A view from one of eight aged blocks of Pak Tin Estate in Shek Kip Mei.
Photo: David Wong/SCMP
An old housing project where elderly residents live is on its last legs
By Chris Lau
Chan Hau-chu is 79 and lives in a flat in block 11 of Pak Tin Estate, in Shek Kip Mei. "I have been living here since I gave birth to my first son," she says.
Her apartment has no rooms. Its original design includes only a sitting room and a large balcony, as well as a toilet and kitchen.
The place looks spacious now, but it was pretty cramped when it was once home to Chan, her husband, three daughters and two sons. That was some 30 years ago.
Yet Chan says she felt blessed, nonetheless. Before, she and her family shared a nine-square-metre unit with another family in Shek Kip Mei. Getting her present flat made her very happy - apartments in other blocks have smaller balconies.
Pak Tin Estate was among the first few public housing projects the British colonial government built in Hong Kong. Its first block was built in 1969, and it had a total of 17 blocks. Before that, the residents there lived in crowded shanties in Shek Kip Mei, where the conditions were horrific.
In 1953, a blaze swept through the area, leaving many families homeless.
The government built cheap public housing units to resettle them and other local residents. But the living conditions remained appalling. An apartment was sometimes shared by more than one family, and there was only one bathroom on every floor.
Most residents were later relocated to the 17 blocks of Pak Tin Estate. Finally, each family had their built-in toilet and kitchen.
Although people didn't lead extravagant lives, they felt a sense of belonging to the community and were happy. All the children went to school in the area and hung out there after classes. Doors and gates were seldom shut because everyone trusted their neighbours.
Nowadays, elderly people still chit-chat on benches outside block 12. Cha chaan teng still operate as usual, serving delicious egg tarts and pineapple buns.
Kiwi Liu, who owns an art studio at the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre in Shek Kip Mei, has been based there for four years. She enjoys having lunch in the area. "Bosses are usually very friendly," she says. "Because business isn't very busy here, they love to chat with their customers."
Although the area is still known for its relaxed lifestyle, some of the buildings in Pak Tin Estate have fallen on hard times. Nine out of the 17 blocks have been torn down. Only eight - blocks 1 to 3 and 9 to 13 - are left. These blocks are surrounded by high-rise public housing estates. Instead of being tagged with a number, they all have names like Shing Tin House or Cheung Tin House.
Two months ago, the government announced a plan to re-develop Pak Tin Estate; the last eight buildings will be pulled down by 2022. "Many elderly people don't really want to move," says Dan Chan Kin-yip, a candidate in the last district council election. He has been doing community work for three years in the area.
Chan says many elderly people admitted the area was rundown, but none of them wanted to move out because they were too old.
The government's redevelopment plan doesn't make it easier for them, either. It will be carried out in three phases. That means some of the restaurants, facilities, and the local market could be torn down first before everyone has moved out of the area. The elderly residents will have to travel further for food and groceries.
During her four years in the district, Liu says she has seen a lot of changes. "When I first started working here, there were a lot of construction sites," she says. "Now they have all become skyscrapers."
She says the shiny new buildings provide a stark contrast to the relative squalor of the older housing blocks. Yet she admits that modernisation is inevitable.
"I guess you just can't pull down old buildings and build some new 'oldies'," she says.