One year on, there's no end to a father's pain
Jennifer Ngo and Simpson Cheung
Lai Hok-man may have survived the fire that ravaged his old Ma Tau Wai tenement block last year, but his pain will last a lifetime.
Lai's pregnant wife and two young sons died one year ago today while trying to escape from their fourth-floor flat in a building teeming with illegally subdivided dwellings. Lai, who stayed behind to grab some possessions, awoke in hospital three days later to learn of their fate.
'I won't ever stop asking why this happened to me,' Lai said. 'I forever bear the burden of being the only one to survive.'
The late-night fire also claimed the life of an 18-year-old girl and displaced numerous residents from the eight-storey building. It helped expose an explosion of illegally subdivided 'cubicle' flats in the city's older buildings as Hongkongers look for ways to overcome a shortage of affordable housing.
The authorities believe the fire was caused by an electrical fault in a photography studio storeroom on the ground floor.
One year on, Lai said he had yet to come to terms with the grief he feels having survived the blaze. He credited social workers and friends with helping him get through the days. He now lives in public housing and has returned to work.
Lai's wife, Huang Yan-huan, 37, was found clutching the body of his one-year-old son. His other son, six, was found on a staircase between the second and third floors.
'For a whole year now, I've asked why did the gods take my family, and leave me here alone trapped in my thoughts,' Lai said. 'If I wasn't a positive person by nature, I wouldn't be able to talk to you today.'
Survivor Tse Cho-suen said he needed medication to help him sleep. His daughter, Summer, 18, was the fourth victim.
Two of their neighbours, a woman, surnamed Hui, and her young son, also moved into public housing in Kwun Tong four months ago.
Hui still panics every time she hears a fire engine's wail or catches a whiff of smoke. She delayed her son's enrolment into kindergarten for a year because she did not want him to go to a school near their old home.
'I'm trying to forget what happened,' Hui said. 'I've tried to avoid the area, but the bad memories do come back.'
Hui said she thought the government had done little to address the proliferation of illegally subdivided flats since the fire and similar blaze in Fa Yuen Street that left nine dead in December.
'I don't think they have stepped up regulation of subdivided cubicles,' she said. Officials were so caught taking down illegal structures that they seemed to have forgotten that people were living in such cramped spaces because they have no place else to go.
'I do not think the government has done enough in dealing with the subdivided flat issue,' said Christine Kong Mei-wah, a retired banker who also survived the fire. 'I do not think they have learnt the lesson.'
Kong, who has been staying with a relative in Kwun Tong, said she would likely return to the flat she owns on the third floor of the Ma Tau Wai building after it was renovated because she had no money to buy elsewhere. Renovations have not started because some owners have failed to show up for meetings.
Kong said the government should gradually move tenants from illegally subdivided flats into public housing and review all public tenants to ensure they were still eligible.
She said the owner of the photography studio should shoulder some of the responsibility. It also caught fire in 2008, but no one was hurt.
The studio owner, Fung Kwok-kwong, refused to comment yesterday.