Sham Shui Po

21 03 2011

Recently Hong Kong’s favourite topic of conversation/reason for being – money –  has been much in the news. The HK government, basking in a multi-billion dollar surplus, has been strongarmed by public opinion into sharing some of the wealth. It has announced a payment of 6,000 HKD (About 300 US) to each Hong Kong resident.

Although some have welcomed the payment with open wallets…er, I mean arms, others have decried the lack of means testing. It will go to millionaires in their lofty Peak mansions, as well as to the elderly and the poor.

In a city with such a disparity in wealth, many have pondered aloud if this is really appropriate.

My first impressions of Hong Kong were of wealth. The city looked rich. Its people were well-dressed, decked out in iPods and copious laptop computers. Sure, a lot of the housing looked shitty but I presumed that (as in Japan) that wasn’t a good indicator of income – even for the middle classes and above, standards were just lower than in Australia.

So I was surprised to read that according to some measures, Hong Kong has the largest income gap in Asia. The difference between the wealthy and the poor is greater here than in Indonesia, Thailand or the Philippines. At least, this is according to its Gini coefficient ( an equation for measuring disparity, named after its Italian inventor). Using this measure Hong Kong is more comparable with Brazil or Colombia. The Hong Kong government has stated that this statistic is somewhat misleading. It is not that Hong Kong has so many poor people, it says, that it has a significant group of super-rich (the finance crowd, and property-owners) and this distorts the findings. I am prepared to believe that. But still, the statistics indicate that there is another side to Hong Kong than the Gucci-toting crowds of Central and Tsim Sha Tsui. Where did they hang out?

The answer: Sham Shui Po

Sham Shui Po is just a few train stops down the peninsula from Tsim Sha Tsui’s tourist central, but it is one of Hong Kong’s poorest and oldest neighborhoods (with its residents having the city’s highest median age). In a city where there is no old age pension, age and poverty have a strong correlation. It is also one of the homes of the “cage people” (see below).

The area is also famous though for its lively street markets and its cheap-dodgy-computer-parts malls. The HK government is even trying to promote it as a “local Akihabara”. It is has also launched several schemes to aggressively gentrify the area, like establishing a branch of a US arts school to help turn it into a funky design hub (more on that here).

I was also surprised to find this:

It was selling beauty creams made from emus or lanolin (an oil byproduct from sheep wool wildly popular with Chinese tourists to Australia).

An even more surprising find in a typical high rise housing estate , was this.

It turns out the ‘ghetto’ houses arguably Hong Kong’s most important historical artifact a 2000-year-old Han dynasty tomb. True, it is a bit underwhelming to look at (you aren’t allowed in, you just peer at it through plexiglass) but it is still not something you expect in a public housing estate.

The place I had really come looking for, however, was on a nearby hillside. The So Uk housing estate, opened in 1960, will be closed next year, with all residents relocated. The complex will then be dynamited. A place that 15,000 people have called home at any one time and fifty years of their dreams, hopes and memories will be no more. The eight storey blocks, or “houses”, (each named after a different flower) will be all knocked down.

The estate, in its time considered one of the most desirable in Hong Kong, has become too costly to maintain.

I wandered briefly through the complex, past buildings already emptying of residents, or those that are boarded up and already “completed”. Workmen in reflective vests went about their duties, taking measurements while the straggling residents who still remained played with their children or gossipped  in the courtyard.

Cramped though the little flats might seem, they were built at a time when Hong Kong needed them. The city-state’s population doubled virtually overnight, as refugees flooded in from China to escape the Cultural Revolution. People were camping on the hills and living in boats on the harbour. I read an interview online with one former resident who said “you have to undertand, to get a government flat then was like winning the lottery”.

How times have changed. Now deemed too old fashioned, the apartments that were once glittering prizes are no longer wanted. Goodbye So Uk estates, you served Hong Kong well…

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3 responses

22 09 2011
Back to Sham Shui Po « ilbonito blog 2007

[…] Sham Shui Po is one of Hong Kong’s most interesting neighbourhoods, a ramshackle district of ageing apartment blocks (and tenements), old-style street markets and flaking signs painted on signboards rather than flashing neon as in the wealthier retail districts of MongKok or Tsim Sha Tsui. Its a down-at-heel, no-nonense district, home to immigrants and Middle Eastern petty traders, homeless cage people, snake meat restaurants, old men hawking phlegm and hopeful new arrivals from the mainland as well as a few real surprises: a three-thousand year old tomb, an “Australian” store and an international art school. […]

1 10 2012
Sham Shiu Po shopping safari « ilbonito blog 2007

[…] Shui Po, previously discussed here and here  is one of Hong Kong’s most characterful (and poorest) neighborhoods; it is a […]

26 02 2014
Sham Shui Po Food safari! | ilbonito blog 2007

[…] Shui Po, discussed previously on the blog here and here is one of the most rewarding areas of Hong Kong for exploring on foot, at least for those […]

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