When millions of Hongkongers are still living in public housing, it’s no wonder the Lion Rock spirit is ailing

  • Peter Kammerer says the cloud of gloom over Hongkongers is understandable when so many still struggle to make ends meet and must rely on government housing. Hong Kong’s economy is still too dependent on the tourism and retail sectors
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 November, 2018, 7:02am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 November, 2018, 7:02am

The Lion Rock spirit used to be everywhere in Hong Kong. The streets were humming, alive with the energy of industrious people pushing ahead to improve their lives. But things seem to have stagnated and there is a sense of resignation in the air. Where once it was “can do”, now there is “I would like to, but don’t seem able”. 

Evidence of this is everywhere. There are a fistful of surveys about well-being, happiness and quality of life, which show the Lion Rock spirit flagging. The government clampdown on citizens expressing their political beliefs, the ejection and barring of Financial Times journalist Victor Mallet without explanation or justification, and the uncertainty over what Beijing will do and say next to tighten its grip on Hong Kong all cause, for many, a sense of gloom. Factor in unaffordable housing prices and rents, wages that don’t keep up with living costs, and long working hours – and there’s bound to be a feeling of flatness.

The United Nations’ World Happiness Report is a useful indicator. Hong Kong is 76th out of 156 countries and territories surveyed, down five spots from last year’s report. The rankings are based on variables found to support well-being: income, freedom, life expectancy, social support, trust and generosity. Finland tops the list, on which Hong Kong is sandwiched between Pakistan and Portugal. Hong Kong’s ranking, lower than Taiwan’s (26th) and Singapore’s (34th) but higher than the mainland’s (86th), is telling.

The secret formula to everlasting happiness: don’t worry, be hygge

But, perhaps the Transport and Housing Bureau statistics give an even better indication of how Hongkongers are faring. The section on public housing highlights the reality that too many people struggle to make ends meet and rely on the government for that most basic of everyday needs: a roof over their heads. In a society with a can-do spirit – the way Hong Kong was in the 1970s and 1980s – their numbers should be dropping, with residents striving to secure places of their own. But in a city with limited job opportunities, low wages and expensive private flats, public housing is the only option for millions.

About 45 per cent of the population, or 3.3 million people, live in either government rental housing or subsidised sale flats. Of them, 2.15 million live in 808,000 government flats that rent for an average of HK$1,880 a month. It is a generous deal; the income ceiling has been set at HK$11,540 a month for one person, and the asset ceiling, HK$249,000, which should translate into plenty of day-to-day spending money, though not much meaningful savings for a mortgage. High rents mean that many more want a government flat – so many that, as of September, it would take five years and five months to clear the backlog of 150,200 general applications for rental housing and 117,500 applications from single people.

How to increase Hong Kong housing supply without building more flats

The median monthly salary in Hong Kong is HK$16,800. There are no laws stipulating the length of a working week, so companies are not obliged to pay overtime. A 2015 study of working hours in 71 cities by financial services firm UBS found that Hongkongers worked the most, an average of 50.1 hours a week, 38 per cent more than the world average.

The term “Lion Rock spirit” is derived from Below the Lion Rock, a long-running RTHK television series that highlighted the industriousness of Hongkongers in tough times. Through working together, they were able to beat the odds, and create opportunities and a booming economy. But that energy has long gone from a roar to a whimper.

Hong Kong’s economy depends too much on tourism, retail and services, sectors that provide low-paying jobs but require long hours. The government isn’t being proactive enough about creating an environment for innovative ideas and economic opportunities, to lift Hongkongers out of poverty. Instead, it has adopted a reactive approach by making housing for the poor a priority. Little wonder that Hong Kong is losing its mojo.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post