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type of New Town:
> scale of autonomy
Also known as the “City of Misery”, Tin Shui Wai is infamous among Hong Kong new towns. The city faces serious unemployment issues, a large immigrant population from mainland China, and a lack of social services. This has resulted in a disproportionate number of horrific (and well publicized) crimes. Although things are beginning to turn around for this new town, the nickname seems to be sticking.
Since 1973, since the initiation of the New Town Development Programme, Hong Kong has developed nine new towns. These towns were created to cope with the increase in population and to improve the living environment by de-centralising the population from the over-crowded urban districts. New Towns, including Tin Shui Wai, that popped up during the second half of the 20th century are good examples of what is often called ‘bedroom communities’. They were designed as cities for living, close to places for employment.
Tin Shui Wai sits on 430 hectares of reclaimed land, used as gei wai fish ponds, traditional tidal shrimp ponds and rice paddies until 1985. At the edge of the huge Deep Bay wetland complex sits a shallow estuary at the mouths of the Sham Chun and Shan Pui Rivers. Because of this proximity to the Deep Bay area, the planners designed a wetland park, now serving as a natural reserve area functioning as an educational and tourism facility and promoting regional biodiversity. These sites have been developed within the new town to provide an area for both ecological conservation and recreation.
The extensive wetlands have been managed by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) since 1983. A slim green belt stretched along the north-western edge of the new town blooms into a conservation area extending into the somewhat smaller Mai Po marshes at the northern periphery, supporting more than 120,000 migratory birds each year. Proximity to the coast and the area’s relative flatness made the site ideal for this type of aquaculture. Those same characteristics also made the land attractive to the national government in the late 1980s when they were searching for potential new town locations.
Tin Shui Wai was consciously planned as a bedroom community for 306,400 residents. Various ‘labour intensive industries’ were planned for neighboring regions, but due to the rise of industrial areas in mainland China (Shenzhen, Dongguan and Foshan) the planned work places never materialized.
A wide concrete drainage channel, known as the Tin Shui Wai Nullah, delineates the western edge of the city. Another flank is demarcated by Tin Tsz Road, and the northern edge drops off sharply into the Hong Kong Wetland Park, a natural reserve. The southern terminus of the city is bounded by the West Rail Line and Tin Shui Wai Station. Because the new town is tightly contained, the neighbouring areas have remained largely untouched. Tin Shui Wai’s 40-story housing towers soar above the surrounding villages and rice paddies like a modern version of Le Corbusier’s Ville Contemporaine. The tower organization is typical of Hong Kong new towns. Because flat space is so scarce, housing seven million people means building up instead of out.
Strict zoning and wide streets clearly define thirteen public housing estates, with each estate claiming a block of about 900 m2. Within the block, cruciform towers of varying heights gather to form neighbourhoods in the sky. Each block is an estate, and each estate has a distinct social identity. Although the cross-shaped footprint is ubiquitous, the towers differ in number, scale, materiality and luxury.
Tin Shui Wai leaves much of the ground plane free for parks and recreation. Unfortunately, the services one might expect for such a large population of more are largely absent.
In terms of public facilities, other than open green space, Tin Shui Wai has shockingly little to offer. There are only two commercial areas for residents: Kingswood Ginza (a massive shopping complex including a public library) and Chung Fu Shopping Center. The town has only one public clinic and the nearest public hospital is nine kilometres to the south, at Tuen Mun. Furthermore, there is only one Mass Transit Railway (MTR) station connecting the new town to other parts of Hong Kong. At Tin Shui Wai Station, it’s possible to transfer to a single light rail loop which circles through the city, stopping every 400 m or so. The MTR station opened in December 2003, thirteen years after the new town opened. The public transport facilities are now supported by a series of buses, which provide transport options within the new town. The lethal concoction of isolation, high density, limited recreation facilities and poorly planned infrastructure has given Tin Shui Wai a pitiable infancy.
Throughout Hong Kong, Tin Shui Wai has become infamous for its social unrest, which might be caused by its remote location (25 kilometres northwest of downtown Hong Kong cut off from the urban fabric by a belt of mountainous terrain), lack of services, limited employment opportunities, large immigrant population or insufficient interest of government bodies to new town’s needs.
During its short existence, the town has registered several cases of suicides and murders. One of the most frightening ones were in April of 2004 when Kam Shuk-ying (31) was brutally stabbed to death by her 45-year-old husband, Li Pak-Sum. Later on, Li Pak-Sum then stabbed and killed his twin six-year-old daughters, Lee Yin-li and Lee Tsz-wan. After murdering his family, Pak-Sum fatally stabbed himself and died two weeks later.
In 2009, the story was retold on the international stage in Ann Hui’s film ‘Night and Fog’ faithfully following the details of the horrific events, widely expanding Tin Shui Wai’s infamous status.
Although the Social Welfare Department established an Integrated Family Service Centre in Tin Shui Wai one year after the much-publicized tragedy, domestic abuse statistics continued to rise. In November 2009, 188 people (with a disproportionate percentage of people from Tin Shui Wai) became members of a Hong Kong-based Facebook page called ‘I need to practice killing myself’ and pledge to commit mass suicide in December. Fortunately, the group was disbanded after Internet police discovered the site. The crimes were so horrific and so numerous that the government was forced to acknowledge certain failures.
One of the key discrepancies between the planned Tin Shui Wai and the existing city is the lack of employment opportunities. The industries that were intended to support local residents never materialized. There are inadequate provision of jobs and schools in new towns resulting in widespread cross-district commuting between new towns and old established urban areas. The main reason for this may be due to a functional mismatch where new towns were planned to be independent but in reality were often forced to operate as satellite and yet dependant towns. Add to that an alienated migrant population with low education, and the chances for success seem to dwindle.