Let me apologise in advance for covering a bleak subject in today’s post, but I find the situation in Hong Kong so unique that I had to share it. This poster which was on display in the MTR (subway) stations recently caught my attention. I’ve never seen a government advocate one type of funeral versus another, it’s so personal that it doesn’t seem right. I’m certain that one of the reasons that the Hong Kong government felt the need to promote burial at sea is due to the top issue that this city is facing – extremely high density.
According to the website Demographia, Hong Kong is the sixth most densely populated city in the world. Imagine over 7 million people living in this tiny spot that is hardly visible on the world map. The measure of population per square mile underestimates the severity of the issue because a large portion of the land mass in Hong Kong is covered with undeveloped mountains. If you look at the map of Hong Kong, more than half of it is green – these are the mountainous country parks which are largely uninhabited.
When we first moved here, we were shocked by the exorbitant rents. For an apartment similar to the one we had in London, we were looking at double the rent. The need for space is so severe that the developers squeeze as much as they can into each apartment. One of the apartments that we viewed had 3.5 rooms in less than 700 sq ft. During our viewing, my husband walked into the first room and commented that it wasn’t too small for a half room. The estate agent quickly corrected him by pointing out that he wasn’t in the half room, it was one of the larger rooms.
I also visited someone who lives in a public housing estate. The apartment had 2 bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchen and living room, all squeezed into about 350 sq ft. There was insufficient space for a proper dining table or sofa, just a small foldable table and a few stools. Neither bedroom could fit a double bed, which is not an abnormal situation in Hong Kong. Bunk beds are essential in most homes. Despite having so many high rises, with the tallest apartment buildings reaching over 70 floors, there is still insufficient housing for everyone.
Not surprisingly, the poor are the ones who suffer. The government releases public housing periodically, but nowhere near enough as demonstrated by the long waiting lists. According to a news report last year, the average waiting time for public housing is four years. To cater for the needs of the poor, there have been a number of innovations by private landlords. Apartments have been divided into shoebox rooms, and most recently, capsules which are used as affordable alternatives to hotels in Japan but here, people have started using them as permanent living space. On a per sq ft basis, these are some of the most expensive rental options. These living arrangements do not meet health and safety regulations, but the demand is so strong that they keep cropping up.
This issue affects almost every aspect of our lives. An extreme example was when I delivered our baby in a public hospital. After delivery, I was left in a store room for over an hour while waiting for a bed to free up. We recently applied for a kindergarten for our daughter and were told that they already had over 300 applicants for about 100 positions in the 2018/19 school year. Finding a restaurant for a sit down meal around my office during lunch hour is also no easy feat. We have to arrive promptly at noon or wait until 1.30pm; otherwise, we end up joining a long queue. Sharing a table with strangers is also the norm in most local outlets given the tight space.
As demonstrated by the poster that triggered this post, the lack of space not only affects the living, but also the dead. It is almost impossible to opt for a burial unless the person comes from a very wealthy family. Even after cremation, finding storage place for the urn is a major issue. To buy an urn place in the private market, it can cost anything from HK$300k (US$40k) up to HK$1 million (US$130k). The government has stepped in to offer heavily subsidized public urn places but again, there is a long waiting list.
I witnessed this firsthand last year, when one of my husband’s relatives passed away and the family struggled to figure out an affordable arrangement. Hence, scattering ashes into the sea doesn’t seem like a bad option at all. It certainly sounds more peaceful than being housed in temporary space (usually at the undertaker) while joining yet another waiting list, even after leaving this world.