While we were in Kowloon, visiting the Hong Kong Housing Authority Exhibition Centre, we decided to visit the Mei Ho House too. Bama has written about it here and ever since then I wanted to visit it too.
The house is closely linked to the history of public housing estates in Hong Kong, as this used to be the oldest one in Hong Kong. It is the only surviving Mark I H-shaped resettlement block in Hong Kong, marking the beginning of public housing development in the territory.
It was built in 1954, after the tragic Christmas fire of 1953, which engulfed the squatter area in Shep Kip Mei, claiming 40 lives and leaving about 58,000 people homeless. The Hong Kong government started an emergency programme to build basic resettlement blocks to house the fire victims.
As it was the first public housing estate to be ever built, it provided a huge learning curve for everyone. Eight H-shaped resettlement blocks were built in a minimal concrete style in a very short period of time. Two identical wings being linked up by a central block, in which the communal bathroom and water supply facilities were located. There was no kitchen area, so the residents cooked on the verandas.
The individual units were very small, there were two back to back (on each side of the veranda). A small window grille let air circulate between the rooms (and insect and rats probably too). About ten people cramped into a 120 square foot space with bunk beds and cocklofts (children under the age of 10 would be counted as half an adult and if an household had less than five adults, then they were require to share a unit with another household). This meant that over 300 people were living on every level – sharing six bathrooms. The museum shows replica of these tiny rooms, but it can’t recreate the smell and noise … luckily.
In the 1970s when Hong Kong’s economy took off, many people were able to improve their standard of living, their homes were neatly furnished with electrical appliances – and as a result, the housing estate that the Mei Ho House was part of, was renovated in 1981. Two small rooms became one bigger room, and the overall building was enhanced with window grilles, the bathrooms were improved and kitchens were installed.
The Mei Ho House was used for residential purposes until 2006, and then it stood empty until it was converted into a youth hostel, which opened in 2013. The facade, numbering, name and verandas running around the perimeter of each floor serving as access corridors are retained.
While the museum is not big, it does cover two levels in one of the wings of the Youth Hostel. More than a thousand exhibits are displayed, and the replica of the rooms in the 1950s and 1970s provide some sense of how cramped the living space was back then.
The exhibition also revisits the condition and life stories before and after the reconstruction of the resettlement area and the revitalisation process of the Mei Ho House.
Mei Ho House Youth Hostel and Heritage of Mei Ho House Museum are at Block 41, Shek Kip Mei Estate, 70 Berwick Street in Sham Shui Po. It’s 5 minutes away from Sham Shui Po MTR station exit B2. The exhibition is open every day except Tuesdays, from 9.30am to 5pm.
It is free to visit and a great way to spend an hour exploring Hong Kong’s public housing history and stories from previous residents… and afterwards stop by the Fullcup Cafe, which is open for everyone and serves coffee and snacks in a quirky, old-school environment.