On compartmentalizing buildings and brains

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!


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16 Responses to On compartmentalizing buildings and brains

  1. Iffy says:

    No room today for Henry’s latest moronic proposal to improve our public housing policy? To wit, reducing the frequency of needs assessments from biennial to once every 3 or 4 years, because oh dear, the people in public housing don’t like having to justify their continued occupation of a subsidised flat if there’s a chance it could be transferred to someone in greater need. Another pathetic, water-willed concession in lieu of ‘policy’ from this grinning buffoon. Another demonstration of his complete inability to grasp the nature and purpose of things. Was Henry in charge of Immigration when they ordered 1000 fire-retardant jackets?

  2. Real Tax Payer says:

    On the same theme : on the way to work today I noticed no less than 8 traffic wardens, 2 each at the 4 corners of Hennessy Road and Luard Road : all obviously watching for jay walkers. There must have been an accident over the weekend at that junction , so of course the knee-jerk attitude is to station all wanchai’s traffic wardens there for a couple of days, as if that will make the slightest difference

    Meanwhile illegal single / double/ ( treble ?!) parking carries on un-abated in Hennessy Road outside Wanchai MTR ( which is a major through way) and of course all along Johnston Rd ,especially outside the Fook lam Restaurant where all the 7 -seater van big wigs dine

  3. Roger Maxims says:

    A “Kafkaesque entry permit system”, dear Hemlock, is there precisely to target welfare-seeking poor gwailos from UK and Australia and their Chinois counterparts from Hebei, Hefei, Henan, Shanxi and Shaanxi (double A yes). Also the latter’s babies who picked up defecating skills from the canine population here on Bowen Road.

  4. PropertyDeveloper says:

    The extremely focused kiasu of the poor government departments is merely a knee-jerk reaction to the devious kiasu of the citizenry. Autrement dit, it’s simply a way of showing they’ve not entirely lost the plot, that even if traffic wardens refuse to go to some places in the NT — because any traffic police are immediately surrounded by a large, watchful crowd — that even if a major public footpath can be blocked by a private landowner, the govt is dynamic enough to put up a big red notice to warn people, which won’t be torn down for at least a week.

    It was a wise decision to use the past tense for the shotcreting: current policy is in many cases to rip it all off (sometimes a tiny push will do), drill almost to the other side, erect huge permanent concrete gangways for the convenience of the inspectors — with big railings of course — then try to hold the whole lot together, the whole lot creating years-long jobs for the boys.

    It’s no wonder the Heung Yee Kuk systematically run rings round them. I’m waiting for the moment they start picking on the remaining few institutions that don’t kowtow 9 times to them.

  5. mumphLT says:

    Put the Heung Yee Kuk on the job; they build what the fuck they want, where the fuck they want and nobody fucks with ’em.

  6. Skippy says:

    Eh? Move from Australia to Hong Kong to seek welfare? Did we warp to a parallel universe while I was looking the other way?

  7. Roger Maxims says:

    Skippy, you merely had too much of the crunchy version of yourself. An increasing number of n’er-do-wellers from the First World are lurching in our community after their unsuccessful stints as company gwailos, English teachers in government schools, IT technicians and the occasional banker. You can ask Hemlock to testify.

  8. Maugrim says:

    At bottom feeder level, ignoring Governmental rules in HK is all about how loud one can “wah”, usually about loss of income. Traders can block footpaths, landlords can subdivide, even the folk on Fa Yuen Gai ignored previous rules about space between stalls. The Fook Lam Moon crowd do their “wahing” behind closed doors funnily enough, at paces like the FLM. It’s those truly at the bottom, usually domestic helpers who get hit with the stick of state.

  9. PropertyDeveloper says:

    Roger, let me get this clear: hordes of Australians are/have been coming here and either working for 7 years or living off their spouses, with the sole aim of drawing a few hundred dollars pm of fruit money and travelling cheaper on the buses?

  10. mumphLT says:

    …and bumming drinks.

  11. Roger Maxims says:

    PD, you have utterly and unforgivingly ignored the prowness of our civil servants in devising such welfare plans as FREE education for 12 years, 95%-subsidied health services, ridiculously low income tax rates, zero capital gains tax or VAT/GST and outrageously cheap MTR tickets (albeit subsidied by developments like The Wings somewhat). Why else do you think we have 40,000 mainland babies crawling over the border every year from their respective wombs?

  12. Skippy says:

    Roger: drivel.

    Australia has vastly superior public education, a good public health system and far less ‘invisible’ indirect taxes resulting from economic distortions. I will concede on public transport. You ignore air quality and living space which any sane Australian will hold against HK. You also didn’t mention HK has more/better babes which proves you’re not taking this discussion seriously.

    Maugrim: spot on!

  13. Stephen says:


    I doubt our Administrative Grade Civil Servants, brilliant as they doubtless are, are going to devise and implement welfare policies attractive enough to “to target welfare-seeking poor gwailos from UK and Australia”

    However I am somewhat more in agreement with you about the 40,000 mainland babies. But hey have you seen the size of Hong Kong’s fiscal reserves – we have got to spend it somewhere ?

  14. Real Tax Payer says:

    The traffic wardens at Luard Road / Hennessy Road junction had disappeared by lunch time …..

    Meanwhile I saw something the other day which really blew my mind as an incredible waste while walking on a rambling footpath in the NT that was half dirt track, half concrete, and lots of steps . It was, of all things , a normal real road sign indicating a sharp left hand turn ( well it was a gentle left hand bend) and a ” REDUCE SPEED NOW” warning . And not just one of these but two, spaced about 50 m apart

    There must be some real fast walkers these days – or else that’s where they train the traffic wardens in X- country to run away from the villagers

  15. Probably says:

    Not sure about the look of that Fire safety Eduction Bus. Looks like it might go up in flames at any moment being made in China!

  16. smog says:

    @Real Tax Payer,

    I’m guessing that would be the route round the coast on Lantau Island from Mui Wo to Chi Ma Wan. Yes, those signs do look a bit bizarre, but the reasoning is fairly obvious: this is actually one of HK’s few official Mountain Bike trails, and, for reasons best known to themselves, the powers that be have altered the trail at the bottom of a steep descent so that it takes a very sharp turn right before crossing a stream bed. Previously it just went basically straight on. Mountain bikers not being aware of the change could easily end up dong a serious header into the bushes if the signs didn’t warn them of the change. Hikers amongst us may regard this as a not altogether bad thing, but I can see the government’s reasoning.

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