Neighbourhood Sounds

Pak Tin Estate: nostalgic lifestyle will be swept away

The bulldozers start moving in next year, but residents are divided over benefits of redevelopment plan for their homes

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 October, 2012, 11:35am

Rectangular blocks of flats with colourful facades, old-style bakeries and restaurants, grocery stores selling cheap dried fruit - all these features that give Pak Tin an air of nostalgia will be bulldozed after a redevelopment plan for the area gets under way next year.

But opinions among residents of this 37-year-old historic public housing estate in Kowloon are divided over the need for the demolition, which has been said to stem not from structural safety concerns as in previous projects, but from a need to yield more flats to satisfy an ever-growing demand for public housing.

Some tenants are looking forward to a newer, better living environment - especially the elderly who want to live out their lives in nicer flats.

But some business owners lament that they will have no choice but to close their decades-old small enterprises, as rents elsewhere in town are much higher.

But the biggest bone of contention is the proposed phased redevelopment that could see about 2,000 residents being moved to new flats that are less accessible.

According to a blueprint made public in April, the government project will take place in three phases over the next seven years to "minimise disturbance" to residents.

Demolition will start next year, with the relocation of the first batch of tenants - about half of all Pak Tin residents - to nearby Shek Kip Mei Estate, a location closer to an MTR station than Pak Tin.

The government initially proposed that the second batch of affected residents would be rehoused in some of the 1,420 new flats on the site scheduled for completion by 2019.

But this had now been changed, said Sham Shui Po district councillor Yan Kai-wing, with the Housing Authority telling the phase two tenants that they would have to move and settle down in farther away So Uk Estate in 2018.

"The government is [misinterpreting] our demand for speediness," Yan said.

He also complained about the government's unwillingness to redevelop the estate's run-down shopping mall sooner to provide more flats for relocated tenants, some of whom will not be moving out of their present homes until the end of the decade.

"I don't want to move to So Uk, not anywhere," said one 80-year-old woman resting on a bench in front of her home in Block 3, which, together with three others, will be among the first to be demolished. "I'd rather live here for as long as my life lasts."

The imminent demolition is not the first for Pak Tin residents. Three blocks had to be pulled down in 1989 after a scandal in which it was revealed that 26 public housing towers across the city were endangered by shoddy construction.

Another three old blocks of flats were demolished in the 1990s.

Yan said affected residents would rather go to the newly redeveloped Shek Kip Mei Estate during the resettlement. Other than having better transport links, the two estates shared an historical bond, he said.

Pak Tin Estate was opened in 1975 to house people from three resettlement areas, including those affected by the devastating Shek Kip Mei fire that destroyed a vast squatter area on Christmas Eve in 1953.

So for some Pak Tin residents, being rehoused in Shek Kip Mei is seen as a symbolic journey home.

Moving out of Pak Tin is also likely to have a big economic and social impact on small businesses and shops.

Apart from the small shopping mall, many stores - mostly what Yan described as "one-man bands" - operate on the ground level of the blocks of flats.

They range from small stalls selling goldfish to restaurants and casual eateries.

Lee Ying, in her 70s, who has been working in a grocery store selling snacks for the past four years, said running a small operation in the neighbourhood was not all about making a profit.

"I'll definitely miss it because of the close bonds with people living here," Lee said. "The kids are happy choosing what they want - and so am I."

But life had not always been easy, said Lee, recalling how one couple used to frequent her shop with evil intent. "The girl came in, but the guy was outside stealing my goods."

Now the shop owners await compensation from the government.

The Housing Authority will offer eligible commercial tenants affected by redevelopment an ex gratia allowance equivalent to 18 months' rent to help them find alternative premises.

They will also be offered the chance to bid for leases in the authority's markets through a restricted-tender exercise with a three-month rent-free period in the new tenancy agreement.

Those who do not opt for this will be offered a lump sum of HK$99,000.

But as rents for the current premises are "exceptionally low" when compared to market rents, Yan said it would be unrealistic to close their businesses in return for a sum of money that would not be enough to sustain their lives.

With boxes of goods still inside - including a dozen eye-catching glass jars containing traditional dried fruit of different colours - Lee said his business had to move somewhere else. But small shops like Lee's are not likely to survive once they leave the old estates.

Yu Fung-ying, now over 60, will have to seek new premises for the snack shop opened by her parents more than 30 years ago, which pays a monthly rent of less than HK$10,000.

"The only available shops at other public estates are in the kind of dead locations [where no one goes]," she complained.

Two shops away was a goldfish counter operated by 80-year-old Leung Kwan who joked that, "without working every day I don't feel right".

Hanging an old clock on the wall of her shop, among dozens of boxes containing all kinds of fishing and fish-raising tools, Leung, now with a shrinking business, seemed merely to be counting down to her shop's closure - or something even more permanent.

"I won't be here for too long," she said. "At that time, people like me will no longer be a headache for the government."

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