The Truth About Hong Kong Apartments

March 23, 2016

I peered inside a bare concrete room painted a sickly yellow color. In the corner sat a toilet with an old shower hose coiled over the back if it. “Very convenient,” said the real estate agent, gesturing towards the bathroom. “You can cook here,” he explained. I stared at him in disbelief. He was pointing at a high counter opposite the toilet. An unused power strip gathered dust.

A few days prior I would not have acceded to the convenience of cooking in a dingy bathroom. But after a week of apartment hunting in Hong Kong, I knew my estate agent had a point. The previous two apartments we had viewed both lacked counters or any surface that could be used as a makeshift cooking space. By this standard, the present set-up could in fact be considered convenient. Apartment hunting in a city that measures convenience not by the location of counter space but by the mere existence of it is not how I imagined living on my own for the first time would be. I moved to Hong Kong as a newly minted college graduate, with visions of the cosmopolitan lifestyle I would lead, living alone in a studio apartment. A modern studio apartment was clearly out of my price range, but memories of ill-suited college roommates made me determined to live alone, with or without a counter on which to cook.

Central Kowloon is home to the working classes and to some of the most densely populated streets in the world… Had I better understood the reality of living in such a crowded area, I would have thought twice about renting there.

The truth is that by having the option to live alone, I was already better off than most Hong Kong residents. The first apartment I saw was a single room, about the size of my bedroom in Missouri, yet it was being advertised as a family home because a flimsy wooden divider cut the room into two tiny living spaces. My estate agent explained that it was not uncommon for multi-generational families to live in homes this size, or smaller. I must have seemed dismayed by this information, because he shook his head sadly and murmured, “I know, it is a problem for me too.”

Finding affordable and reasonably sized accommodation is a problem for everyone in Hong Kong, particularly in Yau Tsim Mong, the district in Central Kowloon where I was apartment hunting. Located across the harbor from Hong Kong Island, the more upscale side of the city, Central Kowloon is home to the working classes and to some of the most densely populated streets in the world. The company who employed me as an English tutor urged me to live in Kowloon for its central location and relative affordability, but had I better understood the reality of living in such a crowded area, I would have thought twice about renting there.

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Although I wish I had done more research on my neighborhood before signing a lease, I ended up finding a livable apartment with the help of my agent, who helped me throughout my time in Hong Kong. The room I settled on was medium-sized with an attached wet room, and a nook for simple cooking on a hotplate. It was a small space and it lacked natural lighting, yet it was recently renovated and included most of the furniture I needed. It was by far the best apartment I found during the two weeks I spent looking, and therefore cost more than I originally wanted to spend. At around US$800 a month, the rent was a little more than half my monthly salary as an English tutor. I wasn’t thrilled about spending so much of my pay on rent, but when the alternatives included illegally constructed rooftop apartments and shoddily subdivided rooms under the stairs of the landlord’s home, raising what I was willing to pay was worth it.

Looking back, I was very naïve during the entire process of apartment hunting, both in my expectations and in my lack of preparation, but I’m glad I didn’t forsake my original plan to live alone. It might have been easier to split the rent with roommates and to share the work it takes to find an apartment, but doing it by myself assured me of my own self-sufficiency, and allowed me to experience for the first time the freedom and autonomy that comes with living alone. Living alone in Hong Kong on an entry-level English teacher’s salary comes with some sacrifices, but it is both possible and a privilege.

About Lane Pybas

Lane Pybas is a wanderlust who moved to Asia after studying literature at a small liberal arts college in Georgia. She worked as a high school English tutor in Hong Kong for one year before heading to Taipei, where she’s currently studying Chinese, wandering around Japanese stationary stores, and feeling overwhelmed.

4 thoughts on “The Truth About Hong Kong Apartments

  1. Alex
    March 23, 2016

    Hong Kong real estate agents will show foreigners the worst apartments (unless they think you will pay premium prices), apartments no local would rent. Best way to find a good place is to have a local friend front for you; then better stuff is shown as the aent doesn’t think they can sell you a crappy place. I live in Causeway Bay and have 700 square feet (in an old, walkup building, but I don’t care to pay for a fancy lobby) for USD 1000 a month. Nicer places at good rates are possible.

    • Lane Pybas
      March 23, 2016

      My salary in Hong Kong was the same as the average local salary. While not as high paying as some English teaching jobs, my salary is pretty representative of what most locals make per month. If you make the average salary, the apartments I viewed are among the only ones available to you. Local Hong Kongers in my age group would never be able to afford to pay US $1000 a month!

  2. Karen
    March 23, 2016

    My husband’s first apartment in the depths of Kowloon,( we are talking thirty years ago now), had a power socket IN the shower and the basin plug hole was not connected so your feet got wet when you washed your hands.

  3. Sarah
    March 23, 2016

    I did manage to find a pretty decent paid English teaching job and a really nice apartment in mid levels! I must be one of the lucky ones. Although I do split the rent with my BF evenly but I still have more money left over than what goes to the landlord.

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