CLP employee housing on top of substations

Submitted by CityUnseen on Thu, 11/16/2023 - 21:13

I'm looking into CLP substations built in the 1960s that have employee housing on the upper floors, and would appreciate any information about them. There are roughly a dozen of these substations left, mostly in Mong Kok, Yau Ma Tei, Sham Shui Po, Tai Kok Tsui and To Kwa Wan. I've found one out in Tsuen Wan and another in Tai O. I've been able to access the CLP archives and found mention of them in several annual reports from the early 60s. They were part of a company policy to provide housing for their "Chinese workmen" but few details beyond that.

It's rare to see housing combined with an electric substation. Hong Kong Electric has none that I know of. Does anyone have any insight into their design and construction? Or know anyone who might have lived in one?


“housing for Chinese workmen” might be a misnomer.

Certainly, those I knew socially who lived in such places were engineering technicians or staff critical to the 24/7 operations of an electricity generating and distribution company.

Prior to the advent of  colony-wide Pager reception and mobile phones, essential staff needed to be available ASAP. Hopefully, being at their place of residence was one solution, or at least someone there would know where they were.

The 1960s HK suffered periods of political and industrial unrest capable of jeopardising electricity supplies to the public and industry, so essential staff always needed to be available. The no doubt long-forgotten  government ‘Essential Services Corp’ inducted ‘key’ employees throughout the colony to be available at times of need. The ID card issued by the ES Corp gave assisted access through roadblocks, military & police-lines or whatever.

From recollection, the few staff apartments I visited socially above sub-stations were utilitarian, and generally spacious. The downside being the heat rising though the floors from the transformers and switchgear below. Noise from the industrial air extraction fans used to cool and ventilate the equipment rooms was another detrimental issue.

An ex-pat family assigned to an apartment above the substation in Grampian Road found they were not only subjected to the rising heat from below, but also the extremely noisy  jet-engine airliners prevalent in the 1960s, landing low overhead when all conversations ceased for a few minutes, as did their TV reception. At night, the rooms were bathed in the intense, bright, landing lights of aircraft on their final approach to the airport a few hundred  yards away.

Wow, thank you for those insights, I genuinely learned a lot. I shall have to look into the "Essential Services Corp". I had been wondering whether the residents were directly responsible for maintaining the substation they lived on top of, or if it was just a matter of CLP already owning the real estate. The term "Chinese workmen" was used in CLP's early 1960s annual reports but as you've stated, that was a misnomer. By 1969 they'd built a 12 storey apartment building on the corner of Waterloo Road and Boundary Street, also on top of a substation, to house senior staff. It was demolished maybe 3 years ago and is a luxury high rise now. I've seen that a lot of the remaining substations are now disused with the flats' windows taped up, but a few still look inhabited.

I'm doing this research for an article. Would you mind being contacted for an interview, or having your comments here quoted?


Employees living above sub-stations would not have direct access to the rooms or equipment below them, even if their job roles were directly involved with it. Stringent safety processes existed to only permit access to areas with high voltages present to those proved to be competent and trained in the equipment, especially where vintage ‘open’ switchgear was still present and in use.

Another misnomer is that relating to Kilowatt Court’s residents being ‘senior’ staff. Those living there would have been ‘middle rank’ in the company’s personnel grades rankings. Chinese staff lived there, as did locally employed Europeans, persons of Indian sub-continent origin etc.

I visited friends living there when people were first moving in, but apart from appearing to be pleasant accommodation, I have little to add. No doubt, the nearby heavy traffic noise and fumes became an issue in later years.

So called “senior staff” were accommodated in other mixed nationality high-rise blocks in the company’s housing ‘Real Estate’ portfolio. Depending on where a person was in the grade hierarchy. decided the type of accommodation provided. Not all employees were eligible for accommodation as part of their conditions of employment.

Very little different from many other prominent companies in HK (including the well-known trading companies and banks) at the time, who needed to attract and keep staff with specialist skills or knowledge.

Presumably the empty flat roof spaces of low-rise sub-stations were seen as opportunistic areas already under the remit of the company to include staff accommodation on top at little extra construction cost.

Such was the pressures for staff accommodation in the 1960s, many incomers had to live in hotels for very long periods, including the government’s ex-pats. As related in earlier Gwulo postings, staff would lose tenure of their apartments while they were on the leave, then on returning, have to go into hotels, and be on the merry-go-round of waiting to be allocated accommodation, ‘if’ anything was available. A major disruption to family life and children’s schooling.

I recall reading in the HK Press that when the Hilton Hotel was being vacated prior to its demolition, there were residents who had been living there full-time for 20-25 years. Presumably not middle ranking staff of companies in the colony!

May I ask why you are particularly interested in substations? They are hardly a feature in Hong Kong life where the majority of the population will have no idea where their electricity has originated from or how it is produced.

Thanks for the additional information. That helps put it into context. I'm interested in all sorts of urban oddities. I had heard about substations disguised as houses in other parts of the world, designed to blend into residential neighbourhoods, but Hong Kong is the first case where I've found electric substations that actually are homes.

City Unseen is a new educational blog about curiosities of Hong Kong's urban planning history, specializing in the overlooked and obscure. The website's still under development, but we hope to go live next month. The substations are one of the stories I'm researching in advance. Would like to have a conversation with you if you're open to it.