Neighbourhood Sounds

To Kwa Wan: Rundown but in high spirits

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 September, 2012, 11:41am

To Kwa Wan defies easy description. Its old, decrepit buildings are ripe to be torn down, yet its rich communal spirit - seemingly from an earlier Hong Kong - can never be replaced, once gone.

The shabbiness contrasts with the vibrancy of this mixed community of South Asians and locals, a place full of paradoxes.

To Kwa Wan is located just west of the old Kai Tak airport. The first buildings, built in the 1950s and 1960s were limited to eight storeys because of air traffic. Today, their shabbiness is striking: some still lack lighting in their dingy stairwells, and every roof seems crowded with jerry-built shacks.

Residents see the need for redevelopment but are reluctant to lose the community they built and learned to cherish.

'There has been talk of redevelopment for over a decade now but it has still not happened,' said Yeung Chi-kan (pictured above, centre), a resident of more than 30 years.

'As a resident, of course I would like redevelopment, but we would like to be resettled within the neighbourhood and keep our community network.'

Walking down Ma Tau Kok Road, one sees the usual array of shops common in Hong Kong's old neighbourhoods: wet stalls offering a wide range of fresh produce sit next to dimly lit pharmacies with Western and herbal medicines on display. Small property agencies operate from little shopfronts between raucous cha chaan tengs and even noisier garages.

It is hardly a place where one expects to find a grocery store selling lentils, spices and halal foodstuffs. But that is exactly the institution Rehman Shafiqur has been operating for four years - and an institution it truly is. It is a hangout for Indians and Pakistanis living in '13 Streets' - a neighbourhood of decrepit, eight-storey buildings squeezed between Mok Cheong Street and Ma Tau Kok Road on the northern edge of To Kwa Wan.

Attracted initially by low rents, the South Asians have developed their own community. Besides Shafiqur's shop, they have founded madrassas in two flats, where Muslims gather to pray five times a day.

'Our community is made up of 20 to 30 families, plus many more single people, most of them waiting for public housing,' said the madrassa's imam, Mohammad Muburak, who provides daily Koran lessons for children in what he describes as a community centre for the minority group. 'They may be here for a few years until they have been assigned a housing unit.'

Shafiqur said the Chinese and non-Chinese residents got along well together. 'Yes, the place has changed and the rents have risen, but people here are still nice.'

Like his Chinese neighbours, Shafiqur can see the contrast between the rundown buildings and the lively community spirit shared by most residents. This is the sentiment that keeps 13 Streets going: their interpersonal relationships, stretching back decades, give them the will to carry on in the rundown area.

That 13 Streets network covers a lot of ground. Its residential blocks, built in the 1950s and 1960s, extend along 11 short streets - 13 in total when you add the two end roads - named after real and mythical animals signifying good fortune in Chinese culture. They include the dragon (Lung To Street), phoenix (Fung Yi Street), unicorn (Lun Cheung Street) and crane (Hok Ling Street).

The neighbourhood is unique in To Kwa Wan for both its orderly layout and sad state of disrepair. The nearby 'Five Streets' area is similar in both name and shabbiness.

Originally situated on the waterside, To Kwa Wan was developed as a mass of cheap housing and a hub for small-scale cottage industries such as plastic-flower workshops. When local industries moved to the mainland in the late 1980s, garages took their places in the ground-level units.

Talk of neighbourhood demolitions, compensation and redevelopment is almost as old as those memories. Various discussions were held in the 1990s and the past decade, but all fell through. The Urban Renewal Authority and private developers have been reluctant to redevelop the area, since heavy compensation and resettlement money would cut deeply into profits.

Now, To Kwa Wan is due to get its own MTR station by 2018. Like many older districts, its real-estate prices have risen, but not as much as in other areas - mostly because of the poor state of the buildings.

There are one or two bright spots. An old cattle depot next to the Towngas storage station has been transformed into an artists' village. New hotels and even jewellery malls - catering only to mainland tours and tourists - have sprung up nearby, but they are scarcely geared towards the needs of the local community.

Some long-time residents, such as 82-year-old Tang Ming-kang, doubt that the government can make redevelopment happen in the near future. 'The two areas are very densely populated, with lots of subdivided units and rooftop housing. Resettling everyone would be difficult and compensation fees would be very hefty.'

Meanwhile, the downward slide continues: the buildings weather from the elements, while a large influx of residents makes living conditions worse. Many of the original flat owners have retired, putting much-needed building repairs out of their financial reach.

'The buildings are in really bad shape,' said Yeung. 'Fixing them up is like pouring money into the sea. The new building regulations are also ridiculous - it's impossible for us to keep up to date with them.'

The area was so old that some buildings did not even have lights in the stairwells, Tang said.

Tenement rooftops in 13 Streets have evolved into mini villages. Tin and planks have been slapped together to form flimsy shacks, along with a rooftop alleyway connecting each building on the street.

'It leaks really badly in here,' said rooftop tenant Hui Hiu-ling, a mother of three. 'We've had a hard time trying to live here.'

Hui described how her mattress was soaked through when a storm hit the city last month and had to be thrown away. Even when it does not rain, the floors of her 100-square-foot flat ooze water, probably from the air conditioning below. The shack's tin roof heats up in summer, making the flats unbearably hot. The room that serves as both bathroom and kitchen is almost too small to turn around in; rats, cockroaches and other insects are just a normal part of everyday life.

Hui pays HK$2,300 a month for the dwelling, excluding utilities.

'We have been trying to get used to living here for the past five years,' she said. 'But I really can't bear to see my almost two-year-old baby growing up in such a place, bumping into corners because it's so small and so dirty.'

Her biggest hope is to get public housing.

Each of these rooftops holds about 20 families. There are 12 rooftop villages in the 13 Streets area.

'I don't understand why the government cannot redevelop our area as we really need it,' said Yeung, although even he feels torn about the matter.

'I guess the government's whole idea of 'redevelopment' is problematic - they think it's just about putting up new buildings while it should be more than that. Redevelopment should be about injecting new life into a community so its locals can continue their lives in that neighbourhood.'