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City Weekend

As nano flats boom in Hong Kong, new businesses offer big ideas for small spaces

Creative service providers include storage locker proprietors and those who run 24-hour laundromats, transforming domestic challenges into solutions

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 June, 2018, 9:06am
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 June, 2018, 9:48am

As John Luo walks into a self-service laundry store in the fading daylight at about 8pm, he hauls in two canvas bags and a bulging backpack.

It takes him a while to empty everything. Clothes and towels tumble out, then he starts the one washing machine that can barely hold all his laundry.

“I come here every one or two weeks because I don’t have a washing machine at home,” says Luo, 33, who lives in a 110-sq-ft nano flat with his wife. “There’s simply not enough space for such a large appliance.”

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As property prices in Hong Kong continue to soar and homes keep shrinking, a new sector is emerging to capitalise on the market. Nimble new businesses are changing the game.

Targeting nano flat residents whose homes are too small to install washing machines, cooking appliances, wardrobes, drawers, televisions and other features that make a typical home, creative service providers are stepping in.

Their enterprising ranks include storage locker proprietors offering a homey meal with traditional Chinese soup, as well as those who run 24-hour laundromats equipped with air conditioners, vending machines, free Wi-fi, and comfortable seats for customers to use.

The potential local market is significant. Over the years, Hongkongers have grown accustomed to the viability of living in nano flats. Some residences are smaller than 200 sq ft. And the flats are popping up in ever greater numbers in urban areas such as Sai Ying Pun, Wan Chai, Sham Shui Po and Kowloon City.

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Nearly half of all flats completed in the city this year will measure no larger than 400 sq ft, according to a government forecast.

But they do not come cheaply. The average cost for a flat smaller than 430 sq ft on Hong Kong Island is HK$16,103 (US$2,051) per sq ft, while the same size in Kowloon goes for about HK$13,763 per sq ft, based on information from the Rating and Valuation Department.

By 2020, the city will see at least 2,100 more micro apartments. That’s about 510 new flats built per year, marking a fivefold increase from annual figures between 2014 and 2016.

The high supply is clearly a response to the acute demand. A survey by the REA Group, a digital advertising firm specialising in property, showed that nearly half of the 1,003 people it interviewed were looking at nano flats.

Eyeing a vast market

“More people are stuck in tiny flats,” observes Ringo Wong Tat-keung, the director and founder of laundry chain Sunshine 24. “They’ve accepted the idea of a home as nothing more than having a roof over their heads.”

Many Hongkongers living in small flats have no choice but to outsource their chores, he adds.

They’ve accepted the idea of a home as nothing more than having a roof over their heads
Ringo Wong Tat-keung, Sunshine 24 laundry business

“Their flat can’t even hold a washing machine, so they can only go out to have their laundry done elsewhere.”

With more than 70 locations, Wong’s business has seen growth as high as 200 per cent at some of his stores since hitting the market four years ago, targeting neighbourhoods where nano flats are commonplace, such as Tai Kok Tsui.

“The proliferation of stores is especially significant near residential areas in Sham Shui Po, Kowloon City and parts of Hong Kong Island,” he says. “That can be easily attributed to the amount of subdivided and developed nano flats in those areas.”

Alfred Locker, which provides storage services, is another business to have emerged from the city’s increasingly constrained living conditions.

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Originally established as a logistics company in 2014, it recently introduced new services: healthy stewed soup or fresh fruits available for delivery to the lockers’ users.

Co-founder Christian Secci says Alfred Locker saw the market and identified “the need to have a platform that integrates with different lifestyle services”.

Secci describes the company’s targeted customers as “busy professionals and travellers with limited time or living space”.

“Where there is a problem, there is a solution,” he adds. “You can turn that solution into the right business.”

Since launching the new services in April, the company’s lockers have expanded from 53 to 64 locations in Hong Kong.

Secci says local landlords and developers of nano flats help considerably in introducing the services to their tenants.

Services such as Alfred Locker’s are viewed as good partners to make flats appear more attractive, company CEO Matthew Ng Shu-ki explains.

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“The landlords know that to reap the biggest return, they need to offer people a better quality of life,” Ng says. “That is why they now think about what other external services can be offered when the space is already so limited”.

Sheldon Lee Sui-lun, another company co-founder, adds that providing customers with a better quality of life is worth focusing on “since we can’t really control the price of land in Hong Kong”.

Changing the meaning of home

Yet contentment is hardly a pervasive sentiment in the city.

“It’s not a home, unless it has all the features that make it one,” says Choi Tse-ha, a restaurant dishwasher who has been living with her husband in a subdivided unit in Kwai Chung that measures less than 150 sq feet.

As Choi, 50, returns home from work, which stretches from 7am to 3pm, the dishwasher steps into the room she has been living in for four years. It contains only a bed and a cupboard. There is neither a washing machine nor a cooking stove.

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She decides to escape the stuffy, subdivided room by doing her laundry, where she can enjoy a brief moment of rest.

“There’s air conditioning there. At least I can stay cool while I wait for my laundry to be ready.”

“This flat is just a roof over my head and a place for me to sleep,” she adds. “I try to stay out for as long as I can just to avoid coming back because it’s depressing just to look around this tiny area.”

However, some younger Hongkongers have become used to living in nano flats, and they espouse a different philosophy about having a home.

Luo, the young professional who with his wife rents one for about HK$8,000 per month, said he already accepted that a washing machine was not a daily necessity.

The couple spends about HK$200 per month on laundry, usually using 24-hour stores offering the service, including pickup and delivery. His home’s tiny space does not bother him, either.

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“When you don’t even have place to store things, you spend less time cleaning up, and it somehow makes your life easier.”

But he admits the domestic spatial constraints can lead to family conflicts.

“We’ve been having small fights when my wife needs to work at night but I want to sleep,” he says.

Two people living in a nano flat is just too crowded
John Luo, nano flat resident

“Two people living in a nano flat is just too crowded. Sometimes my wife complains there’s no room, and we want to move out.”

To Louis Leung, a 33-year-old father of two, having four people living in a 300-sq-ft flat means he has to master the art of arranging things.

“Our home is unique in how we repurpose the use of our private spaces,” he says. “We used to hang things wherever there’s space – door frames, door handles, window railings, the back of chairs.”

When eventually space ran out, the family had no problem taking the dangling clothes outside their flat.

“We still machine-wash our undergarments at home, but we take all other clothing items and bedsheets or blankets down to the laundromat,” Leung says.

“It’s just more practical.”