14.00 Welfare Housing in Colonial Hong Kong: The Contributions of Philanthropic Organizations
Official accounts often trace the beginnings of Hong Kong’s public housing program to the Shek Kip Mei fire on December 24, 1953, which destroyed one of the city’s largest squatter areas and left more than 58,000 squatters homeless. The government took immediate action, initiating a long-term resettlement program and developing the city’s first multi-storey resettlement estate on the destroyed squatter site. This story—that squatter resettlement arose from the ashes of the homes of 58,000 squatters and inexorably progressed from the first resettlement estate to the contemporary situation—is widely regarded as the beginnings of public housing in Hong Kong.
The Shek Kip Mei story, however, positions the initiative to provide homes for the poor as a mere disaster relief effort, not as a deliberate response to rapid population growth in postwar Hong Kong. This story also implies that the colonial government was then the only welfare housing provider, ignoring the efforts of non-governmental agencies. Consequently, government resettlement housing has often been incorrectly believed to be the first welfare housing in Hong Kong.
This paper will challenge the assumption of the inevitability and superiority of government provision of welfare housing. It will highlight that philanthropic housing, in fact, stands as the first extensive attempt to house the working class in Hong Kong. After the Second World War, the colonial government refused to use public funds to resettle the large population living in squalid slums. However, in 1946, the government granted land to private-sector actors to develop low-cost, working-class housing. The grants took place not through public auctions, which might require more preparatory work and result in higher prices, but through private contracts with the government. Consequently, a number of philanthropic organizations established private housing agencies to provide low-cost, working-class accommodations. What motivated the founding of these philanthropic housing agencies? What form did early philanthropic housing take?
While many philanthropic organizations built cottage villages for the poor in the 1950s, only four organizations had the vision to build multi-storey welfare housing: the Hong Kong Model Housing Society, Hong Kong Housing Society, Hong Kong Settlers Housing Corporation Limited, and Hong Kong Economic Housing Society. These organizations effectively established Hong Kong’s high-density, collective living culture. This paper will examine the history of these four non-governmental housing organizations and compares the planning and design of their earliest welfare housing estates, showing how these projects gave rise to ideas in architecture, management, and tenant selection that later shaped the government’s long-term public-housing development. Sixty years after the Shek Kip Mei fire, the Hong Kong government has shown increasing awareness of the role of early public housing as important heritage and as evidence of the government’s remarkable efforts to accommodate a massive population. The government has preserved and renovated a housing block from the Shek Kip Mei Resettlement Estate into a modern youth hostel. Part of the building has been converted into a heritage museum showcasing Hong Kong’s public housing history from the 1950s to the 1970s through exhibits of donated items and firsthand testimonies of former residents. The preserved building and the heritage museum have become a popular site, attracting local and overseas visitors. In contrast, philanthropic housing, which stands as an important episode in Hong Kong’s housing history, has never been well researched or respected by the government. This paper hopes to shed new light on the contribution of private agencies to the provision of public goods.