Located on the eastern end of the Pearl River Delta region in the Southern coast of China, Hong Kong houses approximately 7 million people in an area of 1090 square km.

Hong Kong became a colony of the British Empire following the First Opium War in the mid XIX century. In 1898, the colony’s borders were extended passed Hong Kong Island to include Kowloon Peninsula and the New Territories. During the Pacific war (World War II) the island witnessed a 3-year Japanese occupation, later returning British control, which resumed until 1997 when Hong Kong was given back to China. Today, based on Deng Xioping’s: “One country, two systems,” Hong Kong has had a different political system from the socialist system in Mainland China. Once depending on salt trade and fish sauce production, Hong Kong is now a major capitalist service economy, and one of the world’s leading international financial centers (although it seems that little by little Hong Kong is slowly drifting closer to mainland China’s rules and operations).


In 1951, after Japanese occupation, Hong Kong was in political and socio- economic instability. Food rationing was imposed and housing shortages became apparent as new migrants continued to move into the city. In order to accommodate the increase in population, existing houses were subdivided between various families. Nevertheless, as the numbers grew and the need for housing increased, the first squatter settlements began to appear in the island. It is estimated that beginning 1953, there were between 250 and 300 000 squatters.

Hong Kong 1950s; source: HK History Museum

In December of 1953, a major fire took place in the squatter settlement Shek Kip Mei, destroying the entire area and leaving 53,000 people homeless. The incident raised consciousness and gave birth to the first resettlement and public housing policies in Hong Kong.

Shek Kip Mei, source: HK History Museum

Shek Kip Mei; source: web

The first public housing projects consisted in multi-story blocks, aiming to standardize the fire and flood-proof construction. The apartments were very small, ranging from 11 to 28 square meters for a family of 7 or 8. The water and toilets were communal, and there was no electricity.

11 sq m room given to a family of 6-8 people; photo taken at the HK History Museum

Honk Kong’s Public Housing is managed through the Hong Kong Public Housing Authority; residency permit is required in order to have access to housing. Early buildings were 7 stories or 12 stories: I, T, L shape building plans with a double loaded corridor. In the 80s and 90s, the buildings grew in height to approximately 40 stories high, now including a lift and adopting diamond and cruciform shapes. At this point, a large percentage of the population lived in public housing and apartments ranged from 28 to 80 square meters (roughly 300 to 800 ft).

Public Housing; source:HK History Museum

Schools functioned at the rooftops of Public Housing buildings; source:HK History Museum


It is amazing to realize that what we see as Hong Kong today has only developed in the last 50 years, leaving little or no trace of any previous structures or development. Partially due to land limitations, Hong Kong’s entire city planning revolves around eradication and reconstruction. Today, many of the older 1960 and 1970 buildings are currently being replaced and redeveloped either through private developers or private-public partnership handled through the city’s Urban Renewal Authority.

Older neighborhood in HK

Needless to say, almost all informal settlements have been eradicated and the populations relocated. One of the largest remaining settlements is Pok Fu Lam. This area is still informal in the sense that residents do not have titles, yet the houses have all been formalized, having access to formal basic services and even having a formal address! Because the houses are not legal (illegal although obviously tolerated) and lack a title, they are houses cannot be sold in a formal market- but they are all available the existing and active informal market…

In addition, regarding informal settlements, there are older fishing villages within the edges of city fabric that are considered “squatter settlements” and are still tagged as informal. There are also rooftop settlements in many of the older buildings around, where the roof has been subdivided, developed and sold or rented to others. Finally, there are  “urban villages” (also referred to as “villages in the city”), mostly seen in the neighboring cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen, where the cities have grown in such a rate that adjacent rural villages have been swallowed up by the urban fabric.

In the couple next posts, we will take a closer look at rooftop settlements and urban villages …

Photograph taken by Chi Leung

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