Welcome to Roof World

Here’s a pretty typical bit of New Territories architecture…

It was going to be an all-purpose shack-cum-pigsty, but then rents rose and it made sense to jazz it up with some rusty old air-conditioners and other salvaged conveniences and declare it open for human habitation. Similar buildings are next to it and opposite…


Snakes hiss in the grass. Out the back, there’s a few old banana trees, an illegal container storage dump and a dirt track leading to the main road. In the distance lie the lush green mountains of Tai Lam Country Park – or is it Shing Mun?

But then you peer over a wall, and you find yourself looking down on this…


And when you look out the window at the back, you get a rather fetching panorama of the area from Kowloon Tong over to Wong Tai Sin, with the majestic Lion Rock in the background.

This is Roof World – a little neighbourhood of huts and more-or-less houses perched on the top of a large old residential building in Kowloon City, a few hundred yards from the northwest corner of the old Kai Tak airport. Motto: ‘Closer to Heaven’. Some of these illegal structures look sort-of poured onto the legal (maximum in airport days) 11th floor, like a layer of gooey icing on a cake; many, though, are distinct one- and two-storey boxes boldly using the rooftop as open ground affording space not only for homes, but for little yards and a pathway linking them to the stairs into the actual block. They are made from thin brick walls and re-cycled bits of other buildings, and they’ve been here for years, so must have seen plenty of typhoons come and go.

Residents can sit out in the evening (the Filipinos over on the left use their veranda as the kitchen/dining room) and tend their potted plants. It’s green, in a concrete-rooftop way, and surprisingly quiet. Who lives here? Obviously, people who can’t afford anything better (or who think this is better than the pricier, sealed-in and noisier legal sort of dwelling). But otherwise, all sorts, it seems; even a good mix of young and old.

A glance around shows that many of the district’s older buildings have unauthorized extensions on top of them, as in many other older urban areas of Hong Kong. But many don’t. A bureaucracy of lateral thinkers (if not a contradiction in terms) would consider legalizing an extra layer or two of suitably designed homes on residential blocks – subject to buildings’ load-bearing capacities, etc – as a way of easing the shortage of affordable accommodation. As it is, the government seems to turn a blind eye, and utilities are happy to connect ‘12th Floor’ dwellers up to services.

Citizens of Roof World have all the pleasures of Kowloon City below them. For the time being, it remains a relatively uncrowded neighbourhood, with cheap eateries of every description and surprisingly zippy bus connections to Tsimshatsui and Hong Kong Island. Of course, it won’t last. The MTR is coming through (read: high-rise rabbit hutches), and this city of ‘shortage of land’ will, one distant day, finally get around to developing the sprawling, unused expanse of Kai Tak runway and apron. Financial Secretary John Tsang, the linear-thinking bureaucrat’s linear-thinking bureaucrat, dreams of finally bludgeoning the area to death by turning it into a ‘gourmet city, partly feeding off cruise terminal passengers’. Nicely seasoned with garlic and black bean sauce, presumably.

Other possible uses for rooftops and similar areas of course exist. In this case, embarrassingly public, early-morning displays of downright theatrical worship by born-again Christian students at HKU, complete with one playing a guitar. You could put a hut full of impoverished homeless immigrants in that space.


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9 Responses to Welcome to Roof World

  1. Praise The Lord says:

    Half-a-dozen “Allahu Akbars” should send those HKU Christian God Botherers running for cover. They look a lot limp to me.

  2. Joe Blow says:

    Is the Wellcome supermarket chain up for sale ?

    In the past 2 weeks I have noticed several VIP visitors, and groups of visitors, in my local Wellcome superstore, receiving very thorough briefings on the store operations. Men in suits with binders under their arms being led around by other suits, while the shop managers keep a polite distant.

    Any Jardine Johnnies here to spill the beans ?

    Remember, you heard it here first !

  3. Stephen says:

    To the uneducated and uninformed you could walk up to the Peak look over to the Dark Side and see these too quite large expanses of land (West Kowloon and Kai Tak) and snort “what land shortage” You can also ponder that Sir Gordon Wu is still one of this town’s biggest berks and who likes a game of golf. But of course our Bureaucrats have decided to build Cultural Zone and Cruise Ship hub.

    As Gordon well knows concreting over our Country Parks will do no good whilst we continue with the high land price / Developer collusion policy which will ensure that people stay in roof top shacks, cage homes and sub divided units for some time yet.

  4. PropertyDeveloper says:

    Don’t knock such places as (a) they have (a few) windows that open (b) usually privacy in one or more directions, ie absence of children pointing at you while issuing racist screams (c) security, since the $5k pm “management” “company”-cum-offshoot of the developer is powerless to stop you installing hanging flower baskets, aircons, extra storeys, dogs or Taiwan flags and (d) as you say, cleaner air, fewer piledrivers, more congenial neighbours and fewer leaks from the floor above.

  5. Gin Soaked Boy says:

    We can’t go upward, expanding laterally is not possible without destroying the country parks, surely the answer is to go down Cu Chi style. The Japs had a go at this during the occupation, with some of the tunnels still accessible on Jardines Lookout. In no time we could all live like Wombles, emerging from holes in the ground to clear up the rubbish left by the rich surface dwellers.

  6. PCC says:

    A land of Eloi and Morlocks, eh?

  7. Andanotherthing says:

    Our bureaucrats do not “turn a blind eye” to illegal roof-top structures – they just enforce the law in a very inconsistent manner. This is evident in districts like Wanchai where enforcement action has been taken against some owners in some buildings and not others. I still get mail addressed to the occupant of the mythical flat supposedly lurking on my roof on the 12th floor – I even have two mailboxes to boot! I get the impression that with all the hassles and publicity surrounding ‘Enery, C.Y. and other prominent figures, officials would rather the illegal structure problem just go away for a while.

  8. Karen Eliot says:

    “Welcome to Roof World”. Karen Eliot approves this message.

  9. Andanotherthing: the government needs to do just enough to assure the public it is “tackling the problem of illegal structures vigorously”, but not so much that it suddenly has tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of homeless people on its hands all demanding instant (and legal) rehousing. Hence the inconsistent application of the law.

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