Hong Kong’s ‘father of public housing’ Michael Wright dies aged 105

Architect designed the first public housing estates in the city with their own bathrooms and kitchens to give families living in cramped spaces dignity

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 January, 2018, 10:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 January, 2018, 11:31am

Former soldier, architect, civil servant and “father of public housing” Michael Wright died on Friday, in London, aged 105.

Katty Law Ngar-ning, convenor of the Central and Western Concern Group, broke the news of Wright’s passing on the group’s Facebook page on Tuesday.

Law, who first visited Wright in London in 2012, recalled how the former director of public works continued to keep an eye on Hong Kong affairs even though he had been retired for decades.

“He shared his love for Hong Kong and I was impressed with how he still maintained a connection with Hong Kong,” Law said.

“When I last visited him in September, we were discussing the housing issues facing the city.”

Dubbed the “father of public housing”, Wright designed the first estates in Sham Shui Po with their own bathrooms and kitchens. The design became known as the “Wright Principle”.

He was born in Hong Kong in 1912 and grew up in the city. He left for Britain for his education and became an architect. In 1938, Wright saw an advertisement for a job in Hong Kong and joined the government to work for the Public Works Department.

He was somebody doing his job … and incidentally you got these fantastic creations
Rachel Cartland, former civil servant

But by 1941, the second world war reached his doorstep and he exchanged his hard hat for a helmet, joining the Royal Hong Kong Regiment, also known as “The Volunteers”.

He fought in the Battle of Hong Kong and was later interned by the Japanese.

After the war, he had the task of rebuilding Hong Kong.

While interned, Wright thought about how he could improve the living conditions of ordinary Hongkongers, where it was not unusual for entire families to live in a cramped space. He believed it was a matter of “human dignity” for people to be able to wash themselves in private.

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In 1952, he implemented the Wright Principle in an estate in Sham Shui Po. The principle was later used for every public housing project thereafter. He was also involved in other major infrastructure projects such as the Lion Rock Tunnel, the first road tunnel in Hong Kong connecting the New Territories and Kowloon. He was also responsible for the construction of City Hall.

Wright served as director of public works from 1963 to 1969, before retiring from the civil service in 1973. Lai Tak Tsuen, a public housing estate built in 1975 in Tai Hang, was named after Wright’s Chinese name in his honour.

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One of Wright’s last involvements in Hong Kong public life was for the preservation of the west wing of the former government headquarters in Central, which he helped design. That was how he got involved with the Central and Western Concern Group.

“Once we got hold of him in 2011, we asked a friend in London to interview him and get his support for saving the west wing,” Law said.

Recently Law had asked another group member, former civil servant Rachel Cartland, to check in on Wright while she was in London. When she called his home, Cartland received the news of Wright’s passing from his daughter.

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Cartland believed the one time she may have met Wright was during an interview in 1972 for a job in the civil service. She was interviewed by a panel of British government officials and suspected Wright was one of the panellists when he was the Hong Kong commissioner in London.

Forty years later, Cartland spoke to Wright by phone when she was campaigning to save the west wing.

“He became a central figure … and quite an important part of the whole effort to stop the demolition of the west wing,” Cartland said.

She said Wright’s legacy was all over Hong Kong through every public housing estate.

“It’s everywhere. But one of the most important and touching things about him was that he wasn’t at all a ‘what’s going to be my monument’ kind of person,” she said.

“He was somebody doing his job … and incidentally you got these fantastic creations.”