Real Estate — The First of Hong Kong's 3Rs


For Hong Kong the 3Rs might be Real Estate, Retailing and Restaurants.

Hedda Morrison’s recently published photographs taken during her brief six month stay here from late 1946. So redolent of the past, they are an index of the transformation of Hong Kong. There are many scenes of fisher-people practising the crafts that were integral to the communities in and around the indented coastline. Coolies loading and unloading junks and sampans. Street traders, and a throng of people in traditional and European dress crowding lanes and deeply arcaded streets of shop-houses and tenements.

Typical housing in Hong Kong

Typical housing in Hong Kong

Imposing imperial edifices cast long shadows in the city centre. The urban areas quickly peter out into paddy fields and bucolic villages. Views of deserted harbours, villages surrounded by mountains, and island peaks crystal clear in the distance. Paperbark and eucalyptus trees line uncrowded rural roads.

Hong Kong’s population of 600, 000 in September 1945 was augmented by the end of that year, by a million people who returned after the Japanese surrender or sought refuge from the civil war in China. By the end of 1947 there were 1.8 million people. The population then tripled from 2.2 million to 6.7 million, between 1950-2001. The current Hong Kong Government estimates the population will reach 7.7 million in 2011.

Taday, pictures of the sites Hedda Morrison photographed reveal walls of densely packed skyscrapers and a shrunken harbour ringed by freeways. The junks and villages have gone along with the sparkling views to distant mountains, and the odd sampan is a rare sight on the choppier harbour. On a recent visit to Hong Kong the three-masted Rainbow Warrior was dwarfed by the spectacle of the harbour while it sheltered gracefully beside a pier.

Hong Kong has somehow housed the millions of people flooding into its 1100 square kilometres, of which 40 per cent remains national park. This was achieved by the labour of the refugees, and the application of the capital and acumen of the middle-classes fleeing the civil war on the mainland. Public housing was built to accommodate the millions of refugees who lived in cardboard, paper and tar squatter camps on the hills surrounding the urban areas in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.

Private housing development then began to meet demand as Hong Kong prospered although the Hong Kong Housing Authority still remains one of the largest landlords in the world, and only a handful of large companies construct high rise buildings for the private and the public sector. (One of these is the Cheung Kong group that holds a 50 per cent interest in Sydney’s new Cross City Tunnel.)

Over the past two decades, the Hong Kong economy has grown by an average of 4.8 per cent in real terms each year, outpacing the corresponding growth rates of 3.5 per cent for the world economy and 2.9 per cent for OECD economies as a whole. In 2004, the economy entered a fully-fledged upturn and posted 8.1 per cent growth, which brings it close to the mainland average of 9.5 per cent over the past 20 years.

Apartments galore in the city

Apartments galore in the city

One of the main sources of revenue for the Hong Kong Government, are land sales. Given that the supply of land is finite, a key role of government has been to continue to plan and execute land reclamations from surrounding waterways. Although these reclamations are now opposed by a well-organised lobby the Government still continues to dredge up, fill-in and sell-off reclaimed land. More shopping malls, freeways and high-rise developments are in construction or on the drawing board. The resulting apartment sale campaigns are a unique feature of Hong Kong’s ecologically unsustainable life style.

The South China Morning Post of 6 October 2005 came in a gloss-art broadsheet wrap-around promoting a new 35 storey, seven-tower luxury apartment development. Tellingly, the harbour, in the wrap-around’s cover illustration, had been reduced to a mere channel between the apartment tower and the adjacent Hong Kong Island. A few days later, a full-page advertisement, disguised as news, was interpolated onto page 5. It reported that 70,000 had visited display apartments and purchased 400 of the 700 apartments off the plan.

The private housing market in Hong Kong has been rebounding from a slump that commenced just after the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997. Real estate releases feature elaborate television advertising ranging from unlikely images of European chateaus and medieval Italian cities to louche silver-dipped female models. Voracious, black-suited agents swarm and accost passengers alighting from cars, buses and trains in the vicinity of new developments and have been known to block traffic and attempt to drag passengers from their cars in their in enthusiasm to make a sale.

And on rare days, the mountains and island peaks that surround Hong Kong can still be seen through the walls of high rise towers and the smog enveloping the towering city that replaced the town and country that Hedda Morrison photographed about 60 years ago.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.