“Location, location, location” is the timeless mantra that circulates routinely and repetitively within the real estate arena. When scenic vistas are added to this location-equation, a price premium is then, more often than not, consequently commanded by the views. One might therefore expect many of such prime properties to constitute the ‘luxury’ range of the real estate market, as exemplified by ‘ultra-luxe’ residential developments in ‘bespoke’ neighbourhoods like Manhattan and Pacific Heights with iconic views of Central Park and the Golden Gate Bridge, respectively.
And so, it is a refreshing shift in perspective when our common (if not limited) understanding of ‘a home with a view’ is turned on its head through the film A Home With A View. Directed by Herman Yau and released in 2019 (currently available on Netflix, which is how I came to watch it), the plot revolves around the shenanigans of the Lo family as they seek to recover the loss of their most prized amenity once enjoyed from their living room window—that is, a water and skyline view now obstructed by a hideous and unauthorized billboard structure installed by the new neighbour who resides in the rooftop unit of the opposite high-rise building.
With the use of dark and satirical humour (which, albeit, I found oddly and uncomfortably executed in some instances), the film presents a cast of memorable characters inspired by the everyday identities of a working class neighbourhood and stages the story within the gruelling realities of tenement and informal housing in Hong Kong. This context is presented at 11 minutes and 30 seconds into the film with the following revelation:
…the population of Hong Kong reached 7.3 million in 2018. The average living space is 161 square feet per person which means about 204,000 families’ living space is less than 215 square feet (excerpt from A Home With A View).
Hong Kong’s limited territorial space is further compounded by steep mountainous terrain; thus, creating a situation by which development is not only geographically constrained but also, and in turn, an expensive endeavour where new land for urban growth is derived mostly through reclamation from the sea. [Note: The largest reclamation project to-date, named Lantau Tomorrow Vision, is a proposal involving the creation of artificial islands constituting 17 square kilometres of reclaimed land (5x the area of New York’s Central Park) near Lantau Island and aims to accommodate 1.1 million people (The Lantau Row, 2019).] Given Hong Kong’s challenging landscape, a remarkable 25% of land is currently urbanized (Cullinane and Cullinane, 2003). Additionally, Hong Kong has had a steady influx of population—a combination of inward migration from mainland China as well as new arrivals by way of foreign migrant workers—at a rate of about 1 million people per decade since the 1970s (Ibid). With much of the urban settlement concentrated on Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, the population densities in these two areas are amongst the highest in the world and yield an urban form that is recognizably ‘Hong Kong’: high-rise + compact.
On this front, and simmering beneath its comedic veneer, A Home With A View seemingly serves as a socio-political commentary that casts a light on the misfortunes and misgivings of high-rise urban living as experienced by the poor and working class in Hong Kong society. Against this backdrop are unresolved and deep-rooted issues of increasing income disparity, social polarization, and environmental deterioration. And, for nine consecutive years, Hong Kong has topped the list as the world’s least affordable housing market according to the Demographia International Housing Affordability Study in 2018. Despite Hong Kong’s public rental housing model, the program itself is unable to adequately address the demand for housing spurred in part by the surge of unskilled migrants arriving to eke out a living in this global city; thereby, driving the underclass to extreme measures of sub-standard and precarious housing (Chui, 2009).
‘Rooftop structures’ are one such form of informal housing that has punctuated the Hong Kong urban skyline for decades:
Rooftop structures are temporary structures built without the formal approval of the government. They are built by people who either intend to live in them or to sell or rent them for profit. Some are built from concrete and bricks, but other are built merely from wood, metal sheets, and other flimsy materials. However, their ‘temporariness’ is an irony and this issue will be dealt with in subsequent sections. They are supposedly ‘illegal’ and disapproved of by the authorities, but they are also ‘tolerated’ and ‘recognized’ by the government, as will be explained. In fact, these rooftop structures have existed in Hong Kong for more than half a century, and will most likely remain for another half, as they have served the critical function of providing accommodation for low-income, marginalized people such as migrants from Mainland China and Southeast Asia. Rooftops clearly reveal the existence of marginalized communities within Hong Kong’s society (Ibid, p. 246).
In Portraits From Above (2009), Rufina Wu and Stefan Canham document five rooftop communities in Hong Kong through a coherent and compelling compilation of photographs, architectural drawings, and text-based ethnographic observations.
Jason Y. Ng’s essay “Those Who Live in Glass Houses”, in his book No City for Slow Men (2014), offers a vivid account of his experience growing up as an inhabitant of illegal structures—first living in an illegal rental unit constructed of plywood and corrugated metal situated on the rooftop (“penthouse”) of a tenement building and later moving to a legitimate apartment unit where the kitchen was a “metal cage” “mounted on the exterior wall and supported by cantilever beams” (p. 72).
Portraits From Above and “Those Who Live in Glass Houses” complement, if not enlighten, the socio-political undertones of A Home With A View. There are Homes (big ‘H’) with a view and then there are homes (small ‘h’) with a view—to assume sameness and similarity between the two is to negate the social inequalities and irregular regulatory policies that underpin the proliferation of the latter. Fundamentally, in the built-up city, awesome views are indeed an amenity for enjoyment, but not at the risk of diminishing the importance of safe and secure housing; and, certainly, not at the expense of endangering human lives.
Chui, E. (2009) Rooftop Housing in Hong Kong: An Introduction. In: R. Wu and S. Canham (authors) Portraits from Above – Hong Kong’s Informal Rooftop Communities. Berlin: Peperoni Books, pp. 246-258.
Cullinane, S. and Cullinane, K. (2003) Hong Kong City Profile. Cities, 20(4): 279-288.
Ng, J.Y. (2014) Those Who Live in Glass Houses. In: J.Y. Ng (author) No City for Slow Men. Hong Kong: Blacksmith Books, pp. 69-73.
The Lantau Row (2019) The Economist, 431(9145): 35.
Wu, R. and Canham, S. (2009) Portraits from Above – Hong Kong’s Informal Rooftop Communities. Berlin: Peperoni Books.