HOUSING | Evolution of Hong Kong’s Housing Typology Pt.I (1904-1952)

In continuation of the previous entry which mentions about the Building Ordinance of 1903, the next updated Buildings Ordnance was enacted in 1935, which imposed more control over the shophouse (tonglau) typology of colonial Hong Kong. This set of regulations was also the final set of statutory control before World War II, in which Hong Kong had to go through a period of reconstruction before the next Buildings Ordinance of 1955.

With better understanding of materiality and ventilation, average shophouse building heights were limited to 3 storeys whereas ones that are constructed with fire-resistant materials may go up to 5 storeys. The building depth was further limited to 35ft so that residents would not be able to subdivide too many poorly lit and ventilated tenement cubicles. Also staircases must be lit and ventilated within each building.

1935 building ordinance
Pre-war tonglau typology under the Buildings Ordinance of 1935, fire-resistant buildings can be built up to 5-storeys tall

In light of the regulation on building depth, an important point that should be raised is the problem of subdivision in Hong Kong. As mentioned, this issue is not new and actually dates all the way back to the arrival of the British since 1841. When the British came, discriminatory zoning was immediately imposed, where the British sought to take the most geographically comfortable lands and forced the Chinese to the densest areas. On 12 November 1888, the Legislative Council enacted the European District Reservation Ordinance which distinguished between European-styled architecture and Chinese-styled architecture, in which the definition of the Chinese style was any house that was built to inhabit Chinese people. In effect, it was very difficult for Chinese at the time to argue that the building they owned was of European-style, which consequentially led to immense segregation. The Ordinance protected all Europeans to ensure that they are living as spacious as possible, by prohibiting the division of residential buildings “within the European District by more than one person to every one thousand cubic feet of clear internal space.” With such discriminatory zoning, the Chinese were forced to stay in their own districts, accommodating not only the locals, but also the refugees from the Mainland at the time. As a result, subdivision units became the only solution in order to house everybody, thus began Hong Kong’s reputation as one of the densest cities on Earth. Later on, this phenomenon also became one of the biggest factors that intensified the spreading of the plague by 1895.

hk 1843 china settlement
Historic Map of Victoria© 1843, Victoria Government
hk 1856 china settlement
Historic Map of Victoria© 1856, Victoria Government
Dense city planning of TaiPingShan, former ‘China Town’ since colonial British rule

Lai, L. (2011). Discriminatory zoning in colonial Hong Kong: A review of the post-war literature and some further evidence for an economic theory of discrimination. 1st ed. [ebook] Hong Kong: The HKU Scholars Hub, pp.8-9. Available at: http://hdl.handle.net/10722/134452 [Accessed 19 Dec. 2015].
Lee, H. (2010). Pre-war Tong Lau: A Hong Kong Shophouse Typology. Ph.D. The University of Hong Kong.
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].

1 Comment on “HOUSING | Evolution of Hong Kong’s Housing Typology Pt.I (1904-1952)

  1. perhaps ‘the problem of subdivision’ refers to the issue of zoning. It somehow reminds me of the’tong fongs’, an illegal partitioning approach which is a norm in the tong laus mentioned in this post. It could be a different scale of subdivision. So the difference in scale consider the issue of subdivision could be a direction for further development 🙂

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