Once an icon of low-cost living, Wah Fu Estate is finally getting the redevelopment residents hoped for
Built in the 1960s, Wah Fu Estate was the first of its kind, marking a significant upturn in the Hong Kong public's standard of living. Now, as redevelopment approaches, Fanny Fung meets some residents of the beloved but dilapidated project
''Rocky beaches with hardly a soul on them. Boulders lapped by rippling water. Acres of hillsides shrub-bedecked and inviting. Spectacular sunsets behind islands dotted in myriads of gold and purple over the South China Sea."
You would be forgiven for thinking that is from an advertisement for a holiday resort or luxury villa, but those were the words chosen by the South China Morning Post in 1973 to describe Wah Fu Estate, a public-housing development built for low-income families between Pok Fu Lam and Aberdeen, on the west of Hong Kong Island.
Referencing the " fu" in its name, which means "wealthy", Wah Fu Estate offered facilities and an environment that were deemed relatively luxurious at a time when many in Hong Kong still lived in resettlement buildings and squatter camps. But the shine has long since faded and Wah Fu's dilapidated buildings are part of an image the now much more affluent city is striving to shed. After years of patching over the cracks and uncertainty with regard to how long they might be able stay in their homes, Wah Fu's residents learned their fate in January, when Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying announced in his policy address that the estate would be redeveloped.
"Before moving here, I lived in a resettlement area in Wong Tai Sin," recalls Chan Kar-chun, 72, who moved into a 300-plus sq ft home in the estate's Wah Kee House, where he still lives, in 1969. "There were eight of us, my parents-in-law, my mother, my wife, our three eldest children and myself. My wife was pregnant with our fourth child when we moved in and, later, we had our youngest kid. All of our five children grew up in Wah Fu.
"I was very excited. Before moving here we did not even have our own kitchen or bathroom. When my wife took a shower in the public bathroom [in Wong Tai Sin], I would have to stand outside as her 'watchman'."
In 1954, Hong Kong's first public-housing estate was built for the victims of the Christmas Day 1953 Shek Kip Mei squatter fire and, in 1957, the Housing Authority threw open the doors on its first purpose-built low-cost housing estate, North Point. But Wah Fu, which was ready for its first residents in late 1967, was something else altogether. A government-produced television advertisement declared that, "Every flat here is spacious, equipped with an independent kitchen, a living room and a shower room. What an enjoyment in life to take a shower at home after work every day!"
When governor Sir David Trench officiated at the inauguration ceremony of Wah Fu, on September 27, 1968, one of the colonial government's priorities had become the provision of significantly improved social welfare in the wake of the 1967 riots.
Wah Fu Estate - which, when it was completed in 1978, numbered 18 "houses", or blocks, 11 to 26 storeys high, containing a total of 9,100 flats - is regarded as a milestone in the development of public housing in Hong Kong, not because of its size but because it was the first such estate designed as a "new town". With a market, a multi-storey car park, a public library, banks, restaurants and schools, Wah Fu was designed with the aim of establishing a self-contained community - a groundbreaking concept in 1960s Hong Kong.
Turning nine hectares of headland, much of it on hill slopes, into an estate capable of housing and otherwise serving 50,000 people was a pioneer-ing task. The architect in charge, Donald Liao Poon-huai, once likened the project to the construction of what would be considered a small city in Europe.
The architecture was designed to foster a sense of community. The design of the later buildings, which had flats (measuring between 300 sqft and 430 sqft each) lining four sides surrounding an open square, was intended to allow in natural light and optimise security by enabling neighbours living on different floors to see each other's doorways.
"In those days, everyone kept their doors open," says Kwok Yau-ming, 65, who has lived in Wah Tai House since 1972. "We would visit one another's homes and play mahjong together. But by about 10 years ago, most households had installed air-conditioners and started to keep their doors shut. What's more, the new generation prefer more privacy and don't like having neighbours entering their homes.
"The public-housing flats built in [the early] days were much less equipped compared with nowadays. When we moved into Wah Fu, we even had to pay out of our own pockets to install metal gates and fluorescent lights, for example," says Kwok, who serves as president of the Wah Fu Estate Credit Union. "Many residents could not afford these facilities. That was why they set up a credit union, to help each other." Members contribute money to the union, which is then given out in low-interest loans to those same members when they are in need.
Wah Fu may have seemed tranquil in its early years, but it was also isolated. When China Motor Bus announced it would extend route No4 to Wah Fu in 1968, for a fare of 50 cents, it became the first public-transport service linking the estate with the city centre.
"The monthly rent was HK$125. But due to the remoteness and inconvenient public transport, it cost an extra HK$120 per month for the four of us to commute for work," says Kwok, who was a repairman.
"The ride to the United Pier [in Central, demolished in 1994] itself would take about 40 minutes. But the bus came only every hour and there was bound to be a long queue. I preferred getting off at Ebenezer School [in Pok Fu Lam] and then walking to Pokfield Road, to catch bus No23. Sometimes I would join four neighbours in taking a taxi."
Today you can catch a bus from Wah Fu to places as far flung as Sha Tin and the airport, on Chek Lap Kok, if you so wish.
In the few old cafes still operating - Silver Cafe opened in 1968, Wah Fu Cafe in the 70s - patrons can be found discussing the future of the estate. Elsewhere, you'll find a stationery store, its signboard missing some characters; circles of old men gambling; and grocery shops in the multi-storey market heaving with customers.
On the Post Magazine's visit to Chan's home, cracks are visible on the ceiling in the living room, the kitchen and above the family's bunk bed.
"The walls and the ceiling crack from time to time," he says. "Sometimes even the bar tendons are exposed. They have done repair works for us three times already."
About five years ago, says Chan, a toilet in a flat in Wah Shun House fell into the flat below. Fortunately, no one was injured.
The estate is now home to just 26,000, many of whom, like Chan and Kwok, are waiting for the government's help to move to a new and better home - again. The redevelopment of Wah Fu Estate has been on and off the government's agenda since the 80s. For residents, hope and disappointment have come and gone over the past three decades.
"In the 80s, the Housing Department said it wanted to demolish the estate and let us move to Wah Kwai [the adjacent public-housing estate]. But later it said Tin Wan Estate was in more urgent need of redevelopment than here. Yet a few years later, the issue was brought up again, but then we got surpassed by Wong Chuk Hang Estate," Chan says.
It was discovered in the 80s that substandard building practices had been used in the building of some Wah Fu blocks. The issue became a scandal years after the public-housing boom. In 2008, an inspection by the Housing Department concluded that Wah Fu's buildings were structurally safe and it was decided that they should be repaired in order to stand for at least another 15 years. The maintenance costs came to a record HK$180 million.
At a time when more than 2.1 million citizens are living in public housing and when the government has laid out an ambitious target to build 200,000 public-housing flats in a decade and is struggling to cope with a waiting list 240,000 names long, the condition of ageing estates such as Wah Fu has become a major concern. Following the official confirmation that Wah Fu will, this time, be redeveloped - although it's not yet clear when - the Housing Authority has placed another 21 old public-rental housing estates on its to-be-assessed list.
"I will miss Wah Fu, but if I can move to somewhere in the Southern District, then it will be fine … I have thought about moving for a long time but, so far, have not found a place as good as here. Wah Fu is densely populated with good public facilities, yet, in another sense, it is a quiet corner in the city," says Kwok, who is prepared for the fact that the credit union will have to assist Wah Fu residents again when they move out, just as it helped the community when people moved in more than four decades ago.
The rebuilt Wah Fu will never be the same as the existing one. But in today's Hong Kong, where tens of thousands of families are living in subdivided flats, perhaps the future Wah Fu Estate will bring the same sort of excitement to its new residents as it did to those who moved in from resettlement housing in the 60s.