MWDH's Architecture History
A Commitment to Simplistic and Human-centered Designs
Clara Chan, Council Member of the Hong Kong Institute of Architectural Conservationists
Back in the 1950s, while the world at large suffered from a shortage of affordable housing, Hong Kong was confronted by a full-blown housing crisis: an influx of immigrants due to the ongoing civil war in mainland China. Wooden shacks and metal huts built by tens of thousands of refugees littered across hillsides. In 1954, then governor Alexander Grantham painted a grim picture in a speech: one eighth of the entire Hong Kong population resided in squatter areas under appalling living conditions; over 350,000 people needed to be relocated. “If we had unlimited money and unlimited land, the problem would be very much simpler. As it is, we have neither, which makes it that much more difficult.”
Faced with an overwhelming housing demand, numerous low-cost housing projects were launched in an attempt to construct enough residential units to house those who lacked sufficient financial means in the fastest and cheapest possible way. Ming Wah Dai Ha, first conceived and planned in 1956, was one such project. Many of the design and philosophy of the architecture are reflective of the social needs at the time, and are generally in line with principles of modernism, namely practicality and function over form, which were prevalent amongst then western architecture.
Ming Wah Dai Ha was designed by W. Szeto & Partners, a renowned and sizable local architectural firm. Szeto Wai, who relocated to Hong Kong from Shanghai after the war, was a well-versed professional in the fields of structural engineering, civil engineering, public health and electrical engineering. He took part in numerous public construction projects in Hong Kong, such as schools, university campuses and town halls. Though Szeto came from an engineering background, his architectural designs were on par with those produced by architects who underwent a more conventional training. Given Szeto’s vast knowledge of structural engineering, a hillside construction project such as Ming Wah Dai Ha was right up his alley.
The planning and design of Ming Wah Dai Ha was a great demonstration for the rest of the ongoing housing projects in Hong Kong at the time. It demonstrated a commitment to provide Hong Kong citizens with human-centered living spaces in spite of immense pressure to keep costs low.
In 1966, construction of Ming Wah Dai Ha, situated on a hillside in Shau Kei Wan, was officially completed. The estate comprised 13 blocks of low-cost housing built towards north along A Kung Ngam Road. Apart from the H-shaped Block A which stood by the sea and the cruciform Block G, the other 11 blocks were 8- to 10-storey rectangular buildings. The estate occupied a total area of 37 thousand square metres, which is equivalent to 5 to 6 football fields, and was at the time the largest housing project undertaken by the Housing Society.
Pic 1: Bare hillsides at the Ming Wah Dai Ha construction site in 1959 (Source: Hong Kong Housing Society 1959 Annual Report)
One of the features of Ming Wah Dai Ha is that it is built on a hillside. Photos (Pic 1) show that the building site was originally a rocky slope; A Kung Ngam Road had not yet been paved. Planning for the project began in 1957. Upon inspection of the site, Szeto Wai stated that due to the local topography, construction on the hillside was, while possible, incredibly difficult. According to annual reports released by the Housing Society, construction was delayed multiple times since rocks at the site were harder than expected and the ground was difficult to level. While hillside buildings are plentiful nowadays, they proved to be huge technological challenges to builders half a century ago; as a result, most buildings at the time were situated on seaside flatlands. However, given the considerable growth in population, officials were forced to start developing public housing on rougher terrains. Between the 1950s and the 1960s, many hillside public housing estates, such as Yue Kwong Chuen and Cho Yiu Chuen, were built. The practice became so commonplace that, in 1959, The Hong Kong and Far East Builder published an article detailing the technology and methods employed in hillside constructions.
In the end, Szeto Wai opted not to level the whole hillside, but instead shaped the site into large terraced fields on which buildings sat (Pic 2). As such, each rectangular building has 3 exits on different levels, leading to the top, the side and the foot of the hill. Take Block J as an example, an exit leading to A Kung Ngam Road is located on the third floor, while an exit leading to the tram terminus near the foot of the hill is found on the first floor.
Situated on terraced hillsides, Ming Wah Dai Ha, sandwiched between the hills and the sea, boasts a quiet and green environment. Given the local geographical features, architects worked tirelessly on the layout of the estate. While attempting to build as many residential units as possible to house families, they also aimed to build ample public spaces, bringing a healthy living environment and neighbor relations. For instance, each block is equipped with a roofed playground on the ground level. The vast public spaces between two blocks feature unrestricted views and natural ventilation. These designs are in line with the principles of the Housing Society when planning public housing estates. “In spite of the demand for more housing the Society must keep to reasonable standards of density and not forced into cramming more families on a site than it honestly feels it can manage successfully. Car parks should not replace children’s playgrounds but by more skillful planning both must be provided. Adequate open spaces and gardens are more important than ever in planning estates with multi-storey buildings and our estates can be examples of how a balanced plan can be produced.”
Pic 2: Many of the buildings stood on terraced hillsides due to the local terrain. (Illustration by Kenneth Chan and Dawn Wong)
Due to its proximity to Shau Kei Wan Market, early plans of Ming Wah Dai Ha did not include any stores, but only schools and community service facilities were planned. It was not until 1962 when the first residents moved in that four residential units were converted to stores, selling groceries and providing laundry services.
Interior Structure and Spaces
In the early stages of the estate’s development, Szeto Wai estimated that the land could accommodate about 2,500 families. However, when the estate was completed in 1966, the 13 buildings offered a total of 3,031 residential units, about one fifth more than originally planned. Despite being built with limited resources and housing nearly ten thousand residents, the interior spaces did not feel cramped, thanks to Szeto’s simple yet intelligent design. Many of the first residents were impressed by the buildings’ ventilation and lighting.
Most of the 13 blocks are rectangular buildings featuring a central access corridor design. Each floor has a main corridor that looks similar to a skyway; a roofed and well-ventilated public area is found on both ends of the path, while residential units are situated on both sides of the corridor. This brings natural light and fresh air into each building, and helps strengthen neighbor relationships by creating a comfortable atmosphere for residents to interact.
Pic 3: Ming Wah Dai Ha features a central corridor design, on both ends of the corridor are public spaces shared by residents.
Pic 4: A skyway-like corridor is found on each floor; a roofed and well-ventilated public area is located at both ends of the corridor.
The sizes of residential units at Ming Wah Dai Ha range from 13 to 53 square metres; each unit is equipped with a private toilet and kitchen, catering to the needs of families of various sizes. Regardless of the size of the unit, the basic layout remains consistent. For example, ventilation windows in the kitchen and the toilet always face the impluvium (air well) located above the central corridor, which allows living rooms and bedrooms to have big windows or balconies with unrestricted views. According to Szeto Wai’s plan, 40% of units did not have a balcony, allowing for lower rental rates and more accommodation for low-income families. To cater to the needs of those without balconies, a space dedicated to clothes drying is found on every floor.
Similar methods employed to reduce costs, and thus rental rates, are prevalent throughout Ming Wah Dai Ha’s design. Of the 13 buildings, Block A was designed for low-income public servants and was the only block without private toilets and kitchens. The public kitchen and bathroom layout was designed to reduce costs. However, soon after the first residents moved in, many Block A residents, who wished to have a private bathroom and kitchen by paying a bit more rent, applied to be moved. As a result, Block A was demolished and rebuilt in 1972 to meet resident demands. Moreover, to further cut costs, none of the buildings were equipped with lifts, except for Block G, which was planned to be occupied by families with higher income.
While Ming Wah Dai Ha may look plain on the outside, Szeto Wai poured a lot of heart into designing an economical yet human-centered living space for its residents.
(1) “The Governor’s Pre-budget Address”, Hong Kong and Far East Builder, vol.10 no.5, 1954.
University of Hong Kong: 90th Congregation Citation, HKU website, 1975, https://www4.hku.hk/hongrads/tc/citations/c-b-e-b-sc-ceng-f-i-c-e-f-i-s-tructe-f-a-s-c-e-m-i-m-eche-wai-szeto-the-hon-szeto-wai, accessed on 6 March 2022.
Chinese University of Hong Kong: 20th Conferment of Honorary Degree of Doctor of Law, CUHK website, 30 November 1978, https://cong.cpr.cuhk.edu.hk/uploads/hongrads/380_zh_tw.pdf, accessed on 6 March 2022.
(3) 黎雋維：〈建築師司徒惠的工程結構美學〉, Apple Daily, 2 May 2021.
(4) Hong Kong Housing Society Annual Report 1961, Hong Kong: Hong Kong Housing Society, 1961.
(5) Walter Koditek, Hong Kong Modern Architecture of the 1950s-1970s, 2022: Apsara Books.
(6) Ming Wah Dai Ha, Docomomo HK, https://docomomo.hk/zh/project/ming-wah-dai-ha/, accessed on 6 March 2022.
(7) Hong Kong Housing Society Annual Report 1961, Hong Kong: Hong Kong Housing Society, 1961.
(8) Hong Kong Housing Society Annual Report 1962, Hong Kong: Hong Kong Housing Society, 1962.
(9) Hong Kong Housing Society Annual Report 1958, Hong Kong: Hong Kong Housing Society, 1958.
(10) Ming Wah Dai Ha, Docomomo HK, https://docomomo.hk/zh/project/ming-wah-dai-ha/, accessed on 6 March 2022.
(11) Hong Kong Housing Society Annual Report 1961, Hong Kong: Hong Kong Housing Society, 1961.
(12) Hong Kong Housing Society Annual Report 1959, Hong Kong: Hong Kong Housing Society, 1959.