Hong Kong’s political and bureaucratic classes are going through one of their occasional collective bouts of autism, becoming totally absorbed by barely relevant details while remaining oblivious to any bigger picture.
One of my favourite examples of this mentality in action followed an incident in 2000 when a deranged residency-seeker squirted a flammable liquid over an Immigration Department official and set fire to him; both died. Obviously, no-one was lateral-thinking enough to ask whether a Kafkaesque entry permit system might have something to do with pushing people over the edge. Presumably, the authorities did look into ways of improving general security in the offices concerned. But the greatest effort seemed to go into prevention of a precise repetition of the unprecedented assault – right down to looking at fire-retardant jackets with built-in extinguishers. As if a future attacker wouldn’t dream of using acid or ammonia, let alone solid weapons like knifes or clubs.
The smothering of hillsides with concrete to prevent landslips as a social evil anywhere and everywhere in this mountainous city was a similar absurdly specific reaction to a much broader difficulty, in this case geology and gravity. In short: forget the problem, just find a nice easy solution.
Thus the Big Lychee’s great and good consider what to do about last Wednesday’s fire in Fa Yuen Street, which killed nine. A few people, including Chief Executive hopeful CY Leung, are wacky enough to see a link between the death toll and the dangerous firetrap-type conditions in the subdivided apartments affected, and therefore the government policies that make homes artificially scarce and expensive. Some others, probably including the police, suspect arson and see the problem in understandable terms of arresting and imprisoning someone who is prepared to kill. Mostly, however, officials and politicians have zeroed in on the source of these particular flames: the containers in which the street market stall owners store their goods at night.
A fire broke out in nearby Ladies Market last year, and it probably is unwise to store flammable materials (both markets mainly sell clothing) in chained-up boxes on the sidewalk. But addressing that does not fix the real problems. It won’t stop scumbags from extorting payoffs from stallholders in return for not damaging their business; they can think of plenty of alternatives to setting fire to the inventory. And it certainly won’t make the ‘cubicle’ apartments that house many of the poorest people any safer, let alone lead to a better supply of affordable and inhabitable homes.
In January 2010, four people died when a similar partitioned slum building collapsed in To Kwa Wan, and four more perished in a fire in another nearby last July. After the latter, Secretary for Development Carrie Lam reiterated the line (expressed by lawmakers but echoing official policy) that “totally banning ‘sub-divided units’ was not a solution that could best meet the practical needs.” In essence: we need ‘cubicle’ housing to put the poor in because we’re sure as hell not going to make homes affordable.
In all fairness, Carrie did promise to send “the double-decker Fire Safety Education Bus … to carry out publicity work … in old built-up areas, …introducing a simulated fire scene for the members of the public to learn how to make appropriate judgments on whether they should escape and how to escape.” Yet another problem solved by the world’s most brilliant civil service!