlement buildings or squatter camps. The estate consists of 18 blocks, each 11 to 26 storeys high, which contained a total of 9,100 flats. It was also considered one of the pioneers in the “new town” concept and boasted a multi-storey car park, a public library, banks, markets, restaurants, and schools.
While the concept was considered groundbreaking in 1960s Hong Kong, the fact that nine hectares of hilly headland overlooking the South China Sea were turned into a housing development to serve 50,000 people was a marvel in itself. Architecturally, Wah Fu is similar to Oi Man, with flats on four sides facing inward and surrounding an open square that let in natural light. This design was also used to foster a sense of community. This may be inconceivable to anyone past the boomer generation, but most people in those days kept their doors open, and neighbours would come and go, keeping an eye on each other’s children or simply to hang out. Wah Fu’s design meant that neighbours could see other’s doors, with also optimised security on top of fostering relations.
These days, Wah Fu’s shine has rather faded and its dilapidated buildings have been slated for redevelopment multiple times since the 1980s. Unfortunately, the Hong Kong Housing Department has on several occasions passed Wah Fu over in favour of other housing estates they deemed more in need. In the Chief Executive’s address of 2014, it was finally announced that the estate will be redeveloped, likely starting from 2024 after the current residents have been relocated to a new estate nearby.