HOUSING | Immediate Responsive Building Regulations (1896-1903)

1880s tonglau
Typical Chinese shop house (tonglau) of TaiPingShan in the 1880’s

According to Brown’s report, the Health Department of Hong Kong took immediate measures to issue rules tackling housing conditions at the time including the following highlighted regulations on residents:

1. All houses at ground level must use concrete surfaces, hollow walls and ceilings in the native quarters are strictly prohibited, and all drainage and ventilation openings must be protected by iron gratings.
2. Certified tin cans are to be implemented in lamp posts and telephone booths for dead rats collections and bacteriologists will clear and disinfect the cans not less than once a week.
3. Residents are encouraged to keep cats
4. Residents’ dwellings are to be disinfected once every three months with an emulsion of kerosene
5. Daily scavenging of wastes into covered metal dustbins are used to reduce the amount of food for rats

The above-mentioned list, though thorough at the time, speaks very little about the architectural alterations made to the housing system of Hong Kong as the idea of building typologies being a catalyst to the endemic spreading was not widely acknowledged.

By 1903, after Hong Kong authorities have continued to research and revise the rules, the Public Health and Building Ordinance was enacted and imposed regulations under the suggestions of Dr. W.J. Simpson, the Professor of Hygiene at King’s College, London. These regulations had strict emphasis to tackle directly the issues with poor natural lighting and ventilation such as provisions of back alleys/open spaces at the rear of the building for ventilation at the back of the long body of enclosure (which should be maximum 40 ft in length). Furthermore, building height was limited to 1.5 times the street width. Building openings were also controlled in the sense that the window facing the street must have at least half of it that’s open-able and the size should be no less than one tenth of the floor area (which is a rule that is still valid today), whereas the rear window should be at least 10 sq. ft.

1903 building ordinance
Diagram illustrating the 1903 Public Health and Building Ordinance
Tin cans hung at light posts used to store dead rats found by residents

Brown, B. (1913). Public Health Reports (1896-1970), Vol. 28, No. 12 (Mar. 21, 1913). United States Public Health Service, pp.551-557.
Hong Kong Housing Typology. (n.d.). 1st ed. [ebook] Massachusetts: Density Atlas. Available at: http://densityatlas.org/understanding/Hong-Kong_housing-typology.pdf [Accessed 18 Dec. 2015].

3 Comments on “HOUSING | Immediate Responsive Building Regulations (1896-1903)

  1. It is interesting to see how the British colonial government reacted to the crisis, yet it would be nice to see how local Chinese dwellers responded to the regulations. As there was a detachment between the poor Chinese and foreigners at that time in Hong Kong both physically and culturally, it was hard for local to understand foreigner’s habits, same rule for all colonies. As I remember most of the local took Chinese medicine rather than drugs from the West, which is a strong contrast to nowadays Hong Kong. It is therefore worthy to investigate into the effectiveness of enforcing western regulations in Hong Kong.

  2. Mumbai, who was also under the British colonial rule also had a dreadful plague outbreak in 1896, similar to the time in Hong Kong. In my opinion, although there were conflicts between the Chinese and the British due to the cultural difference, the immediate response of Hong Kong to the plague was systematic and effective as compared to Mumbai. While HK reviewed and adjusted the regulation regarding the real condition, the regulations set in Mumbai were ambiguous which most were set under speculations. I think the biggest difference of the two cities is the engagement of the local government. Mumbai government refused to work with the colonial hosted improvement trust, the lack of communication has resulted in conflicts in two regulation systems and created many problems

  3. It is unfortunate to see the awakening of bettering the Building Ordinance in terms of ventilation in 1903 did not get revised in depth before the government designed the H-shaped residential blocks. The problem of the Tai Ping Shan shop houses in the 1880’s is the blockage of natural ventilation between zone 1. This wall somehow still existed in the H-shaped residential blocks that wind can only get move through from one side of the unit. In fact, problem was not solved as the open kitchen along the corridor create smokes that get trapped at the entrance of the unit, and the only window of the unit is next to the entrance. That means the smoke from cooking would get blown into the unit once you open the window. Although some would argue that the walls of the two units that get sandwiched by the public corridor are removable as they are not structural, at that time poor people who get moved to the H-shaped blocks were not rich enough to break the wall and occupy the two units. Therefore natural ventilation still cannot be achieved in H-blocks.

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