People in Hong Kong are adept at fully utilizing space. We have to be, thanks to limited living space — the square footage of which never comes cheap, no matter whether you buy the place or rent.
We have help from a wealth of consumer products that both satisfy practical needs and compete to take as little space as possible. Foldable items and going vertical to use the upper space at home are two familiar solutions for Hong Kong people to enlarge storage room and living space. The general inclination is to put the house in order and be organized, to avoid living in a shrinking place that is already cramped.
Out of necessity and a natural longing for quality living, Hong Kong people acquire the virtue of staying organized and become savvy in making full use of available space.
Some go further. Private belongings are commonly seen in public spaces. In shared space like corridors and stairways inside residential buildings, there are plenty of trespasses. Slippers, sneakers, rain boots and high heels may litter door fronts. An entire shoe rack may stand in a corner, accompanied by a folded chair. Pull carts for groceries and incense burners with joss sticks and fruit offerings are also typical. Less frequent encounters may include a metal box containing a housewife’s knitting tools, a cabinet that should be moved indoors as a piece of furniture, a bag of dusty detergent bottles,and even potted plants.
In a recent, self-initiated tour up and down different floors in the residential building where I live, I saw all the items mentioned above. Of 21 floors in total, only two floors do not have residents’ private belongings out in the public area.
A notice in the entrance of the building, dated April 2014, urged residents to vacate the public areas for environmental hygiene and fire safety, as the building had received a warning from the Fire Services Department to remove the private belongings in public spaces. The notice said that the personal items may be taken away without further warning. Apparently the nearly three-year-old threat is not a serious deterrent.
I first saw a kid’s tricycle in the corridor on the same floor I live on. The security guards and the janitor hired by the property management company must be aware. “But who will find fault with a child learning to ride a bike? The property management staff have the goodwill not to bother the kid’s family for such a mild ‘intrusion’ and decided to leave the family alone,” I figured.
Later, I needed to go one floor down to take the lift. There I noticed that another family, on either side of their door, had a pull cart for grocery shopping and an incense burner together with a bowl of fruit offerings.
Then it appeared more prevalent that people do put their personal things in public spaces without being admonished. In one extreme situation, I found 12 pairs of shoes and another 21 shoeboxes piled up on two sets of shoe racks, with a few scattered around. In another case, there was a stack of 10-layer storage boxes.
I realized just how high was the tolerance in the building toward blatant ignorance of accepted rules that prohibit such unauthorized use of public space.
The appeal to ignore the rules is strong. We all want to have more private space for ease and comfort. Perhaps some got the idea from their neighbors who started doing it first. But at what price?
Besides increased fire hazard and hygiene problems, people’s confused sense of what is right and wrong is one victim. Respected rules are rendered ineffectual. The line fades between what is admissible and what is not.
When I only saw the kid’s tricycle at first, I had no doubt about the authority of the rules. I rationalized the tricycle as an exception.
But on floor after floor, I found too many exceptions. In fact, those honoring the rules are in the minority — real exceptions. I began to doubt if the rules mattered. If I showed understanding to a kid’s tricycle in the corridor, why can’t shoe racks and potted plants get some understanding too?
Another casualty is the collective consciousness being corroded to tolerate wrongdoing.
Most people would be quick to complain about unauthorized building works, for example on the rooftops of the three-story, 700-square-foot village houses in the New Territories. They may criticize shop-front extensions in streets for blocking road access, too, or about bulky goods blocking the stairways of industrial buildings which accommodate mini-storage premises. The serious fire hazard posed by such blockages was exposed after the deadly blaze in a mini-storage facility in East Kowloon claimed the lives of two firefighters in June 2016.
Therefore, there shouldn’t be double standards when it comes to residential buildings, where unauthorized occupation of public space can be pervasive and condoned on a daily basis. Only when enforcement steps up and more people defend the rules can such violations be reined in.
The author is a news editor at China Daily Hong Kong Edition.