Squeezy Living: Cheek by Jowl, Elbow to Rib in Hyper-Crowded Hong Kong

Overflowing apartments in Hong Kong (Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Overflowing apartments in Hong Kong (Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

My wife, Wendy, and I live in the North Point neighborhood of Hong Kong, a jam-packed residential and commercial district once ranked the most densely populated place on Earth.

Walking its streets, I dodge and dart to avoid the throngs, but I rarely make it a single block without getting an elbow to the ribs. To avoid bumping into others, I often tuck one of my arms behind my back, but even that doesn’t work. I bounce off of people so much that I no longer apologize.

In Hong Kong, more than seven million people live in an area that’s only slightly larger than Manhattan (population 1.6 million). Put another way, it would be like living on Manhattan if everybody from Brooklyn, Queens and one-and-a-half Staten Islands moved in. 

Here in Hong Kong, my wife and I, along with our two cats, occupy a 417-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment, which is a typical Hong Kong flat.

We have no closet, so we store our clothes in a wardrobe and underneath our hydraulic bed in vacuum-packed bags. Our washer/dryer combo unit fits neatly under our two-burner stove. (Only more expensive “Western” flats have ovens, because Cantonese prefer to stir-fry, stew, steam and boil their food.)

The dryer isn’t very powerful, however, so we often hang clothing on two metal rods directly above my office desk. Our fridge is thin and short, our garbage can six inches wide, and our CDs and DVDs are stowed inside folders. We have no bathtub. Half of our possessions are in my mother’s basement.

And you thought New York was crowded.

Our flat may be tiny, but we’re fortunate to live in the space we do. Consider the city’s so-called cage dwellers. These (mostly) old men pay $160 a month to live in wire-mesh pens that measure a scant 6 by 2.5 feet—just 15 square feet—which contain a bed and little else. About a dozen of these crates are crammed into a dank, dormitory-style room.

Slightly larger spaces called cubicle apartments measure just 40 square feet and house entire families—all told, more than 100,000 people. Seeing photographs and videos of such squalid conditions makes me think that that The Economist didn’t speak with any of these people before ranking Hong Kong the most livable city in the world.

While the city’s poorest languish in cages and cubicles, Hong Kong’s upper class pays a hefty monthly nut for space that frankly ain’t all that. Recently I spotted a 1,240-square-foot three-bedroom that goes for $10,300 a month. A couple months ago, Wendy pointed out an ad for a parking spot that went for $54,000. I can’t make this up. Even Hong Kong’s top-tier apartments are small by New York standards.

There are numerous reasons why Hong Kongers live in such cramped conditions. For one thing, there are just lots of people living in a small, mountainous area with little developed land. On top of that, an influx of recent mainland money has jacked up real estate prices and overheated the market, shrinking what’s affordable to families.

But there’s also a tradition—desire, even—for a lot of Chinese to live under one roof. According to China scholar Wolfram Eberhard, the Chinese have lived in “cramped quarters and in crowded villages” since the days of Confucius.

The more people who “huddled together” not only maximized arable land, but, like a medieval European town, helped protect against invasion. It kept “the defensive radius to a minimum,” Mr. Eberhard wrote in his book A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols. “The shorter the town walls, the easier they were to defend.”

Wendy, who grew up in a 600-square-foot flat with five family members and a domestic helper, added, “We have a saying: sei doi tohng tong. ‘Four generations under one roof.’ You’re considered very fortunate to have many generations living under one roof.”

While it’s rare to find four generations living together in modern Hong Kong, many locals continue to live at home until they’re well into adulthood. The motivation is cultural, but also financial. Most children support their parents in retirement, thus making the already pricey real estate market out of reach.

But there’s a movement by an alliance of politicians and professors called “Underneath Flyover Action” to help those recent graduates find affordable housing. Last month they suggested that young adults could live in old shipping containers beneath overpasses and pedestrian bridges.

So far the proposal has received a lukewarm reception, although in a recent letter to the South China Morning Post, one reader supported the plan, which would place the recycled dwellings near busy, polluted roadways. “I would much prefer to live in a standard 6-metre container,” he wrote, “than in a caged-dwelling or coffin-sized bed space, no matter the location.”

As for the cramped lifestyle, we’re still adjusting. Our apartment certainly beats the 105-square-foot shoebox I endured for two years on West 71st Street. (The first night, while assembling a desk from Ikea, I broke down in tears and cried out to no one in particular, “What have I done?”)

And any apartment, no matter how small, remains preferable to a Hong Kong sidewalk, where a granny once elbowed me so hard, I nearly grabbed her cane and snapped it into kindling.

But the busy streets and crowded public transportation? I’m not sure I’ll ever adjust to that. Once, while waiting for the train, I stood in line for 20 minutes, as each car only had enough room for about a dozen people to enter. When I finally made it on, I had what amounted to a three-way. Some guy’s cellphone was pressing so hard into my butt that I had to do the same to the poor woman in front of me. I hope she forgave me. And I hope it was his cellphone.

editorial@observer.com