Skip to content

有紧急法律疑难?请立即致电 (852) 3416 1711 与本行联系。

Having your fill of problems

Hong Kong, 27 March 2024: I confess to being a Marxist … of the Groucho, Harpo and Chico sort. The trio’s cabin scene in A Night at the Opera remains a comedy classic: Groucho discovers three stowaways – including his two brothers – in his tiny room aboard a ship, which is then occupied by a pair of housekeeping staff, a heating engineer, his workmate, manicurist, lady looking for her Aunt Minnie, and cleaner. Groucho quips his way through the ordeal even as four stewards arrive with trays of food. The chaos only ends when another visitor opens the door and everyone tumbles out.

If the Marx Brothers feel claustrophobic, spare a thought for the 220,000 citizens living in Hong Kong’s notorious subdivided flats, tiny cubicles that often present health and fire safety hazards. On average, such dwellings are just 118 sq ft, the same size as a car parking space. Sometimes, whole families reside in this one room. Beijing wants these units and their even more notorious cousins, so-called cage homes, eradicated by 2047, and our leader John Lee has taken note.

While cramped conditions are stressful enough, some residents say exploitation by landlords is continuing, despite recent legislation which restricts rent increases on tenancy renewals and forbids flat owners from overcharging for electricity or water. Landlords are also required to adequately maintain the property. However, if they transgress, the law only grants occupants the right to terminate their tenancy or carry out repairs first and recover the costs – a tall order for most, given their impoverished circumstances.

Lawmaker Doreen Kong, who sits on the Legislative Council’s welfare panel, wants enforcement efforts against malpractice increased, rather than simply relying on tenants to report incidents. “The government should instead conduct more surprise checks,” she insists. Economist and Commission on Poverty member Terence Chong agrees, pointing out it is unrealistic to expect tenants to take legal action against their landlords.

Alas, this plight will not end anytime soon. The average waiting time for a public rental flat has increased to 5.8 years due to low housing production and project delays in 2023. The Housing Authority distributed 13,700 flats last year, of which 12,900 were refurbished, but pledges the waiting time will improve. “Looking ahead in the coming 10 years, the overall public housing supply will register a clear upward trend,” says a spokesman, cheerily. Hang in there, folks.

More immediate help is at hand. Three new “community living rooms” will open this year, catering for more than 1,000 households living in cramped conditions in To Kwa Wan, Hung Hom and Nam Cheong. They follow a pilot scheme in Sham Shui Po last December which provides local residents with extra space to study, shower, cook and eat. All four premises are donated by developers and operated by NGOs. Chief Secretary Eric Chan says the government is aiming to set up a community living room in every district where subdivided flats are concentrated. He is calling on “more developers to join us in the initiative”. You have to admire his optimism.

If some tenants cannot wait to leave, others elsewhere are refusing to do so. While most of the 1,600 rental flats at Shek Kip Mei’s ageing Tai Hang Sai Estate are now empty, with many occupants having moved out ahead of a planned redevelopment, some 20 households are sitting tight. They are in a standoff with the estate’s long-time owner, the Hong Kong Settlers Housing Corporation, over relocation terms. The non-profit organisation has been trying for the best part of a decade to persuade residents to move temporarily, or be rehoused permanently, so the estate can be revamped. But some older occupants with an emotional attachment to their home are proving difficult to convince. Banners hung from windows – “Miserable” and “Need Proper Relocation” – underscore their defiance. The corporation points out, not unreasonably, that the “vast majority” of households support the scheme which will “significantly enhance the quality of life”.

Writing about the underprivileged and vulnerable brings me neatly to a remarkable lady who has dedicated her life to helping them. Public interest lawyer Patricia Ho combats human trafficking, forced labour, exploitation of migrant workers and various other nefarious activities. She does so with passion and vigour, while maintaining a sunny outlook on life. Patricia is my latest guest on Law & More and I urge you to listen.

In closing, some news from Discovery Bay, the resort town on Lantau Island that is a world away from our inner-city’s subdivided flats and cage homes. With upmarket properties, chic restaurants and private golf club, it has long been a haven for professionals and their families. No matter how deep their pockets, though, residents will be aghast at this week’s news that the town’s ferry operator is seeking government approval for a 60% hike in fares despite years of taxpayer bailouts and subsidies.

Discovery Bay Transportation Services cites “rising operating costs and declining patronage” for the request. As an alternative, perhaps its executives could simply watch the Marx Brothers – after all, they know how to fill a ship’s cabin.

Until next time, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins







  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

New ID card gender rules unveiled

By Jasmine Kwong Hong Kong, 19 April 2024: More than a […]

Read more

The slow lane to modernisation

Hong Kong, 17 April 2024: “Round round, get around, I g […]

Read more

Law & More: Episode 39 – Sharon Ser

Hong Kong, 15 April 2024: In this episode, we are joine […]

Read more

A poignant day for retiring Teddy Lam

Hong Kong, 28 March 2024: Everyone at BC&C wishes o […]

Read more

Having your fill of problems

Hong Kong, 27 March 2024: I confess to being a Marxist […]

Read more