Being back home in the big, wide brown land of Australia for the silly season, it struck me just how different ‘living’ in Hong Kong is.
Residing in one of the most vertical cities on the planet, means very few of us live in a house – at least a house as I know it.
You know, a typical three bedroom, low level family home with a garden, maybe even a pool, a white picket fence…a laundry (heaven forbid), you might even get a front door AND a back door….perhaps some storage space to go with that spacious bedroom. Heck, maybe there’s even room for a BBQ or space to ride that scooter (toddler’s not mine).
In Hong Kong though, not so much.
It’s skyscrapers all the way. 8000 to be exact!
With an extremely high population density (7 million people) the urban sprawl of tall, sleek concrete buildings spreads thickly across Hong Kong’s relatively small city size of 1100 km2.
Building ‘up’ is the only way to make sure we all fit…and even then it’s a tight squeeze.
From above, the city for all intents and purposes looks like a stack of dominoes. (Hopefully not about to topple over.)
Sure, you can head out into the green ‘burbs that exist in all their lush glory beyond the Fragrant Harbour, and you will encounter village houses (typical of a two or three story town house in Australia).
Set on considerably more spacious blocks, it’s a very different style of living from the usual shoebox-size apartments slotted into the thousands of multi-tower developments.
With around 300,000 village homes in the city, you can well imagine, these places are as long in appeal as they are short in supply.
In the early 70’s Hong Kong law gave any male heir over the age of 18, who could prove he descended from one of Hong Kong’s original villages in 1898, the right to build a small house on a plot of land, either owned by the village itself or on leased government land.
With land at an all time premium, today, most “houses” that do exist tend to be out of the city centre, but if you’re lucky you’ll get a patch of green to call your own and a view that includes a sea of sky and tropical terrain as opposed to a tiny piece of blue (or haze) poking through the looming buildings.
Otherwise, it’s up up and away. You live on the forty something floor, high up in your tower (and trust me there are some days when I really do feel like Rapunzel).
When it comes to high-rise living in the Kong, it’s a choice of the old verses the new.
Apartments in older blocks are generally a lot larger, ranging from 1,800 to 3,000 square feet with bigger balconies and plenty of character.
On the flip side, they are less likely to have all the impressive facilities that go hand in hand with most newish high-rises.
Either way, in Hong Kong, small is a fact of life. Our apartment (for real estate purposes) is 1400 square feet and includes three bedrooms (two out of three bedrooms are really pushing it to be described as bedrooms per se – unless your bed is for those on the extremely short side).
It pays to know that in Hong Kong your floor space also includes the calculation of your share of the lift, the lobby and even the mail-box!!
Hello Ikea! Always packed to the rafters with its multi-purpose, dolls house-size furniture, you’ll find everything from beds to coffee tables, cabinets and kitchens made especially for Hong Kong’s small spaces.
Yet, somehow, ironically, most apartments in Hong Kong still manage to have a “Maid’s Room”… all 10 square feet, including a wash basin and shower for your ‘live in Helper’ (ours though has managed to become a storage room not unlike like the ‘Tardis’ in Doctor Who. (Definitely bigger on the inside!)
Meantime, most units are without the mod-cons you come to expect these days, like a dishwasher or perhaps the not so ‘mod con’ oven. Ovens are a rarity in Honkers, due to the lack of space but also the fact that most locals are too busy using their Wok to make dinner (and just quietly, as a reluctant cook, I’m not complaining)!
Those of you who are big foodies, no need to fret, while this might seem like a gross inconvenience to begin with, there are around 8000 restaurants in Hong Kong and most residential buildings stand tall on top of giant shopping malls flooded with more restaurants than you can poke a stick at.
On top of this, public transport is a dream…with train stations on every corner and taxis literally rolling past you day and night, there’s no excuse not to head out.
While it has its lows, high-rise living really is a convenient lifestyle, with everything at your fingertips.
Most modern residential complexes will boast a clubhouse. (As a hotelier’s wife, who needs to live in the hotel!? )
And I’m not just talking about a room with a billiard table and a projector screen. No my friends, these are (without a word of a lie) like mini resorts. Picture pristine pools (complete with lifeguards and fluffy fresh towels) movie theatres, tennis courts, cafes, libraries, kids playrooms, gyms, saunas, spas, dance rooms, bbq areas….not to mention regular ‘activities’ on offer, like cake making, wine tasting and events to keep your small people out of trouble.
The other highlights to high-rise living? For me – security staff on site 24/7 is a huge plus. It means safety is a given and walking around the complex at any time of the day or night, not out of the question.
And lets not forget the concierge staff who are always eager to help. They open doors, carry bags, valet park cars and generally make life much more pleasant…after three years, these guys are great friends (at the very least someone to chat to on the way in at the end of the day).
It also means you can’t escape unnoticed! Don’t be trying to escape for a sneaky late night cocktail!
And…. there are rules, rules and more rules that come with this style of living.
Don’t hang washing over the balcony for starters, in fact don’t let anything accidentally fall off that 30 something floor… notices are issued regularly about falling shower gels and carelessly thrown tissues.
On the upside, things are clean, very clean. (So clean in fact, on our recent trip to Australia my three year old kept asking “Mummy, why is there so much rubbish on the ground?”)
(You can read about Hong Kong’s meticulous side involving scrubbing escalator grooves with a toothbrush here.)
Note to self – don’t forget, at any time a gondola full of workers might just be ‘hanging’ outside your window! (Most buildings have gondolas on the rooftop for any ‘outside’ jobs.)
But no matter how high-tech things get, you’ll still find good old bamboo scaffolding is used to erect intricate webs of sky-high walls and platforms strong enough to hold a legion of construction workers.
High rise living means you can expect ‘maintenance’ and lots of it. Most weeks involve a notice in the letter box, with a day of complete lock down, one way or another. Whether it’s the fresh water, the flushing water, the lifts, the carpark…just about everything is constantly being tended to around the clock. I won’t lie, it can get a tad frustrating.
Manicured gardens that are strategically placed around the building, preened to perfection are usually off limits.….’look but don’t touch please.’
It can also on occasion feel like you are living in a construction zone. Oh the noise!!
You might be thinking about now, things surely feel a little on the crowded side, but don’t be fooled…. these places can feel like deserted islands. You can literally go months without seeing the same person twice…or as Murphy’s Law has it, see the same person every day in the lift, for a week. (As an added bonus, just think of that free time you get traveling up to the forty something floor – plenty of time to get lost in your thoughts, send an email, check twitter, write the grocery list. Taking two floors to my mum & dad’s foyer just doesn’t quite cut it.
Trivial Fact: There are no floors ending in the number 4 due to the fact, the number sounds like ‘death’ in Chinese.
And despite the overwhelming number of people packed into this concrete jungle, I kid you not, there’s still that cosy ‘village’ feeling, for me at least. Beneath us in the glossiest of glossy shopping centres (mostly crammed with completely unaffordable shops bar Starbucks and H & M) is our home away from home.
Three plus years into our residential stay, it’s a place where everybody knows your name (cue ‘Cheers’ theme) ….ok make that, everybody knows my toddler’s name!
Every visit since she was tiny, without fail, the local dry cleaners have given Ava a lollipop. Starbucks know my coffee order before I reach the counter (Ok so it’s not that hard). They even find us seats when it’s busy. The shop opposite was a handy babysitter when Ava was small, entertaining her endlessly…until they inconveniently got moved out (and the girls cried saying goodbye to my girl.)
The local doctors, the ladies who stand waiting to clean the toilets (yes this happens) the school teachers, the ladies in the supermarket who don’t speak a word of english (and also conveniently bring your groceries to your door) fuss around Ava like she’s a rare breed.
At least I can rest assured, if madam escapes, she won’t get far!
When it comes to festivities, there’s no need to worry about not getting into the latest holiday spirit…. whether its Halloween, Christmas, Chinese New Year or Easter, your tower WILL be dressed to the nines.
Of course renting these small spaces that are so highly sought after is by no means a cheap affair.
Rent has risen nearly 20 per cent in Hong Kong in the past four years. Such spaces now gobble up about a third of many residents’ incomes. CNBC reported that in 2013 real estate prices in Hong Kong were the second highest in the world, only behind Monaco.
Apartments range from HK$5000 to $75,000 and beyond and those with the modern facilities are no less than $40,000 – that’s $5000 US dollars to rent, a month.
In a recent block of apartments for sale the cheapest flat cost more than HK$12 million with no less than 5,000 people queuing, pushing and jostling for 60 luxury flats.. Would-be buyers had to lodge their interest, the price they were prepared to pay and enter a lottery to win the chance to “potentially” purchase one of the apartments. (Tip: The higher you go in your residential tower, the more expensive the rent (less noise and pollution, so they claim)!
Of course with such extortionate prices for real estate, there are those locals who can only afford to live in tiny ‘cage homes.’ You can read about the massive divide between the rich and the poor here.
One of the great surprises about Hong Kong’s endless sea of older high rises though are the myriad of hidden gems behind closed doors.
Head into any nondescript building, take the rickety lifts and step out into a small passageway – Voila – you’ll find everything from TV studios to chic hair dressing salons, furniture stores, five star restaurants and rooftop bars.
It’s quintessential Hong Kong.
It’s definitely a different way of living but it’s been an experience this regular girl from DownUnder has grown to love.
It’s not forever – some day in the near future, I look forward to that white picket fence and a spare room that’s bigger than a postage stamp (and maybe even an oven to call my own, but probably not).
But for now, it’s home….and something tells me, life high up in the tower will never be quite so convenient.
(This Rapunzel is reluctant to let down her hair.)