Brave firemen’s deaths in industrial building blaze a consequence of Hong Kong’s failed housing policies

Yonden Lhatoo says the city’s appalling lack of living space is costing lives as the quest for extra room drives people to unregulated, dangerous alternatives

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 June, 2016, 5:40pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 June, 2016, 7:39pm

When I moved into the precious little pigeon hole that passes for my high-rise apartment in Hong Kong, the lack of space forced me to have it painstakingly redesigned in minimalist fashion.

It can get tricky when you’re aiming for a clutter-free look, with only 600 square feet of living space to fit more than two decades’ worth of existence in this city.

Did I say 600? More like 500, actually, because the purported extra 100 sq ft that I paid through my nose for was “gross floor area” calculated by taking into account the lift lobby, clubhouse and other common areas on my estate.

I’m seriously contemplating placing a camp cot out there by the lift when I have guests, to exercise my squatting rights. It may sound bizarre to the uninitiated outside this city but, hey, it’s Hong Kong.

When a grocery store tampers with its weighing scales to produce inflated readings and overcharge customers, it’s called cheating and people go to jail for it. When our tycoons do the same with multimillion-dollar property transactions, it’s allowed and defended as unfettered commerce.

Anyway, back to my flat and storage predicament. The original minimalist philosophy has been ruined by profligate stacking up of boxes full of stuff that I have no room for. So I was planning to follow the example of countless spatial refugees who are forced to rent cubicles in mini-storage facilities across the city.

Until last week’s deadly fire at one such facility in an industrial building in Ngau Tau Kok.

It took 108 hours to put out the blaze, mostly because firefighters had to break into hundreds of locked cubicles packed with God knows what customers had stored in them. Two firemen were killed.

So now, our government has snapped out of its reverie and started inspecting nearly 500 mini-storage facilities across the city.

Sorry folks, but that’s a band-aid fix with a cock-eyed approach.

What this tragedy really reflects is the appalling lack of living space in Hong Kong, and how it can not only be embarrassing for Asia’s world city, but also downright dangerous and tragic.

You’re worried about cubicles for storing goods? How about cubicles that store humans alive? I’m talking about subdivided flats, the shameful by-product of Hong Kong’s failed housing policies.

People in this city not only have to rent external storage space because their homes are so small, an estimated 300,000 live in mostly decrepit old buildings in which each flat is partitioned into multiple cubicles that accommodate entire families at a time. It breaks down to an average of 30 sq ft per person.

Because the original building plans are altered so drastically, these illegally improvised homes can be serious fire traps.

There was a bit of a buzz over this problem when four people died in a fire in one such tenement building in 2011. Public outrage prompted the government to embark on a comprehensive inspection and rectification drive.

I don’t hear any more about subdivided flats because everyone can only think of storage at the moment. But I seriously doubt it’s all hunky-dory and fire safety in such premises is no longer an issue.

Wait until the next big tragedy and then watch everyone scramble. We’re no better than Americans with their collective amnesia over gun control – mourn the victims, demand action, forget about it until the next tragedy, rinse and repeat.

The next time we send our brave firefighters into a burning building, only to carry them out on stretchers because it was a subdivided fire trap, let’s remember we were fully aware of the problem well in advance but did nothing about it.

Sometimes I hate to say, “I told you so.”

Yonden Lhatoo is a senior editor at the Post