Fung Chun-fei

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 October, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 October, 2003, 12:00am

Fung Chun-fei, 70, and his family occupied a squatter hut in Tin Hau to qualify for government re-housing. Life was dangerous in the wooden huts and the threat of fire was constant. Most of the residents were not newcomers from the mainland, but poor Hong Kong people who could not find accommodation elsewhere. He describes how although living there was difficult, life in Hong Kong's housing estates wasn't a bed of roses either. I came to Hong Kong from Guangzhou in 1949. Hong Kong was a small place and I lived in a store owned by an aunt in Sheung Wan. I helped around the store, which sold food and kitchen needs, for a few years, then I managed to find work.

My first job was at the Shui Hing department store in Sheung Wan. I was paid $36 a month as a salesman and the employer provided food and lodging. The fourth floor of the building was a dormitory with bunk beds. It had its own entrance and we were allowed to come and go freely when we were not working. We used to go to a barber's on D'Aguilar Street in Central, where haircuts were free because trainee barbers practised on us. If the cut was especially bad, the instructors would take over and we got $10 haircuts for free.

After four years at Shui Hing, I got a $90-a-month job with an import-export firm and started night classes for $10 a month to learn English. In 1959, I moved into the sales of electrical equipment and stayed with that until my retirement. At about the same time, my parents arrived from China and we moved into rooms in Sheung Wan.

I married Wu Choi-ying in 1964. We met at a New Territories beach as we both enjoyed swimming. We were lucky because someone I knew owned a squatter hut and gave it to us when he was able to afford to move out in 1969. The most precious asset was the registration number the hut had. My friend didn't claim it, because he moved into private accommodation and the registration number passed to me. We waited in the queue for re-housing. After two years, our number came up and we moved, after all the checks had been made. The government people went to my employers to check that my home address was the squatter hut. Everyone was hard up in those days and the huts usually changed hands for the price of a thank-you meal.

The squatter areas were crowded with large families. In the days before welfare, landlords refused to rent to such families because they believed it would be difficult to collect rent from people who had trouble feeding their children. The riots a couple of years earlier swelled the number of squatters, with people building on any available land. Some rented huts for $2 or $3 a month.

There were no taps in the huts but you could get a hose to your hut for $1.50 a month. Water was pumped through the hose at fixed times during the day. Hong Kong Electric provided electricity, by erecting poles in the open areas. Wires led to individual huts. Most residents used bare bulbs of 15-25 watts and paid for the electricity they used. Use was very stringent and some people dispensed with electricity altogether. Voltage was very low and not enough to run an electric fan, even if you could afford one. Cooking was all done on kerosene stoves. There were no toilets and waste had to be taken to designated areas and dumped. We were there for two years.

The first unit we moved into in 1971 was a single room, less than 200 square feet. It was in an old six-storey housing block in Chai Wan. We had two small children and a baby. All the beds were lined up against one wall. Along the other wall, we had the wardrobes, fridge and the rest of our belongings, including a folding table which was opened at mealtimes and for homework. We ate our meals sitting on the bed, with the table in front of us. There was no toilet and no kitchen. These were confined to a tiny balcony, which served as kitchen, toilet and wash-house. There was just one tap in the unit, on the balcony.

The unit was very hot and we were forced to keep the door open when everyone was home. You had to make sure you watched your possessions because young thugs used to help themselves.

We paid $34 a month for rent. This gradually went up until we were paying the maximum of $500 a month. After a few years, we moved to another unit, also in Chai Wan, where we are now. It had one bedroom and a separate living and dinning room and we built a second bedroom for the children. It has a proper toilet, kitchen and little back balcony. This was supposed to be a temporary place, while we waited for a unit in Sai Wan Ho. We became accustomed to this area and gave up all claims to move elsewhere.

The place wasn't nice like it is now. The unit consisted of a concrete box. Nothing was finished. Over the years, we put in the flooring, painted the walls, replaced the squat toilet with a commode, installed washbasins and fixed the windows. The workmanship in these units was quite shabby and until we could afford to replace the window frames, we had to live with water coming in through the cracks when it rained. It is now quite comfortable and my wife and I are content with the space we have, now that children are grown and have moved out. Our home measures 400 sq ft and is a far cry from the squatter area in Tin Hau.

After my retirement in 1994, I worked part-time for a while, but gave it up when I found commuting between Chai Wan and Tsuen Wan too much.

My wife still gets up early every morning to go swimming. I don't any more. She worked in a factory, making dolls' clothes. Of our three children, our son is a car salesman, our elder daughter is a computer programmer and our youngest, Katie, works in the library of the South China Morning Post.'