From the mundane shots of high-density residential units in movies, to the presentation of repetitive architectural patterns as urban aesthetics by the photographer Michael Wolf, Hong Kong dwellings always attract attention.

For some, living in a flat in this city might not be much better than living in a cage. The average living area per capita of Hong Kong’s subdivided flats is only 47.8 square feet, with rent costing around 40% of its household income. These figures come from recent research by the Institute of Future Cities (IOFC) at The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) and a local concern group, the Platform of Concerning Subdivided Flats and Issues in Hong Kong.

hong kong living space

The research reveals that the average monthly income of the subdivided flat household is HK$10,939.00.  Their average monthly rent is HK$3,924.20. Comparing the research findings with those of the survey by Policy 21 Limited, commissioned by the government in 2013, the average living area per capita has reduced by almost 30% from 67.6 square feet to 47.8 square feet, while the rent to income ratio (RTIR) has increased by around 11%.

Just how big is 47.8 square feet? It is barely larger than a table-tennis table, measuring 9 foot by 5 foot. Ironically, the area of an individual cell in Stanley Prison is around 80 square feet, according to Wen Wei Pao. So, what is the minimal livable space? Are there any standards for minimum living space and how were these derived?

subdivided flats
Photo: Ko Chun-ming.

There is currently no standard for minimum living space in Hong Kong. However, public rental housing (PRH) households with an internal floor area (IFA) smaller than 7 square metres per person may apply for a larger flat under the Living Space Improvement Transfer Scheme (LSITS) endorsed in 2005.

Taiwan is similar to Hong Kong in terms of its culture, average body dimensions of citizens and geography. Taiwan’s ‘Basic Living Standards’ were implemented by its Construction and Planning Agency Ministry of the Interior on 30 December 2012 and stipulate average minimum living floor areas per person.

taiwan basic living standards

The ‘Basic Living Standards’ is based on the research ‘Minimum Living Standards‘ carried out by the Chinese Society of Housing Studies in 2008. The research studied the findings and experiences of various countries concerning living area, structural safety, ventilation, natural lighting, hygiene, facilities, cramped conditions, rent and other aspects. For the research, a dwelling was divided into four living areas: bedroom, kitchen, dining hall, and toilet and bathroom. The average minimum living floor area per capita for different number of persons in a household is calculated with the minimum functioning areas of the 4 living areas according to different situations.

hong kong living space
global per capita living area

The average living space per capita in Hong Kong is around 160 square feet. In public rental housing it is 130 square feet – still much bigger than the 48 square feet for subdivided flats. It is, nevertheless, very small when compared to other countries or cities.

Hong Kong has a very high gross domestic product (GDP) per capita value. If space in a capitalist city, with a free market economy and minimal government intervention, represents wealth, does the disparity of its average living space imply a huge disparity in wealth?

When dwellings are not perceived as homes or space for living, or even as space for daydreaming as Gaston Bachelard described in ‘The Poetics of Space’, but as real estate for selling and leasing for profit, residential units are simply commodities. This mentality has given rise to the phenomenon of subdivided flats.

subdivided flats
Photo: Ko Chun-ming.

A subdivided flat is actually a box, with windows if the household is fortunate. No wonder some people call this type of flat a ‘shoe box flat’ or a ‘match box flat’.

Hong Kong always presents itself as an international city, but when will it attain an international standard in terms of the quality of its living space?

Alfred Ho is an architect who focuses on urban research. Graduating from the University of Hong Kong and Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, Alfred is an expert on living spaces and public spaces. He has written for several local media including Stand News on topics like department stores and theme parks.