Friday, 13 April 2018

squatters’ rights

Last summer, a friend in Penrith, my home town in the UK, told me that he’d watched a TV documentary about Hong Kong, and he expressed surprise that shacks and shanties were still to be found here. A couple of years earlier, a friend who’d been a high-ranking government official during the British administration was equally surprised to see the squatter huts around where I live.

Of course, the huge squatter areas of the 1970s in town, such as Diamond Hill, are long gone, but a lot of impromptu dwellings exist out in the New Territories. However, I must confess to being ignorant of the legal status of squatters until the first day of 2018, when Paula and I were doing our favourite bike ride, the long and winding road. At one point, we found that the path we usually follow was blocked, and in the course of navigating a detour, I spotted a sign that contained a lot of writing. I stopped to take a look.

All the structures in this photo are squatter dwellings, except, possibly, the three-storey building on the right.

I’d seen signs related to squatters before, notably the one announcing that a given slope is subject to landslide risk, and some dwellings have been scheduled for clearance. This one was different. There were a lot more words for a start, and I thought that these were worth recording:
  1. Squatter structures existing before 1982, as well as their uses, were surveyed and recorded by the government.
  2. Change in the use or unauthorized extensions will lead to demolition of the squatter structures concerned.
  3. New erections of squatter structures will be demolished, and offenders may be prosecuted.
  4. Residents are advised to contact their respective Squatter Control Offices for appropriate advice on any repairs before commencement of works to ensure that the works accord with the requirements.
  5. A territory-wide squatter occupancy survey was conducted by the government in 1984/85 whereby the squatters were registered. Coverage by this survey is one of the eligibility criteria for public rental housing when squatters are affected by clearances. However, the survey does not confer any right to anybody for the occupation of government land.
  6. Purchase of squatter structures is not protected by the law nor confers any rights to their occupants on clearance. Therefore, DO NOT purchase any squatter structures.
  7. Unauthorized occupation of squatter structures recovered by the government is liable to prosecution and eviction.
  8. If in doubt, please contact the District Squatter Control Office.
I frequently cycle through squatter areas, and I’d already noted that squatter dwellings have piped water and mains electricity connected, but I knew little else about the legal status of such structures, so this sign was quite an eye-opener.

Despite Article 3, I see new structures going up all the time, although any long-term resident of Hong Kong is unlikely to be surprised by my statement. For example, this fine house, located on the frontier road, is unlikely to have been built—and therefore surveyed—before 1984/85 (Article 5):

Although you cannot see them, there are four air-conditioning units on the right of the building, and three on the left, so it’s a fair guess that the interior will be surprisingly luxurious, even though the walls are merely industrial panelling. Note too the sign in front proclaiming government ownership of the land. I see scores of these signs, and as in this case they refer to a narrow strip of land that has been so designed to constrain development around it. It doesn’t refer to the land on which the house has been built.

However, it’s not difficult to find examples of squatters blatantly ignoring such signs:

I took this photo just a short distance from my house on the eastern outskirts of Fanling.

I should comment on Article 6, which admonishes readers not to purchase squatter structures. I know of at least one confidence trickster who scours the countryside looking for structures that have been abandoned. He renovates them and sells them on. Welcome to the Wild East.

Since discovering that first sign, I’ve noticed quite a few more, although there are none within easy walking distance of my house. This is the nearest, and also the first that I found, at the junction of Po Kat Tsai Road and Lau Shui Heung Road:

The curious thing about this location is that there do not appear to be any squatter dwellings in the immediate vicinity, although there are a lot of what I’ve described elsewhere as ‘quasi-industrial units’. I’ve since spotted a couple of signs east of Fanling in another area where there are only such industrial sites, and I now begin to wonder about the legal status of such premises.


  1. The government lacks staff vigilating large and small areas in HK to prevent pocketful illegal construction over time, my guess.

    1. I’m sure you’re right. After all, this is the Wild East.

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