Niche market: Hong Kong’s dead should not have to wait in line for an urn space

Kenneth Leung says with waiting times averaging four years and a looming shortage of 400,000 niches by 2023, the private columbarium industry and communities must collaborate on a solution

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 September, 2016, 1:56pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 September, 2016, 6:24pm

The critical shortage of urn spaces to hold the cremated remains of the deceased is a well-documented problem in Hong Kong, with many resorting to “storing” their loved ones at undertakers for extended periods while waiting for a suitable niche. When it takes an average of four years to get a niche – longer than the wait for a public housing flat – the resulting anguish and frustration only compounds the bereavement suffered by those left behind.

It’s quicker to get public housing than to be buried in Hong Kong ... and four-year average niche wait will get worse

As a veteran operator in the burial and cremation business, I have witnessed its transformation in Hong Kong over the years. Change is needed to break the impasse in the current situation with urn spaces.

First, the government’s pledge to add 450,000 public niches by 2022 does not appear achievable, given that only 2,540 new niches had been built as of last year – a worrying figure against an annual demand of over 40,000 niche spaces. The dearth of public niches has led to a spike in demand and prices for the few new private-sector niches available. If nothing is done by 2023, Hong Kong could be 400,000 urn spaces short.

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A solution lies in the private columbarium industry playing a more substantial role to help address the severe shortage. However, each time there is a plan to build a columbarium, be it private or public, it is understandably met with concerns over the facility’s impact on local traffic, and the fact that one would typically not wish for an addition of that nature in their neighbourhood. The proposed Island Memorial Centre private columbarium in Chai Wan, which has encountered strong opposition from local residents and politicians, is a case in point.

Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan have exceptionally pleasant columbariums, instead of the rather depressing facilities we have in Hong Kong

These concerns can be practically and creatively addressed though, and the operator of the proposed Chai Wan facility appears to have been sensitive to local sentiment. In listening to the views of local residents, they are providing original solutions to address community concerns. For instance, admission to the centre will be restricted to visitors who have pre-registered, and arrangements made to arrive on designated ferries or shuttle buses. These are thoughtful arrangements to help regulate road traffic.

However, beyond transport practicalities, what interests me most about the project is how the operator is committed to have the facility bring wider, tangible daily benefits to the local community. Ten per cent of the centre’s profits, or a minimum of HK$5 million for the first five years, will be devoted to community development, with half the sum allocated to the neighbourhood closest to the centre. This first-of-a-kind arrangement in Hong Kong will allow local residents, via a management committee, to decide what community facilities they want to acquire.

While the fund will finance the centre’s day-to-day operations, the innovative management committee, which is composed of the operator, local residents and Eastern District councillors, will engage the local community using a bottom-up approach to define the project’s “planning gain”. This is an exciting new development for the private columbarium industry.

Change in columbarium services in Hong Kong is also overdue because we have fallen far behind the region in many respects, such as with the quality of columbarium design and service.

Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan have exceptionally pleasant columbariums, instead of the rather depressing facilities we have in Hong Kong. For a city that prides itself on having the latest and the best, Hong Kong needs to catch up fast.

More broadly, the development of accessible, contemporary columbariums that integrate well with their surroundings can usher in a change in attitudes towards these essential facilities. Not only will those paying their respects to ancestors and loved ones find the experience much more pleasant, the public will see that there is nothing to fear about locating columbariums in urban areas.

Sensitive, community-focused columbarium operations can help alleviate the severe shortage of urn niches in Hong Kong, and show a way forward for community-developer collaboration.

Kenneth Leung Ka-keung is the fifth-generation proprietor of Leung Chun Woo Kee, one of Hong Kong’s oldest funeral businesses