1960 - apartments and travelling from Canton to Hong Kong

Submitted by RedPanda on Sun, 06/27/2021 - 23:09

Hi everyone! A few questions. How would someone travel from Canton to Hong Kong in the late 50s-early 60s? Which ports in Canton and HK would have been used? My grandma moved to HK in 1961 aged 20. She worked as an accountant at a factory that made leather gloves - any ideas of where abouts this factory would have been?

Also, does anyone have any pictures/experience of living in an apartment at that time, and what were they like? I know most people here are probably white middle class, but I am interested in seeing apartments that the Chinese would have lived in.

Lots of questions here, but thanks in advance!

The border was vitraully sealed off at that time so most people were entering HK illegally.

A few ways i heard from elderly people. If they were caught, the penallity would be from years of hard labour camp to being tied up floating on the Deep Bay.

- Swam across the Deep Bay
- Walked across the boder on land and avoid detection until arrived in Kowloon
- Paid smuggler to take them over by fishing boat (some were first taken to Macau before transfering to HK)

For the living condition in the early 60's, you can look at pictures of Sanva hotel in Macau. It is still open so you can stay there after the pandemic.



There was a wide range of living conditions, including squatter villages, public housing, tenements, and detached houses for the wealthy. Can you ask your grandma which district she lived in when she was in Hong Kong, or even better the street address?

@johncaan She definitely travelled by boat. I spoke to my mum, but she's only in her 40s and I'm in my 20s, so we had to research about the increase in refugees fleeing China. My grandma escaped China to live with a family member already in HK, and the two women shared a room together. I looked up the Sanva hotel and it's so interesting to see how hotels/boarding houses used to look! I have family in HK and Macao. 


Interesting. I’ve researched tenement housing, but what was the difference between that and public housing? I know my grandma escaped Canton by boat to live with a family member already in HK, and the two women shared a room together. Definitely a block of flats. She worked in accounts at a leather glove factory. Any idea of where this would be?

I spoke to my mum, but she's only in her 40s and I'm in my 20s, so we had to research about the history of China/HK. Well, mainly me as I’m the history geek! I asked my mum and she said that Kowloon rings a bell. I am not completely bilingual in Cantonese, so my mum will ask her mum for Street/district names.

She only stayed in HK for 2 years or so. Her fiancé paid for her to fly to England and she’s lived here ever since. She’s re-visited China, HK and Macao many times. She has always loved HK and she told me she wishes she never left!

Hi, I am a Cantonese living in HK for 20 years between 50 to 70 before leaving for Australis.  Before high rise apartments came into being, most of the apartments Chinese living in were shop houses, 3 or 4 storeys high, flat roof accessible via stairs with stairs in the middle of the block and apartments coming off on both sides. Shops of all types occupied the ground floor. There were often tiny stores like shoes and watch repairers occupying the alcove underneath the ground floor of the staircase. Most apartments had balconies but usually framed in with steel framed windows. Racks for drying clothes hung on long bamboo poles were very common either in the spaces between balconies or at the back of the apartments next to the servants (amahs) quarters if existed. The floor plan inside were normally custom built by occupiers. Cooking were still with wood until 60s when bottle gas became available.

if you look at photos on this site, you will no doubt see plenty of examples of these buildings 

@AH Leung this is very interesting and helpful, especially as you're Cantonese! You say you moved to HK. Where did you travel from?

I will have to look for pictures of those buildings. What was cooking like? Did you have indoor kitchens or did you buy street food? My nana said that street food was pretty cheap. I need to ask her about kitchens, but I don't think she had one back in HK.

Hi Redpanda, 

You have hit upon an incredible time in HK's housing dilemma caused by huge immigration from China which pushed HK's population up by varying annual percentages in the high single and double didgit percentages per annum. 

The best source research materials for these are the books written by old HK academics of the 60's and 70's. First hand and on the spot accounts in which you get a real flavour of the massive problem. 

Mass Urbanisation was a new subject after WW2. It caused huge problems all over the world as mass migration from agricultural areas to cities exploded on financially traumatised governments still recovering from the war. At that time this fell into the academimic discipline of human and regional geography. Most academics from the west studied it in the context of Europe or North America. 

However, by luck, HKU got a new Head and Professorial Chair in the 1960's and he changed the emphasis of the department from Physical Geography and Geology to Urbanisation in what was then known as the Third World ( generally Asia and and Siuth America ), where cities were ballooning by the millions annually and there was no money to pay for or even knowledge of urban planning and housing etc to assist. Caracas, Jakarta, Calcutta, Manila, Hong Kong. Believe it or not - HK was in this league at the time and a fertile base for high level research and ideas to be implemented through academics and a decent though small civil service. 

When the HKU geography department changed emphasis to urbanisation issues, young academics came in during the 1960's through the 1970's. Examples are Denis J Dwyer, David Drakisis Smith, Keith Hopkins  and Terry McGee. These guys were intrepid and published a lot of work. They were flying all over the world from HK to every urban hell hole and living in them for expanded periods of time to study them. Remember , this was at the beginning of global travel and they were taking a step into the dark. All this knowledge was brought back to HK and applied to its solutions whilst also studying the HK's Govt's own initial failings post war and later impressive work given its financial restraints. Their books and papers offer a rare unbiased detailed snapshot of that period in HK and importantly provide regional and global context which illuminates the massive issues. 

So HKU became a world leader in this topic and in turn educated and created top urban planners and housing officials through Masters and PhD's in related subjects which transformed HK over the next decades especially through its New Town's policy culminating in Shatin. There had been smaller new towns on the Kowloon flat coastal strip, but Shatin was in another league in terms of scale and location. The high granite hills surrounding the Kowloon peninsular had been breached by transport nodes allowing the new town and the rest of the New Territories to be open up for housing in the 1970's. These young gun academics and future government officials were often funded in their maters and doctoral work by Commonwealth Scholarships etc. They were both foreigners and later HK Chinese who went on to become Directors of HK Govt Planning Dept etc ( eg Bosco Leung and Edward Pryor ) and its officers , but were trained in the 60's and 70's by the first wave of foreign expert specialist academics researching this field based in HK. 

One other interesting point about this period of research and publications from HKU. Globally - they were pioneers in figuring out that to understand big urban issues, academics ( who are specialists by nature ) had to go cross discipline. Hence they set up formal cross discipline groups of specialist academics to look into issues. From memory this was run by a leading HK historian Frank King who did the massive formal history of HSBC which runs to several volumes and is essentially a big picture history of HK. 

So, some of the books from this period are edited by one academic but individual chapters are written by experts in a particular discipline ( history, housing, economic development, transport, architecture, sociology etc ). 

To answer your questions and many more, can I suggest People and Housing in Third World Cities Chapter 5 High-rise responses: Hong Kong by Prof DJ Dwyer ( from page 151 ). It is an example of the multi disciplinary approach and this chapter was written by Keith Hopkins in 1971. 

Tenements were private sector housing over shops ( often subdivided into very small 8 ft by 8 ft cubicles per family ) on the upper 2 or 3 floors. This type of building was ubiquitous in HK. Due to exceptionally high urban density caused by the sustained migrant in flow from China from post war into the 1970's, in the earlier days of these periods, the other main form of housing was what is officially known as 'spontaneous development'. You will know this form of shelter as 'squatters' in basic shacks on HK's hillsides over looking the scarce flat development land near the coasts on HK Island in Victoria and Pokfulam etc and on the then impenetrable ( from a development point of view ) hills ringing the Kowloon Peninsular. Think of the Brazil 'slums' and you get the picture. A late 1950's big and disastrous fire in the Shep Kip Mei spontaneous development urged the government into action and this is when the solution began. HK became a world leader in Housing and urban development. First they built basic resettlement blocks from which spontaneous development residents were cleared to. Although basic and with very little space per family, these became the blue print for self contained comprehensive housing projects including micro industries, schools and shops etc. Through the various phases, these schemes improved in provision and scale. 

Once the spontaneous squatter developments were cleared of their inhabitants - these very sites were redeveloped into what we now know as the Govt's Public Housing estates which went on to house a very large proportion of the population. Hence three sectors of housing for the vast majority of the population - private tenement, resettlement and public. Of course the upper middle class and rich minority lived separately in very decent housing. 

Essentially, over crowding was a massive problem as Hopkins writes: 

' Before the Pacific War, large parts of the cities [he is talking about Third World Asian Cities in general ] had developed as tenement housing areas characterised by standardised shophouse construction consisting of rows of open- fronted shops at ground floor level and two or three storeys of residential space above ( Wong 1969 pp. 31-8). Sometimes there was a small courtyard behind the kitchen at the rear, but in the 19 century tenements were frequently built back to back. A narrow staircase led to upper floors which were of similar pattern except that all the floor space was residential and usually divided into cubicles, one to a family. The shopkeeper on the ground floor typically housed his family in a mezzanine floor ( or cockloft as it is called in HK) built over the rear part of the shop. Window space was inadequate; the small kitchens, one on each floor, had to be shared by numerous families; at most there were only three or four privies [ toilets ], or else ( in the earlier tenements ) they were not provided at all. In face of such conditions, and of the recurring public health problems resulting from them, the avariciousness of landlords and speculative builders, both Chinese and expatriate, was matched only by the strenuous efforts of various interested non-government members of the HK Legislative Council over the years to block the introduction and implementation of legislation designed to effect minimal improvement in sanitary and other facilities ( Pryor 1971 pp 45 - 75 ).'

So that was the situation that prevailed around the time of grandma's arrival. Nothing like today and essentially, for the vast majority a squalid, cramped, disease ridden and fire risk dilemma that was growing by the day as immigrants poured in. As Hopkins explains -  at the end of WW2 HK's population was 600,000 ( mostly poor ). By early 1974 it was 4.2 million. This was caused not only by immigration but by high natural birth rates which are characteristic of Asian immigrant populations (offspring provide care and income in old age to parents when there is no govt social care provision). The vast majority of whom (90 percent) were crammed into small geographical proportion on the flatter coastal areas of HK Island Victoria, the Kowloon peninsular and the first two 'decentralised' new towns along the coast from Kowloon Peninsular in Tsuen Wan and Kwun Tong ( at the time not part of the urban conurbation).

Just step back, close your eyes and think what that meant in reality and apply it to the city or town you live in. In 30 years ( less than half a life ) - the population of your town or city grows by some 500 percent. So for example - today's London grows from 10 million to 50 million in 30 years! What's more - the HK colonial government was not rich as it had to be totally self sustaining financially with no subsidies from the U.K. and, as was traditionally the case with colonies, the government administrations were human resource light often reliant of private sector specialists for advice etc. Housing, urban infrastructure like drains and water, transport, schooling, health facilities and industry/commerce job opportunities had to be created to beneficially accommodate all the huddled masses. 

Obviously inward migration ebbed and flowed during this period. ' But then a major influx of refugees began because of the civil war in China ( Vaughan and Dwyer's, 1966). The following year brought a torrent of refugees as Kwangtung peasants fled before the advance of Communist arms. In August 1949, when the fall of Canton seemed imminent, the inrush reached 10,000 persons per week, and by May 1950 the population had risen to an estimated 2.4 million.'

So I see that as 600,000 to 2.4 million from 1946 to May 1949. And they all needed somewhere to live and work ! Some were new inward migrants and some were returning HKers who had fled before and during the Japanese occupation of HK during the war. Poverty levels were very high. The majority of folk could not help themselves - they needed help. 

But - the response to this appalling catastrophe of rapid urbanisation by HK can be witnessed in the following quote from People and housing in Third World Cities when Hopkins writes: 

' The ten year period from 1956 to 1966 saw the wholesale transformation of the older, inner urban areas. Through the combined efforts of private developers, and the public housing programmes ... Victoria and Kowloon almost overnight became very largely cities of tall residential buildings up to 20 storeys in height, whereas before they had been typified by 3 or 4 storey shophouses.'

And - 

'... what is not often realised is that the twin cities of Victoria and Kowloon are today products almost entirely of the period since the end of the Pacific War ( Dwyer, 1971, pp. 33 - 47 ). As a result of the war, 10 per cent of the domestic housing accommodation in urban areas was damaged and 10 per cent destroyed. Since the war much of the older property has been demolished to make way for new development, with the result that by the end of March 1968 only 11 percent of total stock of domestic accommodation constructed in urban areas by the private sector [ ie tenements and apartments ] had been built before the war ( HK Govt, Housing Board 1968 pp. 3-4 ). In addition, the massive contribution by the public housing programmes ... have been made entirely during the postwar period. Perhaps most startling of all is the fact that new construction during the last ten years [ presumably 1965 to 1975 ] alone accounts for nearly half the domestic living units in urban HK.'

Again sit back and think. In the twenty or so years from about  1946 to 1968 - about 90 per cent of HK's old three and four story buildings were demolished and rebuilt into mid and high rise buildings. In 20 years - a total urban transformation and density intensification of mind blowing proportions of 'change'. But even more mind blowing for those in HK at the time ( like your grandma ) the scale and density was transformational. Imagine being in London in 2010 surrounded in the main by 2 to 4 storey buildings ( just 'human scale' ) where you see the sky and sunlight. But in 10 years time you are dwarfed by 20 storey buildings blocking out the sky all around you and the density of population increases dramatically with associated crowds and pressures on urban services. 10 years is a very short time to adjust to such out of proportion changes - but HK succeeded.

So in summary my friend - your grandma lived through part of the most dramatic and successful periods of urbanisation and change that any person has witnessed. A period in which the later financial and social development of HK was built upon. The very foundation stone of today's HK.  It depended simply on a policy of providing basic though sanitary housing, education and health services for all -  leaving the masses who had previously devoted their lives to existence - to concentrate on work/business and happiness. In short - progress and development boom from the later 70's into the 80's to the Global City you see now. The heavy lifting was done in the 60's and 70's and those are in reality HK's Glory Years although the manifestation of this was not seen until the 80's. 

I hope this helps you. If you want more detail - then just check out the work of any of the guys mentioned above. Obviously, there were many others who contributed, but it is not possible to name them all here. Whatever, these works benefit from being from and around the period and can be taken as 'impartial' given that they are the product of academics living and working in a none political environment with no axe to grind. 

Important that I declare a connection here and therefore possible bias. My father was DJ Dwyer. 





My parents moved to a 7-storey building (Ground Floor to 6th Floor) in 1957 when I was a small child. At first, my mom used firewood in preparing our meals probably until the early 1960s and then switched to using kerosine for several years. I remember we started using propane gas either in the late 1960s or in the early 1970s. We were living on the 5th Floor and the deliverymen (with a sack of rice or a bottle of propane gas) had to walk up the stairs to make the delivery. They were supermen!

Here, I would like to mention a Cantonese phrase "Dek Mai" (糴米) which is seldom or even no longer heard in the past few decades. This phrase means to order a sack of rice from a rice shop. A sack of rice could be up to 50 catties in weight. The deliveryman would carry the sack on a bicycle and shoulder it upstairs to the destination. While today online shops also deliver rice to the destination, the maximum weight of each bag (as opposed to sack) is only 15 Kg.

By the way, the 7-storey building is still there today in Happy Valley near St. Margaret's Church, facing the race course.

I was born in Hong Kong in 1950 and left Hong Kong for Australia in 1970.

Kitchen were indoor by the way. But yes street food were plentiful and cheap. So were many small eateries of local and half-baked English cuisines.

Our family was fortunate enough to occupy one whole apartment all the time I was living there so we did not have to share kitchen. laundry and bathroom like many with multiple households in small divided "rooms".

I mentioned the roof space becasue it was a place for free moments for children including flying of kites and playing with firecrackers during Chinese New Year.

Thank you Paul for such a detailed response! I really appreciate the time you took to answer my questions. The development of HK and how much it has changed is absolutely fascinating. I have made a note of those journals/articles and authors. As a recent post-graduate, I can access the Jstor database. Sounds like your father had a fascinating job!

Nice one. Enjoy your research. And yes, those guys did lead fascinating lives. Esp check out Terry McGee. Absolute prolific researcher and publisher. Also Edward 'Ted' Pryor. Actually a top HK Govt Planning Dept Director who also had a strong academic side. He had a big influence on HK's urban form from what I can see. 


Thank you Paul Dwyer for your wonderfully informative summary of living conditions for many Hong Kong immigrants during a tumultuous time. As expats living in Hong Kong in the 70's, your following comment summed it up perfectly. 

"The heavy lifting was done in the 60's and 70's and those are in reality HK's Glory Years although the manifestation of this was not seen until the 80's."

Well there is an American movie called "the world of suzie wong (1960)" filmed in Hong Kong. You can easily find it on Youtube.

There is also a facebook page containing movie clips of Hong Kong and China at that time or before that. If you don't know Chinese, you can copy and paste the descriptions into "Goggle Translate" to translate them from Traditional Chinese to English.


The delicious "In the Mood for Love" by director Wong Kar-wei (one of my all-time favorite movies) is set in 1962 Hong Kong, and though extremely stylish and stylized, and dealing with a relatively privileged white-collar group, I believe it accurately captures the claustrophia (and camaraderie) of interior spaces of the time period, both apartments and offices: tiny corridors, communal kitchens and phones, peeling paint, takeaway meals, noise, etc. and everybody in everybody's business.

Haven't perused to see if directly relevant to what you are looking for....but a recent article on Zolima, https://zolimacitymag.com/michael-rogge-hong-kong-1950-time-capsule/, has YouTube links to films from the time period by Michael Rogge.

Dear  Jimmy K. C. Ho :

  Talking about "Dek Mai", I used to live in a primary school dormitory in the 60s. We could see the kitchen staff out there "Xi Mai" or washing rice. The guy just put the rice and water in a big bucket and stand in there. He washed the rice with his feet. Yuk!