Simon Jenkins, writing about the fire at Grenfell Tower, apparently thinks Hong Kong is “squalid”:

The lesson from Grenfell is simple: stop building residential towers | Simon Jenkins

There is no need to build high at all. The developers’ cry, that cities must build high to “survive”, is self-serving rubbish, the more absurd when their towers are left half-empty. The principal reserve of residential space in British cities is derelict land and the under-occupation of existing houses. Unless we wish to build at the squalid densities of Mumbai and Hong Kong, high buildings require space round them and extensive ground servicing.

a04Almost everyone in Hong Kong lives in high-rise housing (for some striking photographs, take a look at Michael Wolf’s Architecture of Density).  Around 30% of the population live in rented public housing - these are high-rise, high density apartment blocks, but they are safe and certainly not squalid. 

Another 17% of people live in high-rise apartments that were sold under the Home Ownership scheme.  Not squalid either.

50% of the population live in private housing, the vast majority of which is in high-rise towers, which vary from small and basic to large and luxurious.  

Lynsey Hanley used to live on Europe’s largest public housing estate (in Birmingham), and her excellent book “Estates” offers a very personal account of how the British government’s housing policies went horribly wrong and wrecked many people’s lives.  She has a more informed - and nuanced - view of the problem:

Look at Grenfell Tower and see the terrible price of Britain’s inequality

Tower blocks are generally held to be the least popular form of housing, particularly for people raising families. [..] But that’s not to say other people don’t enjoy living there, for the astonishing views, and for their self-contained nature – which in the most successful cases creates a tight-knit community.

Problems mostly arise when housing managers fail to keep on top of repairs, safety issues, residents’ complaints and other bugbears, such as blocked bin chutes and noisy neighbours. On-site caretakers, when landlords decide they can afford to employ them, solve many of these issues.

Indeed, all Hong Kong apartment blocks have on-site caretakers / security staff and most are well managed.  Hence, Hong Kong high-rise housing is safe - and not squalid.  Of course you pay more for larger apartments, lower density, and more open space, but that’s true everywhere. 

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Deceptively spacious

Hong Kong's a strange place, and never more so than in the weird world of apartments. Developers are allowed to advertise the gross floorspace of an apartment, which includes balconies, bay windows, and (most outrageously) your share of the the common areas, such as the clubhouse, gardens, lift lobbies, etc.

As far as I know, you can't sleep in the lift lobby, so what really matters is how much usable space you have inside your apartment. You might think that a 1200 square foot apartment is big enough, but how will you feel when you discover that it's really only 840 sq ft? That's a big difference.

That so-called 1200 square foot apartment might have 4 bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, three bathrooms, and the domestic helper's broom cupboard. Fitting all of that into 840 sq ft is obviously something of a challenge, and some developers spend much more time on over-blown advertising rather than making good use of the limited space, and so you have to deal with small and odd-shaped rooms.

Not that you are likely to realize this if you visit a "show flat" in a shopping centre that is supposed to show you what you are buying. When you walk round with 500 other people you probably won't realize what a difference it makes to remove the doors, put in glass walls, and all the other subtle tricks of the developers. You may think the bedroom looks spacious but overlook the fact that they've combined two tiny rooms to create one of a reasonable size - but, yes, people do buy brand new apartments and then knock down the walls.

Then there's the furniture - yes, there's a bed in the bedroom, but how big is it? That table and chairs? Surely they're not all chosen to make the room look bigger?

My favourite development of the last couple of years, Palazzo, goes for the typical "quart in a pint pot" effect. Having two en-suite bedrooms (out of four) might sound attractive, but what will it look like when you've loaded the rooms up with beds and wardrobes and other things you might need? Cramped, I fear.  The medium-size apartments have only one en-suite bedroom, and once you have installed a standard-sized bed, there's scarcely room for anything else - and that's the "master bedroom". Needless to say, the other two bedrooms are tiny.

One special feature is that the helper's broom cupboards rooms don't have windows. Fresh air? Natural light? I'm sure there's nothing in the rules to say that has to be provided, and you have to wonder how many employers will allow their helpers to switch on the aircon.

Yes, there are views of the racecourse. You could undoubtedly watch the racing, but if you wanted to see which horse is winning you would need very powerful binoculars (or a TV might be an altogether more practical solution).

Yes they have happy smiling concierges offering an array of services, but who's paying for that? Yes, you are, through the monthly service charge.

The smaller apartments are at the back (no racecourse view, but Fo Tan Industrial Estate is glorious on a clear day). One of these was featured in the Sunday Morning Post a few weeks ago, with complaints from the lucky gentleman who had bought it "off plan". He seemed to be disappointed that the bedrooms would all need tailor-made (dolls house sized) furniture. It seems that he was fooled by the advertised gross floor space and the show flat. However, I have seen the brochure for The Palazzo and it is fairly clear about the gross and usable floor space, but I suppose if they advertise a 717 square foot apartment you might expect that's what you would get.

Lake Silver

image From the people who brought you Palazzo in Fo Tan (Sino Land and the MTR) comes another hilariously overblown marketing campaign for Lake Silver in Ma On Shan.  The TV adverts have Palazzo-style opera-lite music and computer graphics, and on Wednesday the SCMP came adorned in a glossy full colour advertising wraparound that even referenced their earlier development.  There's also a fancy website.

You won't be surprised to learn that it has an idyllic setting with "spectacular waterfront views of Sai Kung, Pat Sin Leng, Tolo Harbour and Ma On Shan coastal mountain ranges."  Wow, all of that from the window of one apartment?  Excellent…

What's not to like?  It's on the MTR and it's in the countryside.  Fantastic.  The picture shows the development surrounded by green stuff.  But wait - could that be Symphony Bay next door?  Could that be the Lee On estate in the other direction?  And could it be that other developers plan to build on adjacent sites?  Maybe Henderson Land will be building something equally magificent right next to Lake Silver?  I rather think they will.

Check it out on Google Maps (no I can't figure out how to get text to wrap round):

View Larger Map

As for the rail connection, well this is actually the Ma On Shan line that runs to Tai Wai (where it connects to East Rail), one of the new lines built by the KCR before it was swallowed whole by the MTRC (once described as a property developer than happens to run some trains).  The newspaper advert claims that it will take 17 minutes to get from Tai Wai to Admiralty on the new Sha Tin - Central link.  Well, maybe, one day.  What they are careful not to explain is how long it will take to get from Lake Silver to Tai Wai.  More than 17 minutes, I fear. image

The other striking feature of this development is that it seems to include a very substantial lake and/or swimming pool.  Hence the name, I suppose.  I’ll be fascinated to see the finished development to see if it bears any resemblance to the marketing material.  Property developers don't lie, do they?

The Palazzo - looking as lovely as ever


A reader has sent me a photograph (left) of my favourite development.

imageYou can see Fo Tan Industrial Estate to the left (sadly obscured by shruberry in the official artist's impression).

Then there is KCR House, the black building in the foreground that is dwarfed by The Palazzo, which just disappeared from the artist's impression.

Next to that there are the Jockey Club staff quarters (in the foreground on the right), that have also been removed.

Behind them you can see the apartment blocks on the other side of the Shing Mun river - the river is an improbable blue colour in the artist's impression, and the building have shrunk alarmingly. 

You can also just about see the only buildings that do feature in the artist's impression (Jubilee Garden and Royal Ascot, and also the racecourse spectator stands).

The Palazzo - no more adverts!

Palazzo and the racecourse Sadly, the weekend's editions of the SCMP contained not a single advert for The Palazzo.

What it did contain was a photograph of the equestrian facilities, the racecourse and the site of The Palazzo, courtesy of the Hong Kong Jockey Club.  This shows quite clearly the position of The Palazzo relative to the racecourse and the adjoining developments - well, fairly clearly because I scanned it from a crumpled newspaper.

imageAs you can see, the view that their artist has imagined could only really exist if you were inside an apartment in Royal Ascot or Jubilee Garden, and not from The Palazzo, because it is quite simply too far away.

There's also the fact that there is Route 9 and various other bits and pieces of Jockey Club stuff between The Palazzo and the racecourse.  And, not a single rugby stadium in sight.

The Palazzo - binoculars required

scan0009 Another week, another advert for The Palazzo in the SCMP on Sunday.

This time the focus is back on the racecourse, with the claim that the "apartments command panoramic views including the breathtaking view of the International Sha Tin Racecourse."

Well, I daresay that some apartments do have a view of the racecourse, but it isn't the one that their artist has conjured up for this advert.

Why not? 

Well, the apartments in The Palazzo are not that close to the racecourse itself, and are instead opposite the Jockey Club staff quarters and the site of the equestrian events in the Olympics (which will have reverted back to being the Sports Institute by the time anyone moves in).   

scan0010Also, the apartments are next to Route 9, so any apartment with fantastic view of the racecourse would also have a fantastic view of a great deal of traffic.

So whilst these "incredibly spacious" apartments do probably have a view of some horse racing, you will need binoculars to see any horses.

Mind you, I suppose I should point out that this image does at least acknowledge that there is quite a lot of development on the other side of the Shing Mun river, something you might not have expected if you believed their other flight of fancy.

Amusingly, this advert has a legal bit at the bottom that says that "the above artist rendering of the clubhouse and show flat photos are enhanced by computer graphics and for reference only."  You don't say...

The Palazzo and the rugby stadium

Rugby stadium Today's SCMP comes with a giant poster of The Palazzo, complete with the ridiculous claim that it benefits from the superb facilities of the Olympic Equestrian Arena.  That's the temporary arena that the developers portray as a small rugby league stadium (see right), and which will be demolished before anyone moves into The Palazzo.

Meanwhile, someone has kindly provided a link for the overblown TV ad for The Palazzo (on You Tube of course).

Personally, I find it amusing rather than annoying.  At least the ad (like the website) looks good, and is well-done, unlike so many of the adverts we have to suffer on Hong Kong TV. 

According to yesterday's SCMP, they have managed to sell the first batch of apartments, so presumably they'll be happy with their efforts in attempting to deceive the public.

PhotographMeanwhile, one of the largest property agents in this city is wilfully undermining some of the good work done by the developers, by circulating photographs of the actual development, which shows that Ma On Shan may be a  little closer than it appears in the artist's impression, that the opposite bank of the Shing Mun river is more developed, and that the sewage treatment works are not a large area of green open space. 

The same leaflet also shows that KCRC House is not being knocked down, but somehow manages to create the impression that Route 9 is a small country lane, and that the housing development next door is some sort of park.

Palazzo planIt also highlights the fact that this is a very strange site.  On one side we have Route 9, on another side we have the MTR East Rail, and it is built around both Jubilee Garden estate (at one end) and KCRC House (at the other end).  The clubhouse is therefore being built on top of the railway line on a narrow strip of land above the railway and between the highway and the Jubilee Garden estate. 

Another feature advertised is the "Sha Tin to Central link".  This is weird, because you would think that a development that is part-owned by the MTR would get this right, but the current plan is that the so-called "Sha Tin to Central link" will become an extension of the Ma On Shan line from Tai Wai to Hung Hom, and that East Rail will be extended from Hung Hom to Central.  Although this is many years away, it ought to be a selling point for The Palazzo - if they could get it right.  But, hey, why bother with something that is true when you have so much that isn't?    

Palazzo fantasia - Everything's gone green

Hong Kong property developers don't just tell little white lies, oh no.

The Palazzo is a new development in the New Territories.  As is apparently compulsory these days it has a funny foreign name (French and Italian being favourites) and an auspicious Chinese name (御龍山 - which is something to do with an imperial dragon that lives in the mountain).  It's built on top of the KCR East Rail line opposite Fo Tan station.  On one side it has views of the Fo Tan Industrial Area (and the mountain behind), and the other side there is the Hong Kong Sports Institute and City One Sha Tin (and yes, OK, some mountains behind). 


On the right you should see the image the developers want to portray of this rural idyll, with a few landmarks highlighted: the racecourse, Kau To Shan, Tolo Harbour, and the place where horses will jump over some fences in August (which will surely have been demolished long before anyone moves in), and the Shing Mun river.  Very green, isn't it? 

Of course, when I say image, what I mean is an artist's impression...of how the developer wished it looked, rather than the reality.

Where to start?  Well, I think we can discount the blue sparkling water in the Shing Mun river and the nullah because no-one would believe that, though I suppose we should be grateful that we have been spared the yachts and junks that so often appear in the water in these type of pictures.

Anyway, my eye was drawn first to the rather large clump of bushes that appear in the foreground.  As luck would have it, they obscure the Fo Tan Industrial Area and the railway line.  If only the artist had moved a few metres to his left or right he could have made his portrayal far more accurate, but unfortunately the imaginary bushes were in the way.  

Then I noticed that the sewage works in the background have also failed to catch the artist's attention and been replaced with more lovely green stuff (that must be because it's easier to draw)

Palazzo (how it is)In the foreground, KCR House (as it probably isn't called anymore) has also been overlooked by the artist.  The main building has simply disappeared (it should be immediately to the south of The Palazzo) and the smaller building next to it has turned into another piece of open space with bushes and trees.

That's three landmarks gone missing.   In case you're getting confused, I've annotated the fantasy picture with a guide to what has been obscured by excessive imaginary green stuff (see right).

Palazzo and KCR HouseThe picture on the left shows the The Palazzo being built, and you can clearly see that it fits around KCR House, which is the black building at the back right and the low white building next to it (if you're confused by the orientation, this is looking south whereas the main one is looking north).  Yet you won't find it in the official artist's impression.  The photograph also shows what looks like City One Shatin, which unluckily enough doesn't quite fit into the artist's impression, being just off to the bottom right.

Oh, and it seems that Ma On Shan had disappeared off into the far distance.  Not nearly green enough, I fear.

Palazzo - roomStill, there's always the view of the racecourse.  That's gotta be good, right?  From another artist's impression (see right) which I found on their splendid website, it appears that you can see the whole racecourse from your living room (love the decor, by the way).  Excellent.

Perspective can be a tricky thing, but if the racecourse is just visible beyond the tops of the apartment blocks (in the main picture), I think that means that it must be at least 700-800 metres from the nearest apartments.  And, if we are going to be picky, there are also the Jockey Club staff quarters blocking the views from the lower floors (which is what this view seems to show).  

Stadium The other thing that amused me (though I doubt that will influence anyone one way or the other) is that the temporary venue for the Olympics horsey bits is shown as if it were a small football stadium.  It's not, though, is it?  Imagination is a wonderful thing, and it would be very boring just to show the dull reality of a temporary stadium.  But it isn't a League Two football ground, guys.

The website is full of all sorts of other nonsense.  It's worth a look, and although it is wildly pretentious it does also seem fairly well-designed.

More on Hong Kong property

My post about the effects of the government's land policy prompted a lively debate over at the Gweilo Diaries [it was a blog run by someone calling himself "Conrad"]

Predictably, it has caused outrage from at least one property owner, who assumed that (i) I don't own property and (ii) that I was advocating that prices should fall. Conrad weighed in to support the contention that prices are too high, and arguing that the government should get out of the market.

I wasn't specifically arguing in favour of lower property prices, though I can see why it was interpreted that way. My point was that the current arrangements obstruct the transformation of industrial areas to residential and commercial use, and one suggestion I made was that the lease premium should be replaced, possibly by a profits tax (so the government should benefit as these areas become more attractive and prices rise).

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