Last call for errant hostels to shape up
HUNDREDS of replicas of Chungking Mansions, housing tens of thousands of local residents, are contravening fire and safety regulations and will be forced to close after strict Government legislation comes into effect next month.
A top official warned yesterday that guesthouses in the notorious Chungking Mansions would be the first on the Government's hit list come September 1, and predicted 80 per cent of them would have to close.
Patrick Macoun, the senior building surveyor overseeing the new legislation which gives owners of tourist guesthouses and hotels until September 1 to instal required safety precautions, said Chungking Mansions would ''bite the bullet''.
He said if owners were successfully prosecuted for contravening the new fire and safety regulations, the Government would go on to tackle all local guesthouses forcing the local residents out on to the streets with travelling backpackers.
Following a fire in Kwun Tong on August 5 which left three people dead and one man injured, Mr Macoun said it was time something was done about the guesthouses.
''People have died in guesthouses and people will continue to die unless something is done,'' Mr Macoun said.
Chung Kwok-yau, 70, spent four days in the United Christian Hospital suffering from smoke inhalation after being rescued by firemen from the top of the Kwun Tong guesthouse. Police have still not been able to identify the bodies because they were so badly burned.
A specially-formed crack team from the Office of the Licensing Authority will monitor the 589 tourist guesthouses, 580 local guesthouses and 100 hotels to ensure safety requirements are being met.
The team will concentrate on ''local guesthouses'' occupied by the Chinese - buildings whose lack of safety far outweigh the publicised dangers at Chungking.
In the Far East Bank Building in Portland Street, Mongkok, live cables hang dangerously overhead. Safety regulations stipulate fire escapes should remain clear at all times, but in this building each floor poses an obstacle.
Cracked stairs, loose bannisters, wash baskets, bags of rubbish, bicycles and building rubble make the journey down the 26-floor building far from safe. Coupled with excrement and vomit, the experience is a nauseous one.
One staircase is completely blocked from the third floor down. Building rubble, sheets of corrugated iron and a disused water pump make it impossible for residents to escape.
Part of the staircase has been transformed into a mini-laundrette and on two floors the only fire escape access for residents is through restaurant kitchens.
In a pathetic attempt to show the authorities something is being done to rectify the dangers, the owners of the building have filled the entrance lobby with colour photographs warning tenants of exposed wiring.
But Mr Macoun said: ''It wouldn't take a particularly big fire to make the staircase inoperable - but the loss of human life would be huge.
''All the doors leading to the staircase should be shut tight to prevent smoke from funnelling into the fire exit - but here the majority are left open.
''Smoke is the killer and few would stand a chance if a blaze broke out here. Our objective is to educate the owners on safety procedures; unfortunately, it will take a major disaster before anyone listens.'' At another guesthouse in nearby Man Ming Lane, low-hanging electricity cables make it impossible to jump over the discarded furniture and rubbish blocking the escape route. Still, a clear staircase would make little difference because the fire exit door on the ground floor was locked.
''Owners were given since June 1991 to get their act together,'' Mr Macoun said. ''Some have complied fully, some a little and there are those who don't give a stuff.
''In Chungking, between 70 and 80 per cent of guesthouses will bite the bullet - they are so grotty it would cost too much and be too disruptive to upgrade them to our requirements. They will probably revert to being domestic flats with long leases,'' hesaid.
''The success of this law depends on how our first prosecution goes but owners of local guesthouses will be more wily, looking for legal loopholes.'' But those who try to operate without a licence will be treading a fine line. The maximum penalty is a $200,000 fine and two years' imprisonment. There is also an additional fine of $20,000 for every day the owners operate without a licence.
Chairman of the Guesthouse Owners Association Sam Lau said the law would mean the end for many local guesthouses.
''This will affect the consumer and owner in a big way,'' he said. ''Those guesthouses that could afford the work will increase their prices, therefore getting rid of the market for budget travellers - it won't be long before local guesthouses are closedand thousands of Chinese will be forced to sleep on the streets.
''I do not know why the Government has brought in this new law. Before, the fire station used to check the safety and the majority of guesthouses were in good order.'' Although budget travellers would be affected, the Hong Kong Tourist Association said it would continue to make high-paying tourists its top priority.
An association spokesman said: ''We welcome any kind of travellers but our marketing strategy involves attracting high-paying tourists - they are the ones who make a difference to the economy.
''The level of budget travellers may drop off, but they can always come here in the low season when guesthouse and hotel prices are lower.'' Under the Hotels and Guesthouses Accommodation Ordinance, the Government can force the owners to close if it is proved they have not complied with licensing laws.