Studying on a balcony surrounding by hill and sea
Lai Wai Chung / One of the first residents of Ming Wah Dah Ha

With a tape measure, Professor Lai measures his old home carefully.

Professor Lai moved out of Ming Wah Dai Ha on a rainy day much like today, 40 years ago.

 

“What’s the length here?” “Hey, pull the tape taut.” Lai Wai Chung, Professor of the Department of Real Estate and Construction at the University of Hong Kong, revisited the apartment in which he had resided for over a decade. A fellow architect and a student accompanying him wasted no time in pulling out their tape measures and recorded the dimensions of Block G Flat 307, a place full of Lai’s memories from his childhood until his university graduation. While redrawing the plans for the flat, Lai reminisced about his time studying on a balcony surrounding by the hills and the sea here at Ming Wah.

 

Understanding tenants’ needs through home visits

Before moving into Ming Wah, Professor Lai lived in a “Tong Lau” (tenement building) in Wan Chai where he had to share the flat, the kitchen and bathroom with over 20 occupants. Lai’s father was a civil servant who walked to work in Central. When Lai’s two younger siblings were born, it became apparent that the apartment was far too small for a family of seven. His father thus submitted an application to move to the newly completed Ming Wah Dai Ha. In 1963, they moved to Ming Wah for a new start. Lai recalled that a female housing affairs assistant would come visit their flat every month on the day the rent is due. In addition to rent collection, the assistant would also chat with the tenants and their kids to get to know more about their lives, and also to see if the tenants have made any alterations to the flat or if there were any changes in household particulars. His mother would always treat these visits seriously, worrying that her children would say something embarrassing. 

 “We called them ‘Gu Neong’, some were Chinese, and some were foreigners. The staff deeply care about the tenants. Once she noticed that the floor was uneven in our unit and was worried that we would get hurt, so she had someone fix it soon after.” Looking back as an adult, Lai realised that such work ethic and genuine care for the tenants’ well being is hard to come by.

Open and spacious layout

In the 60s and the 70s, a lot of primary and secondary school students worked after school to help support their families. Professor Lai was somewhat lucky. As a child, he never had to worry about making ends meet. However, in the old days, not every family could afford to buy a television set. Like every other kid at the time, he would crowd outside neighbors’ homes with a television set to watch cartoons, sometimes as many as a dozen kids. 

 

To prepare for the public exams, Lai’s after school life in Form 5 was occupied by more study than TV watching. By placing a folding table and a wooden stool on the balcony, he turned it into his private study room and would easily spend half a day there with his textbooks. Having spent so much time on the balcony, the beautiful scenery outside left a strong impression on Lai. With no high-rise buildings nearby, Lai could enjoy an unobstructed view as far as Kowloon and Kai Tak Airport on the far side of the harbor. At that time, the hills and the sea were not too far away. The Shau Kei Wan bus terminal was just a mudflat where the elevated stilt houses of fishermen were located. In the summer, kites filled the sky. A game called “kite snatching” was popular among kids at the time. Children would try to snatch kites using strings or long forks. If you could grab hold of a kite, it’s yours. You may think kids would fear retribution, but Lai quickly explained, “It’s just one of the unspoken rules at the time.” It could be seen child innocence on Lai’s solemn face as he vividly recalled his childhood mischief. 

“It’s not even 400 square feet?” The professor was stunned as his student reported his measurements of the flat. “It felt like at least 800 square feet to me”. Though Lai is currently residing in a 700 square feet apartment, he had always thought that his old home in Ming Wah was larger. “Maybe it’s because the balcony protrudes from the building, so the space felt a lot more open.” That openness not only describes the views, but also the relationship between neighbors. Residents did not mind sharing their TV sets, or having their kites snatched away, or even being disturbed while studying. “Women would gather and chat, people would play mahjong. Sometimes a neighbor would practise the trumpet or listen to music on the hi-fi, but residents seldom complained.”

 

“I’d happily take this flat back if the owner wants to sell it.”

With his main area of specialization is town planning, Professor Lai believes that having no gate was one of the merits of the old public estate design. People could come and go freely. “We didn’t need to be isolated as if living in barracks. Ming Wah opens its doors to everyone and we never had people come and cause us trouble.”  Most housing estates nowadays are adjacent to shopping malls and supermarkets. Lai questions whether this trend is necessary. “Wouldn’t it be better if we reserve more space for kids to play in?” ponders Lai, who has fond memories of spending time at the playground and the library. The building will soon undergo redevelopment. The city landscape has been transformed, and reclamation has rendered the coastline out of sight. Though it has been years since Lai moved away, he remembers the good old days he had spent here at Ming Wah. “I’d happily take this flat back if the owner wants to sell it.”

PROFILE

Name: Lai Wai Chung

Connection to Ming Wah Dai Ha: Lived in Ming Wah between 1963 and 1982, revisiting his old home for the first time in 40 years