The Truth About Hong Kong Apartments
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.
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.