Finding Space

Hong Kong homes are notoriously cramped, but other spaces give us what we need

Photo: Ardy Alfred

Recently, I witnessed a couple arguing quietly and gesticulating wildly across a table in a busy food court. Strangely, my first thought was, they need this space.

Physical space in Hong Kong is a coveted prize that can never be won. It’s no secret that it’s one of the most densely populated places in the world. We know that its density negatively impacts people’s mental health, two-thirds of the city’s 800,000 public housing flats are smaller than 430 sq ft and well-designed ‘nano-flats’ are growing increasingly popular.

While this is hardly a favourable USP for the city, the lack of space is the reason that, in terms of everyday amenities, Hong Kong is wonderfully Hong Kong. Through necessicity, we improvise — and often with glorious results. Here, things are never where you think they will be (but looking up is a good shout). There’s no reason why a cafe cannot be a make-shift hole-in-the-wall kitchen and a few plastic chairs down a dark, wet alleyway. Nor why doctor’s surgeries cannot be situated in residential buildings, sandwiched between the homes of old couples and young families, or why a new, raved-about restaurant cannot be 10 floors up in a slither of crumbling brick.

The same goes for more prestigious institutions, such as religious bodies. We have a decent amount of traditional Western churches, but, due to a lack of land, newer churches are composite complexes in busy parts of town. And if you don’t have any kind of bricks and mortar? Praying is still no problem, as proven by the many tiny Buddhist shrines perched on cobbled steps or sat outside shop fronts.

Hong Kong’s density also means that we’re adept at understanding space on personal and psychological levels, too. Even though the couple’s battle in the food court may have seemed inappropriate, I could relate. On the rare occasions my partner and I have a heated debate, we go to the roof to find resolution. The smallness of our home (looking into our neighbour’s home) seems to trap negative feelings and force us to sit in their sourness, all the while refusing entry to anything dressed like compromise or perspective. Finding a new space, looking over the choppy sea, illuminated by city lights, however, everything changes.

Of course, there are many people in desperate situations who are being denied the basic physical space they need, and this is an on-going Hong Kong issue. Clamping down on people buying apartments and leaving them unoccupied, and providing affordable housing to the most vulnerable is vital. But, even for those who aren’t living in ideal quarters, Hong Kong’s other spaces can alleviate compact living.

I use, and view, space in ways that I didn’t before. I get cabin fever after too long spent inside (in the London suburbs, having a ‘duvet’ weekend felt cosy; in Hong Kong, it feels stifling), so I look to other spaces for that same sense of restoration, such as bookshops, libraries, mountains. In many ways, they feel as familiar as my own home. I appreciate their existence (including their generous opening/closing times) and their physical space more than I might if my own dwellings were bigger or I lived in a sparsely populated place. Hong Kongers see the spaces available and allot them new purposes; they play chess in the park outside their homes, relax and watch TV in cafes, stretch on rooftops.

Thanks to our (necessary) spatial awareness, we even use small, ‘stressful’ spaces to our advantage. I can twist to fit perfectly into the Tetris puzzle of a busy MTR carriage, or slink between staggered slow walkers and barely make a draught.

In The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton says, ‘Home can be an airport or a library, a garden or a motorway diner.’

I’ve realised that home, on this small island, is no longer just the place I sleep. It’s also so many other spaces that I rely on. We might not have much room over here in our flat, but, luckily, it’s not our only home.