Housing Hong Kong4 min read

Shek Kip Mei public housing estate in 1965 – Susan Blumberg-Kason

When my grandparents first traveled to Hong Kong in 1965, they visited many of the typical tourist attractions back then: the Peak, the Zoological and Botanical Gardens, and the several floating restaurants spread across the territory. But what struck me most about their slides were the images from the Shek Kip Mei public housing estate.

Aftermath of the Shek Kip Mei fire, 1953 (Hong Kong Heritage Museum / Wikimedia Commons)

Before 1954, public housing didn’t exist in Hong Kong, and the hills were filled with refugees from mainland China living in squatter villages. Most of these squatters had fled to Hong Kong after World War II and Mao’s victory in 1949, escaping first the Chinese civil war and then persecution by the Communists. On Christmas Eve 1953, a huge fire swept through the hills in the Shek Kip Mei area of Kowloon: a faulty kerosene lamp left 40 people dead and 53,000 refugees homeless. The day after the fire, normally-conservative Governor Alexander Grantham set up a task force to feed and relocate the refugees. 

Mei Ho House, 2018 (Susan Blumberg-Kason)

For the first week after the fire, the government built temporary accommodations and set up medical stations for the elderly, the sick, pregnant women and children. During that week, anywhere from 42,000 to 88,000 meal vouchers were distributed each day. The government also gave out nine catties of rice and HK$5.50 to each displaced refugee. During the first two weeks of 1954, 159 pregnant women were moved to temporary shelters, where six babies were born. By the end of that January, 87 more pregnant women moved to temporary shelters and 29 more babies were born. Of the displaced refugees, 40,000 received clothing, blankets and cooking utensils. For the Chinese New Year, each displaced refugee received HK$20.00.

By the end of 1954 the Shek Kip Mei public housing estate opened and started what was to become one of the world’s greatest refugee resettlement programs. The first phase of the Shek Kip Mei public housing was called Mark I and was made up of H-shaped buildings constructed not too far from the site of the fire. 

A street in Shek Kip Mei, 1965 (Walter Kohlhagen)

Mei Ho House was one of these early buildings and is the only remaining H-shaped building left in Shek Kip Mei. Several years ago, the building went under major renovations and has since been turned into a youth hostel. 

On a recent visit to Hong Kong, I stayed there with my family and picked one of the “themed” rooms that was decorated to resemble the interiors my grandparents would have seen when they visited Shek Kip Mei.

On the grounds of the youth hostel, called Mei Ho House, is a museum dedicated to the old Shek Kip Mei housing estate. The museum has models of the H-shaped buildings as well as replicas of the rooms in a typical unit, which were only large enough to fit a bunk bed and a small desk. 

Model room in the Heritage of Mei Ho House Museum (Susan Blumberg-Kason)

Public housing in Hong Kong didn’t include private bathrooms or kitchens until the 1960s, when the first phase of the Wah Fu Housing Estate was completed in 1967. The Heritage of Mei Ho House Museum includes a model of the communal toilets at the public housing estate. 

Although not on the tourist circuit, the museum is worth the trip up to Kowloon. It puts into perspective the crisis the Hong Kong government faced in the early 1950s, way before the influx of refugees fleeing the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. 

Shek Kip Mei housing estate, 1965 (Walter Kohlhagen)

The museum is free of charge and located at 70 Berwick Street in Pak Tin, between the Sham Shui Po and Shek Kip Mei MTR stations. It’s open from 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. ∎

Header image: Shek Kip Mei housing estate, 1965 (Walter Kohlhagen). All images courtesy the author unless otherwise noted.