Village houses in the New Territories come in a bewildering array of shapes, but not such a range of sizes, because this is set by regulation: a maximum area of 700 square feet; and a maximum height of three storeys. Buildings are usually rectangular in plan, and whether balconies are constructed on the short or long side depends on a house’s alignment with respect to nearby houses. The regulations stipulate that balconies can be built on only one side of a house.
I don’t know if it is possible to confirm this statement, but I would guess that several hundred such houses are under construction at any one time. Most, if not all, of these houses are being built under a system known as ding, which was introduced originally by the British to halt depopulation of the New Territories. It conveyed the right of any indigenous villager to build a house in their home village. It may have been intended as a measure to encourage villagers to stay put, but nowadays the only reason to build a village house is to sell it. And at upwards of HK$10 million for a three-storey modern house, the incentive is obvious. Ding is probably the biggest mistake the British made in their administration of Hong Kong.
Where space is in short supply, it is common to see new houses being built that adjoin other houses, resulting in a kind of de facto terrace. The following photograph, taken in the village of Shek Wu Wai, which we pass through on the return leg of our ‘journey to the west’ bike ride, is entirely typical of this mode of development. Note that the ‘fourth storey’ of the house second from the right is an illegal structure.
The next photo, taken in the village of Siu Hang, which marks the beginning of the Lung Yeuk Tau Heritage Trail, also shows the same kind of haphazard development. Again, the structures on the rooftops are illegal. The house third from the left carries the date ‘1975’: this was a common practice for houses built in the 1950s and 1960s, but later dates are unusual. Our friend Tom’s store in Sham Chung is dated ‘1938’, which is even more unusual.
Some designs are more practical than others: excessively large windows require a lot of curtains, for example. The next photo shows a house, also in Shek Wu Wai, that appears to be designed so that all three floors form part of the same dwelling (it is a double block with slightly different features on each half). The phrase ‘delusions of grandeur’ springs immediately to mind, and I can imagine that the bill for curtains for these houses will be nothing short of eye-watering, which may explain why neither house appears to be occupied.
One point to make about the construction of village houses is that there is no division of labour, unlike in the West, where a plumber handles the plumbing, an electrician deals with the electrics, a joiner does the joinery, and a bricklayer does the brickwork. Here, all these specialist jobs are handled by the same people, which probably explains why the washbasin in my bathroom doesn’t have cold water plumbed in, and the light on the staircase leading up to the roof can only be switched on once you’ve reached the top of the stairs. However, it is probably unfair to blame the cowboys who build village houses for the notoriously poor mobile phone coverage in such houses, although I’ve often been puzzled by this common phenomenon.
So what is the most outlandish village house I’ve seen? A few weeks ago, I was exploring an area at the far end of the ‘journey to the west’ with a view to adding something extra to what is already quite a long bike ride. I didn’t succeed, and I’m not sure that I could find this house again, although I would know when I was getting warm. The house in the following photo is partly hidden behind a high wall, but enough of it is visible to confirm its outlandishness.
It reminds me of the story of Hansel and Gretel, and the wicked witch (there were a lot of wicked witches in the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales). My German is extremely limited, but I believe the inscription over the door leading to the top-floor balcony (‘Himmel Burg’) translates as ‘Heaven Town’. I wonder why. I had originally translated it as ‘Hell Town’, which somehow seems more appropriate.