A young girl in a princess dress twirls around a table, where a boy practises writing with the help of an upperclassman from St. Paul’s College. A half-dozen other kids sit on the doorsteps, waiting for their turn to be tutored. A man breezes past them and heads to the back of the room with a couple of bags in hand. One is packed with meat, the other with vegetables. This isn’t an after-school centre. It’s Neighbourhood Kitchen in Shek Tong Tsui, a community space and self-service kitchen for low-income residents in the Western District, and it’s almost dinnertime.
Considering the blistering pace at which the Western District has developed since the MTR expanded to Kennedy Town in 2014, you might be surprised to learn that there are nearly 3,500 subdivided flats in the area. But the median rent for a modest 107-square-foot flat is now $5,474. For many families in the neighbourhood, this figure represents over a third of their monthly income. And for the elderly, who often have to wait more than five years to secure a coveted government-subsidised flat, the rising cost of rent is especially staggering. Many live alone in rooms not large enough to fit even a burner – or much more than a bed, for that matter.
“Lots of people will just eat instant noodles or rice with leftover vegetables. That isn’t healthy, and it isn’t good for your well-being when you can’t make a home-cooked meal,” says Amanda Cheung, director of marketing and communications for Grosvenor, a socially conscious property investor. In September 2018, Grosvenor partnered with Caritas Mok Cheung Sui Kun Community Centre to open Neighbourhood Kitchen. Located on Woo Hop Street, in the shadows of luxury apartment complex The Belcher’s, the building isn’t big – “It used to be a small Korean restaurant,” Cheung notes – but it offers an essential space for community members who want to cook their own meals and reclaim ownership of their lives.
Currently, the project has about 50 registered members and 900 drop-in visitors, including many young children and senior citizens. “[Without a safe space], kids have no room to play, and the elderly have nowhere to socialise,” Cheung says. Anyone living in the Western District who qualifies as ‘in need’ gets access to a shared kitchen equipped with professional-grade food storage and cooking facilities. They can also use any of the produce donated by local restaurants, cafés, wet markets and more to prepare their favourite meals. This provides opportunities for people in the community to gather around the shared experience of food.
In April, Grosvenor went one step further with its community-building initiatives. The group helped to publish ‘Neighbourhood Cookbook’, a collection of recipes and stories from residents living in the Western District’s subdivided flats who use the kitchen – many of whom are immigrants from mainland China.
These include women like Dong Hai Xia. Originally from Hainan, she moved to Hong Kong in 2009 but found living as a family of three in a subdivided flat in Sai Wan difficult. Still, she says in the book, “I want to provide a good education and living environment for my daughter in the hope that she will be able to break free from the cycle of poverty and create a better future for herself.” But her story goes beyond perseverance. Every time she cooks braised pork knuckle, she is reminded of shared family meals in Hainan. Neighbourhood Kitchen provides the space and means to prepare the dish, both minor luxuries many people take for granted.
Other stories illuminate the housing crisis currently gripping Hong Kong. Elderly Ng Pak Yeung says that he has lived in a subdivided flat in Shek Tong Tsui for over 10 years. “My unit is tiny and has only one window [and w]e have to share the bathroom and the kitchen,” he notes in the book. Even though he can cook at home, he says that most residents live hand-to-mouth, wrestle with loneliness and exist in a state of limbo, wondering when their luck will break. “I have a [70-year-old] neighbour…who has contributed to society all his life and deserves to be taken care of by the government. I believe this is the heartfelt wish of many elderly residents in subdivided units.”
Although the housing crisis won’t be solved overnight, for people like Ng, being part of a tight-knit community might just be the ingredient that was missing from their lives.