Here we present an excerpt from Hong Kong Noir, an anthology of noir stories set in Hong Kong and written by a dozen authors. Each story takes place in a different district of the city. This one, by Carmen Suen, is set in Wah Fu, a housing estate on the southwest coast of Hong Kong Island.
Co-editor Susan Blumberg-Kason says:
Carmen Suen’s “Fourteen” brings the reader to a more innocent time in the 1980s. Hong Kong public housing had expanded and the decades of squatter villages were becoming a thing of the past. But it was still difficult to be poor, as it always is, especially when the government doesn’t care. “Fourteen” tells the story of a young girl from a broken home in Hong Kong’s first public housing estate that provided private bathrooms and kitchens. Even with these “luxuries”, the vulnerable still struggle to find happiness and meaning in Hong Kong. This is the story of one girl who seeks to fine a place in the 1980s, yet the same story could be told today.
by Carmen Suen
The elevator door opened on the fourteenth floor. Siu Wan shuffled out and headed toward her apartment, number 1424, where her family had been living since she was a baby. When they first moved in,Wah Ming House was the newest building in Wah Fu Estate. It was a hopeful time.
But today had not been a good day for Siu Wan, and it had nothing to do with the number fourteen, as one might suspect. Fourteen, sup sei, is not the most auspicious number in Cantonese culture, especially in Hong Kong. It sounds like sut sei—must die. Some developers would skip the fourteenth floor on their buildings, choosing instead to have the fifteenth floor immediately above the thirteenth. Not the case for government housing like Wah Fu Estate. The government most certainly didn’t give a damn whether residents in housing projects lived or died based on superstitious beliefs.
For Siu Wan, fourteen or not did not make any difference. It was the same tiny apartment with no privacy no matter the number. Every unit in the building was the same 300-square-foot cube with a kitchen, a bathroom, a balcony, and an open space in the middle with barely enough room for a dresser, a double bed, a bunk bed—or two, depending on how many kids and in-laws lived there—and the all-important round folding table that served as a dining table–cum–homework desk. In most cases, the table had to be folded up when not in use, so as to make room for TV viewing. To save space, some families would forgo chairs and sat on their beds when they were eating or working at the table. The only separation between the living space and the “bedroom,” if you could call it that, would be some curtains hanging from the ceilings to block one or two sides of the beds to create some sort of private space. That is, if the parents cared about privacy at all. Privacy was a luxury not everyone in Hong Kong understood, especially when one was poor.
It could have been much worse for the poor. The government did try to improve social welfare after the 1967 leftist riots and Wah Fu was an ambitious attempt to improve the standards of public housing in the territory. It was the first to have a kitchen and a bathroom in each unit. Dubbed “New Town,” Wah Fu was also the first public housing estate to have its own wet market, shopping mall, schools, public library, parking garage, and bus terminal. It was no exaggeration to call it a town. When the eighteen buildings were completed in 1978, about fifty thousand people moved into the development.
If that wasn’t enough to tout Wah Fu as one of the best public housing estates in Hong Kong, there was also the million-dollar location. There’s a reason why Wah Fu Estate was called the “poor men’s mansions.” It was the only public housing development in Hong Kong that had full ocean views. A couple of miles away was Victoria Road, where some of the wealthiest in the city lived. Of course, it would be naive to think the government chose that location for Wah Fu because they believed the poor had the right to live well. The truth was, no other developer would build anywhere near Waterfall Bay or Book Bo Wan. There had always been rumors that the ocean was haunted. The nearby Kellet Bay was allegedly a dumping ground for dead bodies during the Japanese occupation. Despite Wah Fu’s good feng shui—having the sea on one side and the hills on the other—there was too much to risk developing a high-end residential project there.
Obviously, none of these were a