Can you give me a lift?
Old people in some public estates are virtual prisoners while bureaucrats bicker over unproven safety concerns and the cost of installing elevators, writes Chloe Lai
Fung Kwong-ming, 70, always remembers what his acupuncturists told him: 'You don't have to visit any more, all you need to do is have regular exercise. If you make this a regular habit, your muscles will gradually regain strength.'
In the seven years since he received that advice, the retired Mandarin Oriental baker has walked in the corridor in front of his home for 30 minutes twice a day to strengthen his left arm and leg paralysed by a stroke in 1991. None of the exercises ever took place in a park or a playground.
Mr Fung is living in a 10-storey public housing block in Tsuen Wan. The building, completed in 1975, has no elevator. 'I'm living on the sixth floor. Climbing six storeys is too much. I only go downstairs when I need to see my doctor,' Mr Fung said.
He hopes the Housing Authority will install lifts in his building to make his life easier. And he is not alone. Many of the estate's elderly residents, including his neighbour, 83-year-old Ho Hui-chai, also confine most of their activities to their homes and to the public corridor.
Mrs Ho, a mother of nine, was a construction worker in her youth. She was forced to find work as a dim sum waitress when she could no longer stand the physical work demanded by the building industry.
'Every time I go to the market, I try to buy as much as I can, so I don't have to shop for food every day,' she said. 'But the problem is I can't carry much.
'Sometimes my son and my daughter-in-law call in to check if I need anything. But they have to work long hours, and I don't want to trouble them. They were previously unemployed for some years, and it is so difficult to get a job these days. The best thing is for the building to have an elevator.'
The residents and the legislator representing them have been lobbying the Housing Authority for months, but have yet to make progress.
'They say there is no space here for an elevator,' Mrs Ho said. 'I don't think so. I'm sure if they want to do it, they will find the space they need.'
Lack of space is not the only reason the elderly residents of this housing estate are being denied what for most Hongkongers is a standard convenience. Money is the other issue in deciding to buy and install an elevator.
Responding to residents' protests two weeks ago, the authority said that arranging for tenants to move to alternative accommodation was a more effective solution and a better allocation of resources. Installing one elevator will cost between $4 million and $6 million, according to a written reply Legco received from Secretary for Housing, Planning and Lands Michael Suen Ming-yeung, last October.
In the same reply, Mr Suen wrote that another factor was safety. He said the authority had to take into account whether installing a lift would affect the building's structure.
But he did not say which buildings could potentially suffer structural problems through the construction of a lift shaft.
Nearly a year has passed, and the authority has still provided no information on which of the buildings could withstand such construction.
The latest reply from the authority said: 'We have no plan to install elevators for any of the 32 buildings.
'The elderly can ask for a transfer if they find it difficult to walk up and down the stairs. We understand it is important for the elderly to maintain a social network which has been in place for decades. So we will try to relocate them to other buildings in the same estate. Again, as they are elderly, the transfer will be done within a month of their application.'
Nelson Chow Wing-sun, of the University of Hong Kong's social works department, said those affected should accept the department's decision.
'I think the elderly shouldn't be too picky and stubborn,' Professor Chow said. 'If the estates are structurally unfit to have elevators, they should accept the reality and move to other buildings.
'The Housing Department promised to settle them in the same estate to minimise disturbance, and this is a good thing. If they want to further improve their living conditions, they should consider moving to new estates - it shouldn't take long to do so.'
At present, 32 public housing blocks, completed between the 1960s and 1981, are without lifts. There are no plans to raze any of these buildings. The authority has no record of how many elderly residents live in the 32 blocks.
Unionist and legislator Leung Yiu-chung said the authority's response was unacceptable.
'This is not a solution at all,' Mr Leung said. 'What we are talking about is a group of underprivileged elderly. Moving means extra expenditure. It is also physically and mentally demanding for the elderly.'
He said he believed the authority's answer of relocating the elderly was unworkable. 'After moving out the elderly who cannot cope with climbing stairs, the authority will almost certainly allocate the flat to younger tenants,' he said. 'But those tenants will also grow old and, in the end, the stairs will be too much for them to cope with.'
The unionist's view was partly echoed by an academic, who is also a member of the authority. City University political science professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung categorically ruled out redevelopment. The worst scenario, he said, was demolition.
'The situation is very complex and the authority will create even more problems for the elderly,' Professor Cheung said. 'Although, for sure, some will be given a flat in the same area after the completion of new buildings, it will mean higher rent. My experience is old people don't like seeing their home being pulled down.'
He said the most effective solution was to have new lifts, but stressed it was important to be practical when older buildings became too fragile.
'Millions of dollars for one elevator to ease the hardship our elderly endure is inexpensive,' Professor Cheung said. 'If it is too expensive for the authority, it can limit construction to one elevator per building and have the construction done in phases.
'A high construction cost is not an excuse for not adding elevators to the old estate blocks to make their lives easier. But if building an elevator means weakening the structure of a building, then it is unwise to take this risk.'
Professor Cheung said he hoped the authority would conduct a thorough examination to determine which of the 32 housing blocks were suitable to have lifts installed.
The academic said financial assistance and social worker support to those who needed to be relocated would help ease their plight. The authority could refer cases of disabled people to the Social Welfare Department, he said.
'What we're talking about here must be cases where there are compassionate grounds and it is reasonable that they have a subsidy,' he said. 'My estimation is there are not many families that need financial assistance.'