City of Sorrow

2007-10-25 - oiwan

10 days ago (Oct 14, 2007), a mother took her two children's lives by throwing them out of the window and killed herself by jumping from the public housing high-rise. Almost every year, similar family strategy happened in Tin Shui Wai, a new town at the northwestern end of New Territories. Now the town is called “the town of sorrow”.

20 years ago, Tin Shui Wai was a most beautiful place in Hong Kong, a big piece of wetland with many fish ponds. Tin stands for sky and shui means water. Wai is a wall to block the sea weaves from breaking the fish ponds and wetland.

The piece of natural treasure was destroyed in late 1980 when a developer reached the agreement with the government to have a new town project there. The government spent the public money to fill up the wetland and constructed public housing, while the developer carried out a number of private housing projects on the site. In the late 1990s, before the property market bubble burst out, more public housing were build in northern part of the town, brought the population up to 270,000 in 2001. At present, the population is around 300,000. The whole area is a high-rise jungle.

As the town is located at the margin of Hong Kong, its traffic cost to the city center is very high and there are very few job opportunities in nearby districts. The community, especially the lower income group, is segregated from the outside world. While at the same time, there aren't enough public facilities to serve the community: there is no public hospital in the district and the so-called town center is a shopping mall near a private housing property. The public library is at the corner of the shopping mall on the 3rd or 4th floor. There is only one public swimming pool which is half the size of a standard pool.

I lived in Tin Shui Wai several years ago in my friend’s public housing apartment. It is on 23rd floor with 35 square meters, a standard size for a core family with 3-4 members. There are around 30 other apartments on the same floor.

In the district, the streets are clean and everything well managed, like you have to stop three times to wait for the traffic lights before you can cross a road, as most of the roads are intercepted by the light rail. Every housing compound has its own fences and walls. The public housing compounds are more or less connected by pedestrian bridges, while the private housing have their own independent world.

There are very few hawkers in the streets; the staffs of the hawker control team are extremely effective. Last year, a hawker killed himself by accident when trying to escape from the control team’s arrest. Well, you don’t need hawkers as the two big brothers supermarkets provide all your daily necessities, only that their food products are quite often closer to the expired dates when compare to those sold in city center.

Cheap lunch box delivery is a big business in the district because all you can get in the street is fast food from the three big brand restaurants. There is no space for layman style open area food markets for they are at odd with the planners’ imagination of modernity and the banal middle class’s imagination of a hygienic city.

I can survive with an Ontaku lifestyle with my computer on; however, not the lower class women and new immigrants, who are suffered from family pressure and social stigma and seclusion. After the tragedy, the Chief Executive Donald Tsang said the government could increase public facilities and social workers. However, I can’t see how the policy can deal with a wider structural problem of polarization of rich and poor which manifested in a geographical term. The greater sorrow of Tin Shui Wai is about Hong Kong.

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