Stories behind Hong Kong districts: Mei Foo Sun Chuen, where middle-class dreams began
Spacious, well-built and home to 80,000 people, the city’s first private housing estate, modelled on a Le Corbusier design, marked a decisive break from post-war shantytowns and overcrowded tenements
If anything marked the birth of Hong Kong’s middle class, it was Mei Foo Sun Chuen. Built between 1968 and 1978, the seaside development of 99 towers was Hong Kong’s first private housing estate, a self-contained enclave home to nearly 80,000 people.
In a city of hillside shantytowns and overcrowded tenements, it was a remarkable break from the past. The estate was clean and orderly, and the flats were spacious and well-built. There were shops, community facilities and good transport links to the rest of Hong Kong.
“The concept was new and attractive to many people – a small town providing all your daily needs and with decorated common areas for various sports or leisure activities,” says retired architect Alfred Tam Yee-shun, who moved into the estate shortly after it was built.
“I found the environment very inviting. [It was great to] be able to live in your own flat, breaking away from those tenement buildings or public housing.”
Before the housing estate, though, there was oil. American oil company Mobil built a depot on the shores of Lai Chi Kok in the 1920s. Nearly four decades later, it was still on the fringes of Kowloon’s urban area.
“The whole Cheung Sha Wan area was empty – it was all trees,” recalls artist Eddie Lui Fung-ngar, who spent his teenage summers working at the Coca-Cola bottling plant next to the oil depot. Lui still remembers the crisp taste of freshly bottled Coke. “It was so good,” he says.
Lui’s job was to perform quality control on the bottle-washing line, and he got a 30-minute break every hour, to prevent him from losing focus. Lui remembers spending time on the shore with his friends. “Next to the plant we had the Commercial Radio station, and further down you had the remains of a shipyard,” he says. “The entire waterfront was pretty run down.” He remembers it was particularly vulnerable to storms. “Even if you had a mild storm, you had fish being thrown up onto the shore.”
Things changed in 1965, when a Louisiana-born oilman named Fred Westphal came to Hong Kong. The day he arrived, the city was in the midst of a banking crisis caused by massive fraud at the Canton Trust. He later told his business partner, Sir Lawrence Kadoorie, that he was astonished to look down from his room in the Mandarin Oriental and see thousands of people lining up to cash out their savings.
That was just one of many incidents that roiled Hong Kong in the 1960s. The influx of refugees fleeing China after 1949 had provided fuel to the city’s industrial boom, but it also led to shortages of food, housing, water and electricity. Hong Kong’s hungry factories were pushing up power consumption by 20 per cent every month and the local power company, Kadoorie’s China Light and Power (CLP), could barely cope with demand.
To raise the HK$500 million needed to expand its supply, CLP partnered with Esso to build new power stations in Ho Man Tin and Tsing Yi, which made the old Mobil oil depot redundant. Westphal was in charge of building the new power stations, and he was the one who opened the door for Mei Foo’s development.
Local architecture firm Wong Tung and Partners was hired to design the new estate. It adopted a strategy pioneered by Swiss architect Le Corbusier, whose 1925 Plan Voisin called for central Paris to be demolished and replaced by evenly spaced cruciform towers with public space in between. That particular plan was never realised – people were aghast at the thought of razing Paris’s centuries-old streets – but it inspired a generation of housing projects that did away with the narrow streets and piecemeal buildings that had characterised urban growth for centuries.
Wong Tung’s plan for Mei Foo called for 99 nearly identical blocks, each 57 metres tall, connected by a massive garden podium embellished by trees, flowers and abstract modern sculptures made by Hong Kong-based Italian artist Antonio Casadei. Shops and car parks occupied the space beneath the podium.
Priced between HK$30,000 and HK$120,000, apartments were state-of-the-art, with built-in telephone and television connections, fluorescent lighting in the kitchens and bathrooms, and walls painted with a latex finish that made them easy to clean.
Compared to similar estates in Western countries, Mei Foo was much more compact. “If you line up Stuyvesant Town in New York with Mei Foo, you see a much denser packing of towers,” says architect Jason Carlow, who has studied Hong Kong’s private housing estates.
In 1976, anthropologist Sherry Rosen noted that, while Mei Foo was Hong Kong’s first overtly middle-class housing development, its social life still had more in common with old-fashioned tenements than with suburban American developments such as Levittown, with their low-density sprawl of single-family houses. That made Mei Foo a lively place, with a diverse array of shops and busy public spaces.
It left a deep impression on Guangzhou-born artist Ng Yuen-wa, who spent summers at her grandparents’ flat in the 1980s. “It was by the sea and the view was so beautiful,” she says. In the muggy afternoons, she treated herself to ice cream and wandered through the commercial arcades to the seaside promenade. The green hill of Stonecutters Island rose in the distance.
Mei Foo’s popularity made it a template for dozens of other private housing estates – and it catapulted Hong Kong’s industrial landowners into the world of property development. Shortly after Mei Foo’s completion, Swire transformed its Quarry Bay dockyards into Taikoo Shing, Hutchison Whampoa redeveloped its Hung Hom dockyards into Whampoa Garden, and Hongkong Electric converted the site of an Ap Lei Chau oil depot and power station into South Horizons.
Mei Foo also laid the groundwork for how modern Hong Kong buildings and estates are managed. “Mei Foo is the grandfather of democracy in housing communities,” says Johnnie Chan Chi-kau, CEO of Savills Services Group. Chan’s career in property management started in Mei Foo, where he also lived for several years.
When the estate first opened, an owners’ committee was established, a model that was extended throughout Hong Kong when the Building Management Ordinance was passed in 1970. For many newly minted members of the Hong Kong middle class, this was the first opportunity to have a say in how their community functioned.
Since then, middle-class Mei Foo has suffered a number of indignities. The waterfront was reclaimed in the 1990s and replaced by highways, railways and an open-air sewage treatment plant whose stench wafted over the estate during the hot summer months. Glitzy new towers now loom over Mei Foo’s decidedly modest housing blocks.
“When they reclaimed the sea, I felt very sad,” says Ng Yuen-wa. In 2003, she was commissioned by the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation (since merged into the MTR Corp) to paint a series of murals in the new West Rail Line’s Mei Foo station. She depicted four scenes based on the area’s history.
“The second scene was by the sea, very blue and fresh, and the last series was after reclamation – you see the sunset and the highway,” she says. “They later built up a garden that is very big, so it’s much better than it was [after reclamation], but the feeling is very different.”
And yet, despite its age and the loss of the waterfront, Mei Foo is still one of Hong Kong’s most desirable housing estates. Its flat prices are often seen as a bellwether for the local real estate market. A 1,500 sq ft, four-bedroom flat now fetches HK$14 million, a sharp increase over its original sales price of HK$120,000, even when you account for inflation. The dream of the middle class lives on, but these days, it may be just that – a dream.