2019年 9月 22日
They’re not making much new land in tiny Hong Kong these days.
And they’re not making babies quite as they used to either.
Together, both factors are undermining the prosperity and cohesion of those who live in this rich hub of global trade and commerce.
The risks they pose are every bit as potent as the curbs on political freedoms which sparked the summer of street riots back in early June.
The territory is in the grip of a housing affordability crisis which, by sheer weight of demand and shortfalls of supply, dwarfs Australia’s experience with the same problem.
Town planners are striving to reach targets to build another 460,000 new flats over the next decade, with around two-thirds of them to be allocated for “affordable” public dwellings.
But even if their goals are reached, no one actually expects the persistent gap between supply and demand to suddenly disappear.
Rising population, falling fertility
It’s not that Hongkongers are having too many babies.
Quite the opposite.
At 1.1 children per woman, it already has one of the lowest fertility rates of the developed world.
Instead, the main pressure on housing comes from the constant flow of mainland Chinese who take up permanent residency in the special administrative region.
Aware of the “pulling power” that Hong Kong’s wealth would have, the allowable rate of new settlers from China has been capped at 150 per day for the two decades since the hand-over of the former British colony.
Cumulatively, close to a million Chinese permit-holders have become Hong Kong citizens since 1997, accounting for about 10 per cent of the city’s population growth.
Their presence, and the ever-increasing densities of cramped housing estates, only adds to the long list of grievances that young Hongkongers hold in the steady countdown to complete Chinese control in 2047.
As a direct or indirect cause of the recent conflict on the city’s streets, it’s hard to escape the sense of economic despair and housing hopelessness as a motivating force behind the protest movement.
To emphasise the point, the graffiti scrawled across a traffic barrier on busy Lung Cheung Road in Wong Tai Sin suggests the prospect of time behind bars is barely worse than feeling enslaved by an expensive tenancy in a tiny Hong Kong flat.
A solution to ‘getting a room’
In a market with among the smallest apartments in the world, Hongkongers have been forced to do what homeowners in Australia, the US, Britain and Europe have done for decades to make their renting or purchasing dollar go further — pile in more people or sub-divide the floor space.
Unbelievably to Australians living in properties on average four times larger than Hong Kong’s, it is not uncommon for adult children, their partner and even grandchildren to be housed for years with the extended family in a small publicly-rented or privately-owned flat.
Average occupancy in households is well above two people per premises, edging close towards three.
Simple arithmetic suggests available space for each person is reduced to little more than 10 square metres — less if toilet and sleeping floor space is excluded.
Family bonding and communal cosiness is fine as far as it goes, but there are limits to everything.
So, what about the small matter of privacy for … umm … those moments when a little intimacy might be needed?
As with everything in Hong Kong, there’s an entrepreneurial answer for that.
“Young people have no space,” said Selena Kwan, who owns the Mansion G Hotel.
“Some of them are even sharing their bedroom with their sibling or parents — so how could you manage to have sex at home?”
Where amorous couples might despair over their awkward and unwanted celibacy, Ms Kwan and her partner are among a band of hospitality-trained graduates who saw a business opportunity in it.
The Mansion G Hotel is their modestly profitable answer to couples who simply need to “get a room”.
Online bookings by the hour
With rooms measuring little more than 3m x 3m, their hourly hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui boasts the ultimate in discretion for its mostly young adult clientele.
All bookings and payments are made online.
There’s no check-in or check-out counter either: both are done via secure combinations issued to the customers’ phones.
“Mansion G” takes around 20 bookings a day — more on peak times and at weekends — and depending on demand, usually at a rate of about $40 for two hours.
Anecdotally, the business is doing a brisk trade.
When the ABC visited on a mid-week afternoon, several rooms were already occupied and the one we spoke in was about to be.
Armed with her tertiary industry training, Ms Kwan had expected a more conventional start to her career in a regular established hotel, not to be opening her own hourly establishment.
But she views her segment of the business as a direct result of all that ails her fellow citizens of a similar age.
“Devastated, angry, hopeless” is her summary of the economic predicament young Hongkongers find themselves in.
“Young people are not eligible to apply for public housing and their income cannot afford to rent private flats, so they’re [stuck] in the middle,” she said.
“The Hong Kong Government … don’t care about how Hong Kong people are suffering from the land problem, because they only focus on selling land to private developers and they make money from them.”
Across town, Kristie Chan’s commercial experience is much the same — a hospitality graduate now running the “ASAP” self-check-in hourly hotel in the busy Mong Kok district.
Ms Chan — who preferred not to be photographed for fear of retribution from the Hong Kong Government — is equally sympathetic to the economic plight of her clients.
“I think most of them are students around 20 to 25, but sometimes we receive guest feedback they are wives or couples,” Ms Chan said.
“Sometimes they already have children and live with their parents and can’t have their space, so they just come after work and go back after two or three hours.”
Cheap five-star competition
At the ASAP, the motto is “the most important thing is to enjoy”.
Customers have an abundance of choice to match their mood with five rooms on offer: blue, pink, tiffany blue, purple and the always in-demand deluxe “mirrored ceiling” suite.
But for all it marketing charms, the ASAP hotel is also caught in a bind from the overall downturn in visitor numbers caused by the summer of unrest.
Accurate estimates at the top end of the hotel market (five-star and above) are hard to come by, but some analysts put current occupancy rates as low as 10 per cent.
Across the entire hotel accommodation industry, the protests are generally reported to have wiped 40 to 60 per cent off demand for peak summer bookings.
Most of the downturn is attributed to wealthy Chinese mainlanders choosing to stay well away from the tumult, bricks, tear gas and water cannon on the streets.
Hourly hotels for locals aren’t immune.
At $40 for two hours or $52 for three hours, the ASAP has discovered to its own cost that it’s now pitched against established full-day/overnight hotels which are cutting their room rates to bargain-basement prices.
“It’s a cheap rate, but nowadays the hotels are really cheap and the same as this price, so some of them will choose to go to a hotel rather than here,” said Ms Chan.
“I think most of them are mainland people but also some of the foreigners won’t come here because of the tear gas.”
Even so, Ms Chan and her business partners at the ASAP said they’re prepared to wear some financial pain to support the protest movement and the young couples relying on their business to satisfy a basic human need for intimacy and privacy.
“I don’t care at this moment that they affect our business, I just want things to become better.”
But by her admission, Ms Chan isn’t optimistic that a resolution can be found to satisfy Hong Kong’s democracy movement or to ease the economic hardship that helped spur the resolve to fight in the first place.
Recessionary clouds hang over the special administrative region’s famously strong $500 billion annual economy and the full toll taken by the public unrest cannot yet be tallied.
Worse still, no one from President Xi Jinping in Beijing down to Kristie Chan and her hotel team in Mong Kok has any answer for what it will take to break the city’s cycle of despair.
There’s no resolution in sight.
Not for love, nor money.