Generic Sha Tin estate City One gets some colour from mainland students
City One in Sha Tin looks as drab as its name. But an influx of mainland students has lent it a measure of youthful energy
City One could have come straight out of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, with its setting in a place called Airstrip One. With 51 towering white-and-green blocks, the residential complex in Sha Tin is as nondescript as its name.
City One is one of the largest high-density private housing developments, and was built in 1980. At the time, it joined Taikoo Shing on Hong Kong Island and Mei Foo Sun Chuen in Kowloon to serve the emerging middle class.
The estate - now home to 15,799 residents, according to a census last year - sits on reclaimed land at the foot of Lion Rock along the bank of the pencil-straight Shing Mun River Channel.
A characterless neighbourhood it may seem, but district councillor William Wong Ka-wing, a resident since 1984, says it reflects the economic and social transformation of the city.
He recalls that when the first phase of City One was built, the economy was on its last legs as a manufacturing powerhouse.
"It was a time when you could make money as long as you worked hard; even if you didn't do well in school, you could make extra money by putting in a few more hours at the factory," Wong says. "Most residents of City One were people who benefitted from those golden days. I myself earned HK$1,500 a month in my first teaching job, and soon bought a home here for HK$270,000 in 1984."
Then, manufacturers gradually moved up north in the following decade and were replaced by service-oriented industries. Between 1997 and 2002, Hong Kong was hit by the Asian financial crisis. Wong saw some of his neighbours' properties go into negative equity.
"I know some people who were chased by banks to repay their mortgage debts. It was a difficult time," he says.
But in true Hong Kong fashion, resilient City One investors were back on their feet before long. In the last two years, rent and property prices have skyrocketed, thanks to mainland students moving in on short-term leases.
Wong estimates that as many as 1,000 such students now make City One their home, often in groups of two or three per flat. The estate's proximity to Chinese University and City University, as well as good transport links and a well-equipped shopping mall, all add to its appeal.
"We have restaurants with every cuisine," Wong says, noting that the student influx has improved business for food operators.
The average monthly rent for two- or three-bedroom flats has gone up 10 per cent to HK$11,000 from two years ago.
Twenty-two-year-old Emma moved in two months ago to study for a master's degree in communications.
"I really like Hong Kong for its freedoms," says the native of Shanxi province, who hopes to make documentaries one day. "I found it stifling on the mainland."
Emma met her housemates - three fellow mainland students - through an online forum. Together they rent a 540 sq ft flat with three bedrooms for a total of HK$13,000 a month. She says many of her peers have heard that City One is a convenient choice because of the easy availability of flats left vacant by graduating mainland students.
She met other friends in the area through the mainland instant-messaging service QQ: "On my first night, I couldn't stay in my home because we didn't have furniture. So I went on QQ and found other mainland students in City One, and then hung out and crashed at their place."
The next day, Emma went to Ikea with her new friends to buy furniture and they assembled it together. "Now we cook dinner for one another; recently we had a mooncake night."
City One landlords demand prepayment of up to one year's rent plus two months' deposit from mainland students because they cannot show proof of income.
"Many landlords are happy to lease to mainland students because they can receive a full year of rent in one go," says Andy Wong, who works at Hong Kong Property Services.
City One is viscerally feeling the surge in mainland students in Hong Kong. In an annual report this year, the University Grants Committee - the government body responsible for funding tertiary institutions - revealed that 83 per cent of 10,770 non-local students in the 2011/12 academic year were from the mainland.
Councillor Wong says the students have been good neighbours.
"In the last two years, I haven't received more than three complaints. One was because a group of students were being rowdy, but after we sent a warning it never happened again," he says.
"The students spend most of their time in school, so they come back only to sleep. They all have good family backgrounds, so I've heard a lot of landlords really like leasing to them."
The changing face of Hong Kong can be summed up best on the estate's basketball court.
Kong De from Hebei province, an architecture student at Chinese University, plays pick-up basketball regularly at the City One court. He recalls one occasion when there were mainlanders, Hongkongers and Southeast Asians playing together.
"I realised Cantonese, Putonghua and English were being spoken at the same time, and there was a bit of miscommunication," the 22-year-old says. "But we often just use English, since we can all speak a bit of it. I can use phrases like 'take a shot' now."
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Next week: Sai Kung