BLOG – Photographs of Hong Kong’s Rooftop Slums 13

Limited space and sky-high rents have pushed HK’s poor into cages, ‘shoeboxes‘, sub-divided death traps and up onto rooftop slums in the blistering heat. Average house prices in Hong Kong have jumped 76% since 2008, with no end in sight to the ever-increasing, monstrous cost of housing…

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Artwork by

Rufina Wu & Stefan Canham have drawn attention to the underprivileged Hong Kongers who exist at the bottom of society but on top of the city. The images below are from their photographic project, ‘Portraits from Above: Hong Kong’s Informal Rooftop Communities‘…

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One of the five residential focus points of the book is a mixed-use structure located in Tai Kok Tsui (above). The area first developed as a shipyard which linked into other heavy industries but, since the 1980s, many of the factories have relocated. Like Sham Shui Po and Kwun Tong, this area is a redevelopment zone and is expected to undergo major transformations.

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Rooftop dwellers live in constant fear of eviction, so the British and local photographers included accurate diagrams of each home in addition to personal profiles of each tenant…

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Comprised of three housing blocks, the Tai Kok Tsui building has a continuous roof area of 1145 metre squared. Six unguarded staircases provide access to the roof of the ‘8+3 storey’ structure.

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Tin or concrete huts atop tenements have been common in HK since the 1950s, but they were made illegal in 1982.

Most live in them as they cannot afford to go elsewhere, particularly when the waiting list for public housing is years-long.

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The self-built huts, ranging from one to three stories high, are usually linked by a maze-like system of corridors and stairs.

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The density, darkness and cramped conditions hark back to the days of Kowloon Walled City.

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The ‘penthouse shanty towns’ are home to rats and other pests, plus drug users are sometimes attracted to the dark stairwells. The makeshift communities are also at a constant risk of fire.

Despite their quasi-legal status, demolition notices can stand for decades. Therefore, structures continue to be bought and sold with outstanding eviction notices considered in purchase negotiations.

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via CNN

Dozens are currently due to be evicted from a building in Tung Chau Street, Sham Shui Po…

Extract from the book…

There is no elevator. We walk up the eight flights of stairs, hesitating on the last one, looking at each other, out of breath: we have no right to be here.


The roof is a maze of corridors, narrow passageways between huts built of sheet metal, wood, brick and plastics. There are steps and ladders leading up to a second level of huts. We get lost. Our leaflets in hand, Rufina knocks on a door. There is an exchange in Cantonese. Stefan stands in the background, the foreigner, smiling, not understanding a word. They hear us out, smile back and invite us into their homes.


Later, we look down at the building from a higher one across the street. The roof is huge, like a village. There must be thirty or forty households on it. From the outside there is no way of knowing what is inside. Whether they have Internet or not. Whether they have a toilet. And there is no way of knowing their stories.


Who makes a picture of this? Who keeps a record? Sometimes a newspaper will print an article, or an NGO will launch a campaign. Various government departments keep files on so-called “unauthorized building works”, coding the huts with permanent markers and photographing them. The files are not on public record, but residents may look at them to learn why their homes are to be demolished. Very rarely do rooftop residents document their own spaces: the family pictures we saw were taken standing in a field of sunflowers, or in a village in the mainland, or down on the street beside someone else’s car, smiling.


We walk up the stairs again. We no longer get lost in the corridors. We learn how residents modify and maintain their homes. There are people who have been living on the roof for twenty or thirty years who have helped to build the city. The new immigrants from Mainland China, from Southeast Asia, from Pakistan, continue to do so. In the seventies, they built the underground, and now they are working on the new tower blocks. Hong Kong’s older districts are being redeveloped. Some buildings are crumbling because they were built with salt water concrete. Others have to make way for taller ones that yield higher profits. Few rooftop residents would mind living in the new towers, but they cannot afford it. All are afraid of being resettled to the remote satellite towns, where there may be few opportunities and limited social networks.


We walk up the stairs again. The rooftop settlements are an urban legacy, telling the story of Hong Kong, of political upheavals in Mainland China, of urban redevelopment, of people’s hopes and their needs in the city.

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Sham Shui Po, via Wikicommons

A PBS documentary on rooftop slums – the 30-min documentary profiles the hopes and hardships of a poor HK community…

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