The Micro-Dwellings of Hong Kong

From chicken-wire cages to glassed-in galleys, designers are working to make the city’s tiniest spaces livable

When I speak with Gary Chang, the Hong Kong architect is busy preparing to give a talk on micro-dwellings at a conference in Singapore. This is routine for Chang, who gained a measure of internet fame recently when a video tour of his “transformer home” hit YouTube.

The 360-square foot apartment can be morphed into some two dozen different configurations with sliding panels mounted on ceiling tracks. Slide one panel to reveal a kitchen as tight and tidy as a ship’s galley, slide another to open a laundry room, lift a tabletop to uncover a spa full-size bathtub. “So the idea is almost like a time-based design,” explains Chang in the video, “Instead of me moving from one room to the other, I don’t move, actually, the home moves for me.”

Gary Chang’s “transformer home.” Photo courtesy of Edge Design Institute

Incredibly, this space was Chang’s childhood home, and once housed him, his parents, three sisters, and a boarder – 360-square feet divided seven ways. As a result, the family, like many Hong Kongers, had to be ingenious about use of space. One surface transformed from dining table to homework station to workbench with the addition or subtraction of a cloth or a layer of newspaper; chairs folded for easy storage, even the sofa could be taken apart. Chang’s current apartment is just a high-tech improvement on this modular style of living.

These days, Chang hosts weekly tours of his apartment for groups of students, architects, developers and manufacturers from around the globe.

The 24 configurations of Chang’s apartment. Image courtesy of Edge Design Institute

“Hong Kongers have a long history of compact living,” says Chang, adding that he and his sisters dealt with the close quarters by inventing a private symbol language so they could talk without their mother hearing.

Calling Hong Kong apartments “compact” is an understatement. In Hong Kong, the average person has a mere 161 square feet to themselves. Compare this to 832 in the US, 960 in Australia, 587 in Germany, 379 in Japan and 356 in the UK. The average new home in Hong Kong is 484 square feet, compared to 2,164 in the US, 1,023 in Japan and 818 in the UK.

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development defines ‘overcrowding’ as less than 165 square feet per person. Only 2.4 percent of US households are overcrowded by this standard. In other words, the average Hong Konger lives in conditions considered dangerously overcrowded by the US government, conditions shared by only a tiny minority of the American population.

In order to subdivide already minuscule apartments, Hong Kong’s poorest citizens often resort to so-called “cage” or “coffin” homes. Framed out of wood or chicken wire, the units are often stacked two or three high. A resident might pay US$100–150 a month for as little as 30 square feet. A cage home fits a mattress roll, a hot plate and a tiny TV set. In the midst of a city that prides itself on its modernity, they bring to mind jail cells in a steampunk horror novel.

77-year-old Yeung Ying Biu sits partially inside the cage that he calls home in Hong Kong. It measures 16 square feet.

According to government estimates, about 80,000 Hong Kongers live in these units, while social justice activists put the number at closer to 200,000. The health effects of cage home living are clear – residents often suffer respiratory issues, infections and viruses from the overcrowded, ill-ventilated buildings. While Hong Kong does offer subsidized public housing, supplies are inadequate and wait lists are long. Additionally, many cage home residents are ineligible due to immigration status, or have mental or physical illnesses that make it difficult to access social services.

As the plight of cage home dwellers has gotten more attention in recent years, some Hong Kong architects and designers have joined the fight for improvement, coming up with new ways to maximize tiny living quarters in ways that benefit both the middle-class and the poor. In some cases, the overcrowding has led to innovation in small-home living that can carry beyond the tight boundaries of the city to other regions struggling to accommodate population growth.

The offices of the architecture and design firm Affect-T are in the rapidly gentrifying Tai Ping Shan neighborhood overlooking a park full of prehistoric-looking gnarled banyan trees. In the late 1800s this area was an overcrowded tenement district housing recent immigrants from mainland China. The congested living conditions helped fan an outbreak of an unusually deadly strain of black plague, which killed some 8,600 people between 1894 and 1901. So it seems appropriate that one of Affect-T’s interests is in improving conditions in Hong Kong’s modern tenements.

Images courtesy of Affect-T

In 2013, Affect-T exhibited a micro-house constructed of bamboo as part of the Hong Kong/ Shenzhen Biennale. This micro-house was envisioned as a template for high-quality temporary housing for cage dwellers, the homeless, and other people in inadequate or transitional living situations. These two-story units are affordable, easy to assemble, and could be placed in disused warehouses or other urban spaces.

The micro-houses generated a fair amount of international attention, including interest from Malaysia and the Philippines. They could also be a model for post-disaster housing almost anywhere.

“Why are transitional houses considered only after an event, while in most urban areas it’s already needed?” asked Affect-T founder Dylan Baker-Rice.

Will Hong Kong’s innovations in micro-dwellings influence the US? After all, “tiny homes” have become trendy among a certain demographic of eco-conscious citizens, and cities like New York are experimenting with ultra-small-space living (though still spacious by Hong Kong standards). Some cities are even looking at tiny houses as a solution for homelessness.

Quixote Village in Olympia, Washington houses otherwise homeless adults. Photo courtesy of Quixote Village.

“There would be certain social barriers” to implementing small space living in the US, says Baker-Rice. Most importantly, Hong Kongers make more use of public space than Americans. Hong Kong neighborhoods all have numerous playgrounds for children and “sitting out” areas where the elderly congregate, read, nap, and play chess. Public exercise equipment is common and well-used, popular with those who can’t afford gyms and don’t have space for a treadmill. Every park and beach is equipped with grills for barbecues, which are a popular alternative to at-home socializing. And the city is dotted with ultra-cheap food stalls and indoor food courts, used by many families as alternative dining rooms. When kitchens consist of a two-burner stove and a mini-fridge, eating out becomes the norm.

Without public space to use as extended living areas, micro-dwellings can easily feel like the tenements of old. Even in Hong Kong, some are questioning just how small is too small. This year, billionaire developer Li Ka-Shing launched a development of sub-200-square-foot micro-apartments. Retailing for about US$250,000, they’re tightly designed with built-in storage and seating. But their square footage, barely larger than a Hong Kong prison cell, has drawn criticisms.

Jail comparisons notwithstanding, 400 of the first 492 apartments sold on the very first day.

You can follow Emily Matchar on Twitter at @emilymatchar. Subscribe to re:form’s RSS feed, sign up to receive our stories by email, and follow the main page here.