The Comparison between the Shanghai’s shantytown and lilong: the presentations of the class stratification

Image 1.1 The shantytown in Shanghai

Image 2.2 Lilong in Shanghai

This blog explores the prevailing conditions of Shanghai’s shantytown and lilong between 1930 and 1950. It will explore the demographic composition of residents, the quality of buildings, and the overall living standards, in order to highlight how these contrasting residential areas epitomised the prevailing social hierarchy in Shanghai. The shantytown primarily served as hubs for individuals from the lower strata of society, reflecting their challenging living conditions. Conversely, lilong represented spaces where the social elite and respectable members of society resided, manifesting the progressive strides of the era. These distinctions were tangible reflections of the societal disparities within the hierarchy.

To depict the authentic realities of Shanghai’s shantytowns (Image 1) and lilong (Image 2), this blog draws from Hanchao Lu’s depiction of lilong and Wang Lanhua’s firsthand experiences as a resident of Fangua Lane, a renowned shantytown in 20th-century Shanghai. The visual representations above vividly illustrate the stark contrasts between these prevalent residential areas. The shantytown exhibited a worn-down appearance, while lilong boasted a sense of orderliness and thoughtful design. However, these disparities extended far beyond mere surface appearances.

Primarily, the demographic makeup of residents in these areas was notably distinct. Shanghai experienced a significant influx of migrants after 1930, significantly complicating the city’s demographic landscape. According to Lu, Shanghai’s population surged to over 3 million in 1930, a drastic increase from the approximately 1 million residents in 1900.3 This surge in population affected both the shantytown and lilong, albeit in different ways. The shantytown, such as Fangua Lane, predominantly became sanctuaries for refugees, exemplified by the experiences of Wang Lanhua and her husband. As Denise Ho highlights, the post-1945 civil war brought a significant influx of refugees to Shanghai, resulting in Fangua Lane accommodating between 3,000 to 4,000 shantytown residences inhabited by over 16,000 refugees.4 Wang Lanhua notably referred to these shantytown dwellings as gundilong 滚地龙, the symbolic portrait of working people’s lives in Old China.5 In contrast, lilong experienced an influx of predominantly elite residents, including rich landlords, merchants, literati, bureaucrats, shop assistants, clerks, schoolteachers, and artisans.6 Despite the influx of migrants, social class remained a determining factor in residents’ choice of dwelling, ultimately shaping the demographic landscape of these neighbourhoods.

The contrast between the amenities and facilities in the shantytown and lilong was also stark. The shantytown dwellings were often constructed from random materials, and subject to frequent demolitions. As noted by Wang Lanhua, usually, she would put up a shelter each night and take it down each morning in order to avoid the International Settlement police.7 In sharp contrast, lilong residences boasted sturdy reinforced concrete structures,8 offering greater security and durability, making them less susceptible to easy demolition. This architectural contrast was also reflected in a broader divide in interior facilities. From the 1930s onward, lilong houses underwent a modernisation surge, integrating modern amenities such as sanitary fixtures (bathrooms with a bathtub and flush toilet) and a gas supply for cooking and hot water.8 Additionally, some residences began incorporating garages, indicating the residents’ ownership of private automobiles.9 In contrast, shantytown dwellings lacked modern conveniences and endured harsh conditions. Wang Lanhua’s poignant account indicated that she gave birth to her second child on the mud floor of a gundilong.10 While lilong residents embraced modernisation and its benefits, shantytown inhabitants lived with simplicity and austerity, devoid of such amenities. These differences in material convenience are the practical expression of the class distinction.

The stark disparities between the shantytown and lilong, evident in their demographic composition and housing facilities, underscore a substantial gap between these residential areas. Life in the lilong, without a doubt, epitomised comfort, modernity, and convenience, starkly contrasting the perpetually turbulent, arduous, and austere existence in the shantytown. The demographic composition of the residents is the best evidence of the social stratification, as it directly reflects the eventual flow of Shanghai’s migrant population. Moreover, the contrasting housing amenities in the shantytown highlighted the physical manifestation of the class stratification. Lilong houses were equipped with modern conveniences, a material practice of higher social status. This contrasts with the humble facilities of the shantytown buildings. As the essential residences for Shanghai’s transient population between 1930 and 1950, the shantytown and lilong epitomised the living conditions of different social classes. A comparative analysis of these areas can help to gain a comprehensive insight into the living conditions of different social strata in Shanghai during that period.

  1. Straw huts over stagnant water source: H1-21-8-21, Shanghai Municipal Archive, <> [accessed November 22, 2023]. []
  2. Hanchao Lu, Beyond the Neon Lights: Everyday Shanghai in the Early Twentieth Century (Berkeley, 2008), p. 147. []
  3. Lu, Beyond the Neon Lights, p. 162 []
  4. Denise Y. Ho, Curating Revolution Politics on Display in Mao’s China (Cambridge, 2018), pp. 65-67. []
  5. Ho, Curating Revolution Politics on Display in Mao’s China, p.65. []
  6. Lu, Beyond the Neon Lights, p. 156. []
  7. Ho, Curating Revolution Politics on Display in Mao’s China, p.79. []
  8. Lu, Beyond the Neon Lights, p. 150. [] []
  9. Ibid., p. 151. []
  10. Ho, Curating Revolution Politics on Display in Mao’s China, p.67. []

“Kampung House” Experiments

Chua’s chapter “Modernism and the Vernacular” explains how the different spatial configurations of the kampung and of Chinese squatters’ housing led to different socialisations of “public space” in the modernist Housing Development Board (HDB) housing estate. The HDB’s vision was one of “overwhelming conformity” with some form of abstract designs of which their purpose is to “serve as ‘place markers’ in what would otherwise be placeless continuum of similarity.”1 While Chua’s chapter elucidates a theme central to the historiography of housing in post-colonial Singapore, Chua’s unilateral presentation of HDB’s housing vision can be nuanced by investigating the Singapore Institute of Architects (SIA) journal Rumah2 during the first phases of HDB’s development. The “modern” and the “vernacular” were envisioned as a possibility and spelt a vision of “public space” completely different to that of the HDB.

The SIA in its September 1961 issue presented the HDB’s raison d’être as one of continuity and change. The HDB’s initial work was launched off the final of the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT)’s reports on housing.3 Yet, this Report entailed the post-colonial government’s “basic reassessment of aims and policies” in terms of “rental of housing units, densities of development, standard of accommodation, scale of building programme and many others.” Geographically, the HDB would begin by renewing “obsolete properties in the central areas” before a gradual, radial process of undoing marginal, slum properties.4 This was in concert with the HDB chief architect Teh Cheang Wan, who agreed with the remit of the HDB in relation to SIT. His words were confirmed by Lim, who argued that this strategy was needed as a “lasting solution to the urban housing problem prior to major economic development, industrialisation and a basic solution to employment,” indeed emphasising that this would also be the terms the HDB would be judged on.5

Thus the SIA, while accommodating the aforementioned writings from both HDB officials, was also very deliberate with student development. The Student Section, while bearing the stamp of the Singapore Polytechnic Architectural Society (SPAS), was open to any letters from the public. The SPAS also seemed aligned with how Chua characterises the HDB – “modern architects’ socialist sentiments” infused with the early twentieth century British “Garden City” movement.6 The page bore the SPAS’ “manifesto” – in which students emphasised the primacy of “public spaces”, “parking facilities” and the relationships buildings held within the unit of a formalised “Town Plan.”7

Pages 54-56 of the “Student Section” of Rumah, Sep 1961

However, the entries in this issue were just as concerned with the “vernacular”. All the entries were concerned with “Village dwellings”, with Second Year student Wee Chwee Heng’s entry detailing a topographical study following fieldwork Wee conducted. Wee was also the only student to submit a design for a “Temple to Kuan Yin” which he submitted as a “third year project preceded by field studies on Chinese temples in Singapore.” In contrast with schematics that Chua uses in his chapter, Wee focused his drawings on wide-angled views rather than bird’s eye projections of his studies. Wee’s drawings place the “vernacular” firmly within the “modern” – his temple is designed with an “entrance from Nicoll Highway.”8

The bulk of the other drawings responsed to a call for a “Kampong House prototype”, including an entry by Tay Kheng Soon when he was still a Second Year student. Tay’s envisioning of a kampung on stilts visualises the elements that Chua describes in the kampung – the clear features of the stilts and the serambi (verandah) are immediately obvious. Yet, just like Wee, Tay’s conception of the “vernacular” kampung house imagined both “modern” and “vernacular”. Tay pictures a car pulling into the paved flooring, leaving still a bench in the serambi for a resident to use, even if the car’s intrusion into this “public space” is not clear. In fact, Wee’s last submission bears a similar imagination in “prototyping” a “Kampong House” focused on envisioning the “modern” and the “vernacular”. Yet, both students did not identify “public” space necessarily as an area of discontinuity, and instead found ways of picturing them both inside and outside the kampung.4 For these architectural students, therefore, Rumah columns became a platform for experimentation – just as public housing would eventually become for the HDB.

  1. Beng Huat Chua, Political Legitimacy and Housing: Singapore’s Stakeholder Society (London: Routledge, 2002), 74-75. []
  2. Bahasa Melayu for “Home” []
  3. The Report is not available in the issue but is discussed by William Lim. Lim later gained prominence for his architectural achievements and social activism. William SW Lim, “The Singapore Improvement Trust 1959,” in Rumah (Sep 1961): 58-59. []
  4. Ibid. [] []
  5. All quotes are from Teh’s article is at the front of the issue. Teh, “Public Housing in Singapore,” in Rumah (Sep 1961): 5-9. []
  6. Chua, Political Legitimacy and Housing, 75. []
  7. “Student Section,” in Rumah (Sep 1961): 49. []
  8. “Student Section,” in Rumah (Sep 1961): 54-56. []

Stainless Steel Sinks: Shaping modern Japanese homes and transforming the lives of middle-class women.

In Laura Neitzel’s book, The Life we Longed For: Danchi Housing and the Middle-Class Dream in Postwar Japan, she highlights how the seemingly mundane kitchen sink holds its own rich history. Its history, she contends, serves as a poignant reflection of the evolving ideas surrounding home, family life, and the relentless pursuit of ‘modern living.’1 As she briefly touches upon the centrality of the stainless steel sink, this discussion endeavours to delve deeper into the narrative, offering a more comprehensive analysis that unveils the transformative role that specific amenities have on shaping the function of a space. In this case, this narrative will form around the transformative role that the stainless steel sink had on postwar middle-class women in Japan.

Neitzel’s exploration focuses on the pivotal role played by the Japan Housing Corporation (JHC) in the formation of Danchi apartment complexes – a development that unraveled the very fabric of middle-class life in postwar Japan. Neitzel identifies that the danchi served as a test bed for housing technology development, which played a pioneering role in standardising and modernising interior living spaces. This book is nestled in the broader historical context of the aftermath of World War II. The war left Japan’s urban areas in ruins, promoting an urgent need for reconstruction. Recognising the significance of housing in this rebuilding process, the Japanese government established the JHC in 1955. Its primary focus was on finding innovative solutions emblematic of a new era of modern living.2

Enter Miho Hamaguchi, a notable architectural visionary, whose influence in the 20th century has come to resonate through time. Neitzel mentions the work of Miho Hamaguchi and highlights her seminal 1950 book, The feudalism of the Japanese Home, which pioneer a paradigm shift in architectural planning. In this work, she advocated for a non-hierarchical planning, seeking after an egalitarian society without gender or class difference and believed that residential design was the tool to achieve this. The JHC recognised the potential of Miho Hamaguchi ideas and sought her collaboration.3 Indeed, Hamaguchi’s architectural philosophy, rooted in the rejection of hierarchical structures, aligned with the ethos of the danchi and became a successful collaboration that became a catalyst for change. Together, the work of Hamaguchi and the designs for the danchi breathed in a new design of space where residents could coexist harmoniously, liberated from the constraints of historical hierarchies.

What exactly was the role of the sink? How did the incorporation of a stainless steel sink symbolise ‘modernity’?

Hamaguchi assertion, as reiterated by Neitzel, ‘before the stainless-steel sink was put in, the dining-kitchen (DK) was a horrible place.’4 Indeed, the stainless steel-sink brought in a new aesthetic that helped to alter the entire function, practicality and efficiency of the kitchen.

Figure 1 captures the pre-stainless steel sink era, depicting a typical rural kitchen characterised by an uninviting ambiance. The image showcases an earthen floor, a lock of proper storage for pots, minimal lighting from a small window, and the absence of running water for dishwashing. (( Simon Partner, ‘Taming the Wilderness: The Lifestyle Improvement in Rural Japan, 1925-1965,’ Monumenta Nipponica, 56:4 (2001), p. 493. )) It represents the inconvenient and unhygienic space typical of many pre-war Japanese kitchens.

Figure 1. An ‘unreformed’ rural kitchen, 19495

Figure 2. A stainless-steel kitchen module. A replica of an orginal interior of Tokiwadaira Danchi built around 1960.6

In stark contrast, figure 2 represents a radical departure – a visually enriched and efficiently designed space centred around the stainless-steel sink. This layout not only introduces aesthetics but also revolutionises the practicality of the space. With designated spaces for pots, food preparation and dishwashing, this image represents how Japanese women found emancipation from their traditional roles in housewife duties.

With the introduction of this stainless-steel sink, the space of the kitchen altered becoming more efficient, thus Japanese women found themselves doing less and now had more time for other cultural activities. Furthermore, the sink created more space which in the context of the danchi allowed for the development of ‘Dining-Kitchens’ (DK). This saw the introduction of Wester-style table and chairs placed next to the kitchen facilities which further liberated women from excess movement and enabled them to talk with family members while cooking.7

The significance of this amenity is profound, as the mere addition of a more aesthetically pleasing and efficient sink facilitated a shift in the entire dynamics of the kitchen space. This ushered in an era of modernity that not only enhanced the visual appeal but also facilitated subsequent developments, ultimately reshaping the traditional role of a housewife in Japan.

The two images help capture this development. As figure 1 evokes a poignant image of a housewife toiling in dim, unhygienic, and solitary conditions, creating an atmosphere where she was more like a servant to the kitchen than a master of her domain. Whereas, figure 1 highlights a change in her narrative as it evokes the housewife navigating a space that is not only safer and brighter but more efficient, allowing her to move beyond the realm of housewife duties, where some middle-class women got jobs.

Recognising the profound impact of specific amenities on a space is crucial to understanding the intricate tapestry of social and cultural change. In this context, the introduction of seemingly mundane elements, such as a kitchen sink, is a powerful analytical tool, to unveil the layers of transformation within the fabric of society. Indeed, one is able to understand a deeper transformation in the way that individuals perceive and interacted with their living spaces.

  1. Laura Neitzel, The Life we Longed For: Danchi Housing and the Middle Class Dream in Postwar Japan, (2016), p. 41. []
  2. Neitzel, The Life we Longed For, p. xiv. []
  3. Tatiana Knoroz, Dissecting the Danchi: Inside Japan’s Largest Postwar Housing Experiment , (2022), p. 65 []
  4. Neitzel, The Life we Longed For, p. 42. []
  5. Figure 1. An ‘unreformed’ rural kitchen, 1949, image in Simon Partner, ‘Taming the Wilderness: The Lifestyle Improvement in Rural Japan, 1925-1965,’ Monumenta Nipponica, 56:4 (2001), p. 493. []
  6. Figure 2. A stainless-steel kitchen module. A replica of an orginal interior of Tokiwadaira Danchi built around 1960, image in Tatiana Knoroz, Dissecting the Danchi: Inside Japan’s Largest Postwar Housing Experiment , (2022), p. 69. []
  7. Neitzel, The Life we Longed For, p. 43. []

Playing the Modern Shufu: Sugoroku, Women’s Magazines and the Construction of the Ideal Modern Japanese Housewife and Home

The focus of this blog post is how the traditional game sugoroku was utilised by popular Japanese women’s magazines to aid in their purpose of educating and promoting women to the ideal of the modern woman, family and hone. Both progressive and conservative in aspects, the game is ideal as an accessible educational tool as its tactile, playable   nature gives the illusion of agency and control for its players, but ultimately the boards end in one fixed, limited goal which, in the gendered context of Pre-war Japan, was being rewarded for being  a good modern housewife and mother, either with fashion or by a happy family. Largely the examples will be drawn from New Years editions of Fujin Sekai (Women’s World) from 1912-1919, however when relevant a few other sugoroku boards will referenced from a similar context.  

In the early to mid 20th century in Japan, women’s magazine acted as a key tool in shaping and promoting the idea of the modern Japanese woman and the modern Japanese home. This was articulated in a number of ways, including instructive articles, recipes, advice columns and educational illustrations and pictures. Media played an important role in controlling how modern Western ideas could fit into Japanese traditions and how Japanese cultural strategies fitted with Western practices.  Indeed, Jordan Sands comments that media potentially played an even more crucial role in the Japanese modernisation process before WW1 than the West as, unlike the latter,  modernisation was first experienced as an outside foreign influence rather than an immediate consequence of industrialisation.  Consequently, images of mass consumerism were experienced in Japan before mass consumerism itself (1).  Therefore, before WW1 these magazines acted as aspirational guides to a lifestyle in transition which were not yet fully achievable. 

The rise of these popular woman’s magazines coincided with educational policies that expanded women’s access to literacy and higher schooling. Some magazines in fact, saw their role as covering subjects which they viewed the women’s education system was lacking in. Educators and intellectuals wrote articles providing moral and intellectual guidance to higher school graduate, although they did also eventually target lower middle and working class women. One of the earliest mass circulation women’s magazines was Fujin sekai (Woman’s World, 1906) which was considered the leading magazine for the ordinary woman and, Barbara Sato argues, was the true pioneer of housewife centred magazines. focusing on women’s life after marriage, specialising in family orientated articles (2).  Given Fujin Sekai ordinary women orientated  demographic, and the reality that only a limited number of families could afford to have professional housewives, the portrayal of Shufu was largely aspirational ideal, than a grounded reality.  Indeed, a key aim of Masuda Giichi, the editor in chief of the magazine, was to promote a popularised conception of self-cultivation in his readership, one that would allow personal fulfilment through practical strategies not available through the experience of women’s education system. Evidently, this was responded to well by female readers, as a Tokyo based survey in 1922 found that 70% of participants subscribed to women’s magazines because of their focus on self-cultivation (3). While, this practical agency to shape one’s own identity might seem a progressive break in literature for women, Giichi’s overall philosophy was that women’s fulfilment was only a step in woman’s ultimate mission was to be a good wife and a mother, and thus her self-cultivation was largely contained to the space of the home (4).  This brand of controlled agency and self-expression is made manifest in their chosen medium of sugoroku. 

 To understand why sugoroku was chosen as a strategy for these magazines, its important to provide some background context on the activity. Sugoroku is a traditional game in Japan which originated in two forms. The first ban-sugoroku was a game close to backgammon imported from China in 7th century which fell into obscurity, the other was the more popular e-sugoroku which emerged in the 13th century and was a largely image-based game.  The gameplay, most closely resembling snakes and ladders, involves players beginning at singular/different start place, rolling a dice, landing on an image, and then following the instructions on said image. The aim is to end at the singular/different end points. The below examples, perhaps because they had a firm educational narrative to push, seem to have one single start and end point. Cheap and easy to make, they found popularity in the Meiji period in a variety of different magazines, covering a range of religious, historical, social and political topics. The main examples listed below are from Fujin Sekai, and the majority of them are from special New Years Day editions.  This temporal conformity is telling given that sugoroku was considered a classic New Years day pastime for all the family (5). This highlights why sugoroku should be seen as a powerful educational tool in the magazines arsenal, because it was not only a highly accessible in terms of age and literacy,  but also because it ingrained expectations of the modern housewife and the modern home not just to women readers, but to their entire family. 


Kawabata Ryushi, Nijuyon Toki Katei, Fujin Sekai, 1912, accessed via Richard Neylon, Richard Neylon Rare Books, 12/11/2023


Kawabata Ryushi. Katei Kyoiku Sugoroku,  Fujin Sekai, 1915, accessed via 

Richard Neylon, Between Black Ships and B-29s ( 12/11/2023 


Akashi Seiichi, Katei Ju Ni Kagetsu Sugoroku, Fujin Sekai, 1917, accessed via 

Richard Neylon, Between Black Ships and B-29s ( 12/11/2023

Akashi Seiichi, Fujin Nama Hi Tate Sugoroku,  Fujin Sekai, 1918 , accessed via 

Richard Neylon, Between Black Ships and B-29s ( 12/11/2023

Akashi Seiichi. Kodakara Sugoroku, Fujin Sekai, 1919, accessed via 

Richard Neylon, Between Black Ships and B-29s ( 12/11/2023

Three of the five examples are structured around the idea of the day/year of the life of a busy housewife. The two exceptions are Fujin Nama Hi Tate and Katei Kyoiku, which tracks a women’s life from birth to adulthood. These Sugoroku boards are also the only games whose end goal isn’t a happy family, but becoming a fashionable, presumably wealthy, modern woman. Before noting the similarities in games, a notable absence from all the above Sugoroku boards is any orientation in terms of location with only minimal references to home interiors. Perhaps this is because the magazine influenced interior aesthetic through other means – photographs – or at this stage interior design wasn’t yet a focus in these magazines – although intriguingly Katei Ju Ni Kagetsu board has a panel of a woman painting a surface – but the central focus here seems to be  teaching spatial practices in the home rather than instructing how to shape the home explicitly. Images that seem to appear in all of the boards are cooking (often multi-generational) cleaning (most commonly laundry or cleaning the floor), figures in windows (with activities being performed on either side of the window), and, perhaps most progressively, reading and writing and the teaching of these skills to children. Elements of modernity that can be seen through the above trends are: the cooking that seems to be being performed standing up rather than the traditional position of on the floor, and similarly in Katei Ju Ni Kagetsu and Kodakara boards, there is a practice of family tea/meal gatherings, rather than the traditional individual dinner trays for the patriarch (6). Notably however, in the case of Kodakara’s panel, while the wife appears to be above the rest of the family, ultimately only the patriarch is seated in the new furniture of the armchair. The Shufu may have been the household manager, but she was still under a patriarchal system. The imagery of the window and its emphasis of what’s inside and outside seems to play into the discourse of private and public sphere that the concept of the home initiated.  Finally, the promotion of literacy and continued education throughout a women’s life, possibly speaks most clearly to the theme of self-cultivation.

It’s worth noting three of these works are by the same artist, and so its valuable to look at examples from other artists and other publications. 


Fujimoto Katao. [Jitsuyo Oryori Kondate Manga Sugoroku]. Tokyo, Fujin Sekai 1926, accessed via Richard Neylon, Richard Neylon Rare Books, 12/11/2023 

Despite its focus on cooking, this board has many of the same elements as listed above. There are two notable elements of this design however, firstly is the presence of the dining table, a new furniture edition, and more importantly,  a panel that indicates a man’s involvement in household world (7).  Whether this is a remanent from more traditional times when household labour wasn’t so clearly divided by gender, or a reflection that such a division was unrealistic even in ‘modern’ times, it’s an noteworthy image given the strict roles established in previous boards. Indeed, it is not out of the realm of possibility Sugoroku boards were used for subversive purposes. 


Maeda Masujiro. Onna Tenko Sugoroku, Osaka 1915, accessed via  Richard Neylon, Richard Neylon Rare Books, 12/11/2023 

While graphic gender role reversals were often used for antifeminist purposes, the abject horror and disgust on the man’s face at undertaking these household tasks seems a compelling argument for the inequality of the household labour and women’s submissive role. 

 While examples like the above can be speculated on, many of the boards did seem to be conservative in tone. This was not just seen within the framework of educational women’s magazines, but also in a commercial framework. 


Shimizu Taigakubo, Denki Kyoiku Sugoroku, Katei no Denki, 1927, accessed via   Richard Neylon, Richard Neylon Rare Books, 12/11/2023

This sugoroku board by the Household Electricity magazine evidently promotes modernity through the numerous new technologies it highlights, and additionally through its emphasis of hygiene iterated through the new presence of the cleaning and cooking frock apron. More striking however, is that it doesn’t just promote this new technology through images of aspirational lifestyles, but also by the danger of not innovating. In this board more so than the others examined in this post, there is the presence of characters making right and wrong choices, Making sensible proactive steps will result in the goal of a happy family, but passivity and not staying up to date could result in a wife being beaten. This sugoroku then highlights the more brutal tactics magazines will take to achieve their agenda of modernisation and consumerism, 

Ultimately, then sugoroku could act as varied and evocative strategy in the magazines, and the wider society’s, construction of the aspirational ideal of the modern housewife and modern home. In the period before mass consumerism had fully taken shape in Japan, these games largely emphasised spatial practices for women to undertake. While the promotion of literacy and education spoke to some genuine desire to offer women opportunities of personal fulfilment, these practices largely worked to make the woman the ideal wife and mother which, amongst other strategies, included incorporating foreign ‘modern’ practices into the home – cooking standing up, cooking with an apron and collective family meals. Overall sugoroku, specifically those produced for a publication, provides a rich source of analysis about gender, family and home in 20th century Japan, particularly because it was highly accessible, and it was played as a family unit. 

(1) Jordan Sand, House and Home in Modern Japan: Reforming Everyday Life 1880-1930, (Harvard University Press, 2005), p.14

(2) Barbara Sato,  “Gender, consumerism and women’s magazines in interwar Japan.” In Routledge handbook of Japanese media (Routledge, 2018, pp. 39-50, pp.41-42

(3) Sato, ‘Gender, Consumerism’, p. 46

(4) Ibid.

(5) Flickinger, Susan, Barbara Podkowka, and Lori Snyder. “A Window into Modern Japan: Using Sugoroku Games to Promote the Ideal Japanese Subject in the Early 20th Century.” (2015), pp.1-9, p.1

(6)  Sand, House and Home, p.84, p.73-74

(7) Ibid, p.35


Between Client and State: Lee Fatt Dreams of a Three-Room Flat

Jordan Sand in House and Home argues that Meiji Era social reformers redefined the meaning of “home” and the roles of the persons physically present in the “home” for the sake of the nation-state. In selectively maintaining continuity with agreeable tenets of hitherto home life while simultaneously co-opting Taylorist practices pertaining to “home” in the West, Sand argued that Meiji Era journals, school curricula and newspapers reproduced this new praxis of the “home”. In line with Sand’s approach to studying the reproduction of “home”, I have examined the Lee Fatt Furniture & Electrical Company’s 1968 product brochure and its advertising in Singapore newspapers between 1964 and 1973 just as the nascent Housing Development Board (HDB) began to widen its public housing. Its brochure and advertising strategy, I argue, refracted both a shift in a rent-based to a leasehold-ownership-based form of housing ownership and characterised the new homeowner as the individual seeking upward socio-economic mobility on behalf of one’s family.
At the time of the People Action Party (PAP)’s attainment of internal self-government from the British, the PAP had inherited a growing population that had either been “living in over-congested shophouses in the city area” or in “wood-panel and thatched-roof houses in urban-fringe kampong”.1 Within a decade, the HDB had resettled much of the population into public housing flats; and by the turn of the twenty-first century 90% of Singaporeans lived in public housing. Most owners of these state-subsidised flats hold their flats under leasehold “homeownership” for a period of 99 years. The HDB’s work in public housing was and remains “the PAP government’s signal achievement, as a testament to its social democratic impulse, and as a foundation of its legitimacy and longevity in parliamentary power.”2
In recency, socio-economic studies3 of public housing have served as an avenue of texturing the unevenness of the physical safety and low-cost, multi-cultural harmony that housing ministries and statutory boards argue Singaporean public housing has helped to engender. Historically, however, this apparently linear trajectory only took place after 1964. Between 1960 and 1964, its first batches of flats required tenants to share toilets, bathrooms and laundry spaces; representing not much of an improvement over the hitherto predominant housing conditions available for the masses. In 1964, however, two important schemes changed the nature of public housing and home ownership. The HDB upgraded its provisions by starting production of “three-room flats, which referred to two bedrooms and one sitting room in HDB nomenclature” not including a kitchen and a bathroom-cum-toilet.4 Furthermore, the introduction of the Home Ownership Scheme alleviated financial difficulties for prospective homeowners and eased the financing of HDB flats that had hitherto been meant as rental flats. Further changes after 1964 allowed individuals to use their social security savings to offset the costs of purchasing flats. This newfound model of ownership, and widened accessibility, can be gleaned through a host of newspaper advertisements and brochures distributed by furnishing and electrical companies in the 1960s and 1970s.
Page 1 of Lee Fatt's 1968 brochure
Lee Fatt Furniture & Electrical (利發木器傢俬) belonged in this category as a furniture and electrical supplier that took root in the 1960s. It placed its first furniture advertisement ion 26 November 1964.5 In 1966, it opened a new branch at 14 Jalan Tiong, in addition to its existing headquarters at the former Nelson Road, and in 1968 it published a 40-page brochure that was targeted at the growing number of new home owners in Singapore. The brochure a variety of household furniture items such as desk chairs and mattresses, advertisements from associated retailers and a range of household appliances. On page 1 its preface emphasised its “various modern designed” goods that were “exquisitely and exclusively designed” for the new prospective homeowner, while offering furniture that could be “made to order according to specific designs, and if necessary, with the guidance of our experts.”6
Page 40 of Lee Fatt's 1968 brochure
Beyond the front of the brochure, Lee Fatt wrote on the last page of the brochure its personalised messages to prospective patrons in Bahasa Melayu, Mandarin and English. One reason for this may have been the abundance of available Mandarin-language books in Singapore in this period which had its first pages at what we would consider the “end” of the book. Its messaging, subconsciously or otherwise, envisioned its customer base as new homeowners who were on the cusp of a new phase beyond just “modernity” but the uplift of a “happy family”. The messaging in Bahasa was gender neutral, appealing to both men and women (“tuan2/puan2”) while the messaging in Mandarin phrased purchases as “for the sake of one’s family” (“曾否打算為你的家庭佈置一套精緻!舒適!耐用的傢俬”).7
Page 21 of Lee Fatt's 1968 brochure
Lee Fatt’s brochure even alluded directly to the new model of a HDB flat. Page 21 of its brochure idealised how furniture would fill space in a blueprint of a three-room flat. The image showed a three-room flat with cabinets, beds, lamps, desks and sofas in a configuration that was idealised as befitting a new family. The caption made explicit mention, writing in English that this image was an ideal of “Furniture For Housing Planning [sic.] Flat Units”. In Mandarin, the link was more explicit, writing that this envisioning pertained specifically to the regulations and parameters of a new HDB flat (“以建築發展局組屋面積而設計完成故最適合組屋採用”).(( Ibid., 21 ))
Therefore, when situated in relation to the HDB’s burgeoning capabilities, the Lee Fatt brochure is an exciting source that suggests the particularities of advertising and consumer culture in the 1960s. This cursory exploration of the brochure encourages further research possibilities across different media, languages and economies of consumption in post-colonial Singapore.

  1. Beng Huat Chua, Liberalism Disavowed (New York: Cornell, 2017), 73-76. []
  2. Ibid., 75. []
  3. For an example see: Annas Bin Mahmud, ‘“There You Eat, There You Sleep, There You Study”: Housing Concerns and Needs of Low-Income Malay HDB Tenants in Singapore’. M.A. Thesis, National University of Singapore (Singapore), 2020. []
  4. Chua, Liberalism Disavowed, 75-76. []
  5. Advertisements Column 5, The Straits Times, 26 November 1964, 19. NewspaperSG (accessed November 14, 2023) []
  6. “Lee Fatt Furniture & Electrical (利發木器傢俬),” Singapore Graphic Archives, 1. []
  7. Ibid., 40 []

Mass Media Domesticity: Comparing Ling Long and Shufu no Tomo

The early twentieth century saw rising literacy and expanding commercial popular presses in China and Japan. As such , the interwar period ushered in a boom in women’s magazines. These publications targeted female issues and became guides for household management and taste. However, the approaches to domestic control espoused by Chinese and Japanese counterparts differed. By comparing the contents of Shufu no Tomo and Ling Long, we can see the diversity of domestic revolutions occurring in China and Japan in the interwar period.

Shufu no Tomo, commonly translated as Housewife’s Companion, was first published in 1917, and by 1925 was the most popular Japanese women’s magazine, selling over a million copies a month.1 Its pages contained articles concerning budgeting, housekeeping, fashion, and dance. Ling Long, meaning elegant and fine, was published in Shanghai between 1931 and 1937.  It contained tips on how to raise children, outlined typical household duties, and covered Hollywood films and pop-culture.2 At about five by four inches in dimension, it became popular as an accessory just as much as a publication. Zhang Ailing claims, “every female student had an issue of Ling long magazine in hand during the 1930s”.3

A notable difference between the two are the types of advertisement featured in each. Sand notes that the items advertised in Shufu no Tomo were overwhelmingly small, personal items such as medicines and cosmetic products. There were rare instances of kitchen appliances being advertised. However, there is a complete lack of furniture.4 Instead, there was a focus on what Japanese women could make themselves to spruce up the home.  For instance, the edition published in June 1926 encouraged women to sew their own curtains to adorn cabinets and windows during the summer time.5 In contrast, Ling Long contained advertisements for furniture in almost every edition.

Advertisement for dining room furniture, Ling Long Issue 1

Advertisement for a chair, Ling Long Issue 40

Advertisements such as these promised the transformation of the home into a site of happiness through purchase of furniture. They were positioned as objects of desire, and purchasing them ensured entrance and acceptance into the leisure class.6 Apparent is the discrepancy in the intended audience of the two magazines. The readers of Shufu no Tomo evidently were presumed to have less purchasing power than their Shanghai counterparts. While Ling Long encouraged the creation of a comfortable middle class through consumerism, Shufu no Tomo emphasised thrift available to all classes of society. Perhaps this is systematic of Ling Long’s more elite urban readership, but it also shows the differing approaches to creation of domestic spaces. The fact that the latter half of all early Ling Long editions was dedicated to the consumption of Hollywood culture emphasises how Shanghai women were more deeply entrenched in global economic networks, which spilled over into the methods by which they shaped their homes.

Instead of promoting the control of domestic space through the exercise of economic power, Shufu no Tomo encouraged a more hands on involvement throughout the process of making homes. In a volume about middle class housing published by the women’s magazine, readers are warned to hire young architects instead of old carpenters as they will be more sympathetic towards desires for western style housing. Whereas the old carpenter would associate such style with schools, post offices, and other public buildings, the architect will be more open minded about implementing western building practices in the home.7 Indeed, one author in the November 1921 edition of Shufu no Tomo stated, “we have left the era of living for the house and must now progress into the era of building houses for living”.8 From this and other articles critiquing and promotion of certain architectural trends, we can see that readers of Shufu no Tomo were envisioned as having a significant role in the design and construction of homes. Japanese interwar women could partake in this traditionally masculine sphere in order to have greater input on the fundamental formation of their domestic spaces.

In addition, Shufu no Tomo encouraged readers to take up newly rationalised domestic practices. While the kitchen is a notably absent space in Ling Long, as cooking was seen to be the responsibility of servants,9 the kitchen took on new significance for Japanese women in the interwar period as domestic work came to be seen through a scientific lens.10 Household work came to be seen as an important part of promoting a family’s wellbeing and efficiency,. Taught in new Japanese Women’s Higher Schools, knowledge was then further disseminated by publications such as Shufu no Tomo. The kitchen thus became a site for Japanese women to utilise their knowledge of nutrition and hygiene to support their families, and exercise domestic power.

The types of domestic control espoused in Shufu no Tomo and Ling Long are thus divergent. While Shufu no Tomo promotes the domestic shaping through the practice of daily chores, handcrafted decoration, and architectural input, Ling Long promotes the consumption of prebuilt domestic styles, with agency being found in choices of consumption. By buying sets of furniture and emulating homes seen in Ling Long, Shanghai women were participating in a more global creation of middle class domesticity, borrowing from and performing for western audiences. These conflicting representations of domestic control presented in Ling Long and Shufu no Tomo illuminate the different ways in which interwar Asian women were able to exercise agency within the domestic spaces.

  1. Jordan Sand, House and Home in Modern Japan (Cambridge, 2003), p. 163. []
  2. Louise Edwards, “The Shanghai Modern Woman’s American Dreams”, Pacific Historical Review 81:4 (2012), p. 574. []
  3. Elizabeth La Couture, Dwelling in the World (New York, 2021), p. 194. []
  4. Jordan Sand, House and Home in Modern Japan (Cambridge, 2003), p. 346. []
  5. Ibid, p. 347. []
  6. Elizabeth La Couture, Dwelling in the World (New York, 2021), p. 203. []
  7. Jordan Sand, House and Home in Modern Japan (Cambridge, 2003), p. 275. []
  8. Ibid, p. 317. []
  9. Elizabeth La Couture, Dwelling in the World (New York, 2021), p. 211. []
  10. Jordan Sand, House and Home in Modern Japan (Cambridge, 2003), p. 94. []

Let them Play: Singapore’s playful evolution to health and hygiene

In the contemporary Singaporean landscape, one expects the pleasure of pristine air, meticulously groomed parks housing vibrant playgrounds, and immaculate neighbourhoods. Yet, through a newsprint article, this discussion will explore how such a picturesque scene was not always reality.

Figure 1. The Straits Times, 8 June 1947, 1

The newspaper article titled ‘Let them Play’, printed June 8th 1947 in the Straits Times, sheds light on the challenging conditions faced by Singapore during a period of rapid urbanisation and high population density, all transpiring under the umbrella of British colonial rule.

The historical backdrop adds depth to the narrative, emphasising resilience of the Straits Times as it resumed publication after the disruption caused by the Japanese occupation during World War II. Against this backdrop, the article vividly captures the stark reality of overcrowding and the associated health challenges that plagued the city. Terms such as ‘tuberculosis,’ ‘germs,’ and ‘breeding,’ evoke a vivid picture of the public health issues intertwined with the burgeoning urban landscape. In essence, the narrative highlights the broader challenges faced by Singapore as it navigated through post-war reconstruction, urban expansion, and the complexities of colonial administration.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Singapore, like many rapidly growing urban centres, confronted the health challenges that accompanied a surge in population.2 Notably, tuberculosis emerged as a significant public health concern.3 As revealed by figure 1, there was a prevailing belief that disease could be mitigated through ‘proper housing.’ A convincing statement that is reiterated and further explored by Brenda Yeoh in her research Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore: Power Relations and the Urban Built Environment.  In this book she delves into the impact of tuberculosis on public health policies, delving into the municipal responses that ensued transforming housing and sleeping conditions. Her work is a welcomed and well-respected contribution to the intersections of hygiene sanitation and the impact of disease on the transformation of housing and the lives of Singapore’s residents. This research is an invaluable insight that enriches ones understanding of Singapore’s journey towards improved health and hygiene standards.

However, this source proves invaluable as it not only complements but also extends the scope of Yeoh’s research. As Yeoh’s research illuminates the many facets of Singapore’s housing development, this source draws attention to the role of recreational spaces in also shaping Singapore’s development in health and hygiene. It notes that ‘the provision of adequate playing fields’ is just as ‘essential’ as ‘proper housing.’

Indeed, the article stresses the urgent need for ‘adequate playing fields or grounds where children can exercise healthily to strengthen their bodies and keep germs of the dread disease away.’ This conveys and understanding held that the development of playgrounds was not merely for amusement but would be a sanctuary where the vitality of Singapore’s future was to be nurtured. In the words of the article, a compelling narrative begins to take place, that the health of children was paramount for the future success of Singapore. In this source playgrounds are described as ‘lungs’ which conveys the understanding of these spaces as vital breathing grounds of the city’s health. This metaphorical framing emphasises the crucial role that playgrounds will play in allowing the city to ‘breath,’ as children will have a safer outlet for physical activity, no longer ‘cooped up in small rooms’ or playing on dangerous ‘streets.’ The powerful phrase ‘let them play’ is a symbol of the city’s commitment to better health and hygiene. This sentiment encapsulates a resounding call to action, carrying with it that children’s play was not just a pastime and therefore the idea ‘we must have these playgrounds in operation as quickly as possible,’ helps shed light on the importance of recreational spaces to the nation’s long-term success.

This article is a historical snapshot, illustrating the multifaceted dynamics of a city in transition, grappling with the consequences of rapid growth in a challenging post-war era. It highlights the role of recreational spaces as another useful tool in combating the challenge of health and hygiene.


  1. Figure 1. ‘Let them Play,’ The Straits Times, Singapore, 8 June 1947, p. 6 ,<> [accessed 10 November 2023].  []
  2. Charlotte, Furth, ‘Introduction: Hygienic Modernity in Chinese East Asia,’ in Qizi Liang, Angela Ki Che Leung, and Charlotte Furth, Health and Hygiene in Chinese East Asia: Policies and Publics in the Long Twentieth Century, (2010), p. 16 []
  3. Brenda S. A Yeoh, Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore: Power Relations and the Urban Built Environment, (2003), p. 94 []

Cai Fei Lu: Women confined themselves to the domestic space

Figure 1. the manifestation of foot binding

Elizabeth LaCouture’s perspective highlights the central role of women in the domestic space in Republican China’s domestic space, positioning them as subjects of the state and family or ‘jia’.1 Her opinion indicates that in late imperial and early Republican China, women primarily occupied a passive subject in the domestic space. Their significance within the family was often underscored by the public recognition conferred upon them. For example, women brought political recognition to the family when they were bestowed the honor of chaste widows or virtuous women by the imperial state.2 Also, women usually took the responsibility of preparing and placing ritual offerings at the ancestral altar.3 LaCouture’s stance implies that women attained subjecthood within the household through an external acknowledgment or by publicly assuming significant roles in family-related affairs. It was the external forces that made women the subject of the household.

However, this blog seeks to scrutinize LaCouture’s viewpoint and introduce another prevalent practice during that era—foot binding. The blog argues that women actively and independently consolidated their centrality in the domestic space through foot binding. This is contrary to LaCouture’s view. Women are not passive actors in the domestic sphere. Referencing the book Cai Fei Lu, published in the 1930s and compiling contemporary interpretations of foot binding as a social practice, this blog aims to refute the claim that women were confined to the “jia” sphere solely due to external influences. Instead, it asserts that female autonomy played a significant role, challenging the notion that women were merely subject to external factors in shaping their roles within the household.

Cai Fei Lu, compiled by the Republican scholar Yao Lingxi, delves into the history and practical implications of foot binding in Republican China. Considering these two dimensions, it’s reasonable to argue that the widespread practice of foot binding was a result of women women’s autonomous choice.

The book repeatedly narrates a shared sense of the origin of foot binding that was created by an imperial concubine PanFei, “潘妃作俑於一時。”4 She practised foot binding to curry favour with the emperor. The practice of foot binding steadily gained popularity and grew to be regarded as a viable method for women to attract men, “良家婦女乃以為取媚男子之道在是。”5 Even though its historical origin cannot be substantiated, the prevailing social idea depicted in the book suggests that it was motivated by women’s pursuit of beauty, “婦女纏足。初意必以美觀而起。”6 This spontaneous desire requires women to engage in the physical practice of foot binding, seeking to attain the beauty they deemed desirable. Furthermore, foot binding did not only reshape the female feet, but also reconfigure their identity in the domestic realm, or ‘jia’. On the one hand, due to their desire for beauty, which was primarily for getting male attention, their distorted feet became a product of male preference, though they voluntarily bound their feet. They allowed their physical selves to be conceptually linked to male family members. Foot binding, although a female behaviour, was essentially impacted by male consciousness, or what women perceived as male preference. On the other hand, because of the foot binding, women confined themselves in the physical domestic space. Consequently, women’s mobility would significantly reduce, rendering them unable to walk for extended durations and impeding their ability to move freely between the physical domestic space and the external environment. That is, “行動艱苦。”7 Consequently, women assumed a prominent role within the domestic sphere due to their extended presence. The practice of foot binding, therefore, was a choice made by women, became an autonomous necessity, and reshaped their identities and positioning within the domestic realm.

Elizabeth LaCouture argues that women were at a disadvantage when it came to establishing their identity in the domestic space. In late imperial and Republican China, women could only assert their centrality in domestic space through public recognition. However, after analysing the Republican publication Cai Fei Lu, the blog offers an alternative perspective, arguing that women’s limitations in the domestic sphere were not entirely due to external forces. Women’s autonomy drove them to practice foot binding. This act physically constrained their mobility, psychologically tethered their physical form to the preferences of male family members, and consequently shaped women’s central identity within the domestic space.

*Cai Fei Lu:

  1. Elizabeth LaCouture, Dwelling in the World: Family, House, and Home in Tianjin, China, 1860-1960 (New York, 2021), p. 102. []
  2. LaCouture, Dwelling in the World, p. 19. []
  3. Ibid., p. 102. []
  4. Yao Lingxi 姚靈犀, Caifeilu 采菲錄 (Tianjin: Tianjin shidai gongsi, 1936), p. 4. []
  5. Yao Lingxi, Caifeilu, p. 49. []
  6. Ibid., p. 134. []
  7. bid., p. 151. []

Arnoldi in Buitenzorg: V. M. Arnoldi’s 1909 Notes on the Buitenzorg Botanical Gardens

Vladimir Arnoldi - WikipediaIn 1909, Russian botanist Vladimir Mitrofanovich Arnoldi visited the Buitenzorg Botanical Gardens. Though he was primarily concerned with the contributions of the gardens to botanical knowledge and rarely commented directly on politics, we can see in his account the footprint of the Dutch colonial project.1 In his praise of the Dutch garden Director, Melchor Trueb, his dealings with the Indonesian staff, and his awe at the aesthetic force of gardens layout, we can observe how Dutch colonial oppression was articulated within the space of the Buitenzorg Botanical Gardens.

Apparent in Arnoldi’s notes is his occupation as a scientist and his resultant veneration of the garden’s organisation which privileged scientific knowledge. As he describes it, the gardens are run by “European chiefs”, that is Dutch botanists, whose orders are followed by “a large staff of small Malay employees”.2  During the early decades of the twentieth century, colonial officials began to pivot the justification of Dutch colonialism in the direction of scientific merit. By creating a space in the Buitenzorg Botanical Gardens which was dominated by scientists pursuing pure science, unpolluted by economic motives, the Dutch colonial project could be seen to have merit and value for the wider world.3 However, the subordination of native people to the whims of the Dutch showcased here holds vestiges of the earlier “civilizing mission”, which intended to Europeanise, and thus modernise, native Asian cultures. Arnoldi himself echoes this kind of sentiment, hoping that in a decade “yesterday’s cannibals and savages [will pass] into a semi-cultural state”.4 Here, the enforcement of Dutch control over native people for the research and cultivation of their own native flora is epitome of the “civilizing mission”. Though Arnoldi sees this as the idyllic prioritisation of scientific knowledge, it is in reality the prioritisation of European knowledge.

This oppression is further revealed by Arnoldi’s comments on staff salaries. According to his notes, most ordinary native workers receive between eight and ten guilders a month, while even the most experienced of them, “a very intelligent person who knows not only native, but also the Latin names of plants” , earned sixty guilders a month. In comparison, the lowest wages for European workers is quoted as two hundred guilders monthly.5 Though this is presented with some indignation by Arnoldi, he falls victim to minimising the contribution of native people himself, as he marvels at the transformative impact Professor Treub oversaw during his directorship, stating that the improvement of the gardens into one of the finest Botanical centres of the world was wholly due to “the work of his hands, his energy”.6 Evidently the work of native people in the running and improvement of the gardens was not recognised in any meaningful way by Arnoldi or the management. As a result they are subordinated in a fashion consistent across the Dutch East Indies, such as in the countless rubber plantations spawned from the gardens at Buitenzorg7, or in the cities of colonial Indonesia with their strict racial zoning.8

Of the garden itself, Arnoldi notes its structured, monumentality. He describes an alley of Canarium trees,  noting how their “large spreading crowns closely adjoin each other with their branches, forming an almost closed canopy”.9 It is a striking visual image and a feat of landscape design, allowing us to see the control the Dutch exerted over nature. This reflects the role of nature in the expression of Dutch power in town  planning, as noted by  Colombijn and Cote, who emphasise the importance of ordered nature as a means to engender order in native populations.10 Savitsky also notes the resemblance of the trees’ description to the description of the governor general’s palace, which was adjoined to the gardens. It is described by Arnoldi as “an elegant white building with a slender colonnade”.11  Thus colonial, neo-classical style architecture can be seen to have been forced upon Indonesian nature, echoing and amplifying the prestige of the colonial government. The proximity of the palace to the gardens, essentially being intertwined,  only strengthens this connection. In this way, the physical design of the garden rearticulated the supremacy of the Dutch Empire.

The snapshot of the Buitenzorg Botanical Gardens in 1909 provided by Professor Arnoldi is a useful one in examining how colonial power was expressed within the bounds of the gardens. Evidently, the Dutch “civilizing mission” was built into the very fabric of the gardens, from its physical layout to its employment and organisational structures. The Buitenzorg Botanical Gardens can therefore be seen to be a physical representation of the the Dutch subjugation of native peoples, their cultures, and natural resources.

  1. E. E. Savitsky, “Botanical Gardens as Colonial Institutions”, Novaya i Novejshaya Istoriya 63:6 (2019), p. 55. []
  2. Ibid, p. 56. []
  3. Andrew Goss, “Decent Colonialism? Pure Science and Colonial Ideology in the Netherlands East Indies”, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 40:1 (2009). []
  4. E. E. Savitsky, “Botanical Gardens as Colonial Institutions”, Novaya i Novejshaya Istoriya 63:6 (2019), p. 50. []
  5. Ibid, p. 53. []
  6. Ibid, p. 55. []
  7. P. T. Bauer, The Rubber Industry (London, 1948) []
  8. E. E. Savitsky, “Botanical Gardens as Colonial Institutions”, Novaya i Novejshaya Istoriya 63:6 (2019), p. 56. []
  9. Ibid, p. 57. []
  10. Freek Colombijn and Joost Cote, ‘Modernization of the Indonesian City, 1920-1960’ in Cars, Conduits, and Kampongs, eds. Freek Colombijn and Joost Cote (Boston, 2015), p. 3. []
  11. E. E. Savitsky, “Botanical Gardens as Colonial Institutions”, Novaya i Novejshaya Istoriya 63:6 (2019), p. 57. []

Hong Kong’s early public housing: Changing attitudes under a colonial context

Hong Kong’s housing today is known for its unaffordability and sky-high rents due to limited space. Hong Kong has a population greater than Scotland but its total available land area is less than half of Greater London which explains why housing remains a constant problem in one of the world’s most densely populated metropolises.1 In spite of this, Hong Kong actually has a rather unique history of housing, especially the public housing realm that has permeated throughout society as a result of British policy measures to combat poverty and discontent as the bulk of the Hong Kong population initially saw them as Chinese and Hong Kong to them was a temporary place to do business before returning to their homeland, thus breeding the phrase coined by Richard Hughes, “Borrowed place, borrowed time.”. (Richard Hughes, Hong Kong: Borrowed Place, Borrowed Time, 1966)

In order to cope with the increasing population, demand for housing and the realisation that Mao Zedong’s Communist Party’s hold on China will be permanent, the British colonial government decided that housing the population and housing reform would need to be undertaken. Contrary to popular belief that the 1967 riots marked the start of public housing provision in Hong Kong, it was actually the 1953 Shek Kip Mei fire that made the government start building flats to accommodate people as it was poor conditions of squattered areas consisting of wooden houses and corrugated iron sheets.2. Interestingly enough, my maternal grandmother and grandfather, both of whom were poor immigrants from neighbouring Guangdong province arrived in Hong Kong during the 1950s and initially settled in a poor, squattered housing, but was then resettled in a public housing complex under the Hong Kong government’s colonial scheme. In order to pay my tribute to them, I will focus this article on analysing how Hong Kong’s public housing estates contributed to a new sense of identity and gave individuals hope to abandon the sojourner mentality as described by Hughes above. For this, I will focus on a newspaper report from Wah Kiu Yat Po from December 1963, when Choi Hung Estate, where my mother and her brothers and sisters grew up was completed.

Figure 1: A typical squattered area or slum in Hong Kong during the 1950s – 60sSource: South China Morning Post

Figure 2: View of Choi Hung Estate from Kwun Tong Road (1963) Source: flickr

The news report, published on December 19th 1963 presented the inauguration of Choi Hung Estate by then British governor Robert Black as an important ceremony for the city as the newspaper quoted in the headlines stating it is the ‘largest project of the city’ and the contents mentioning officials from the housing department, civilian affairs attending it.3 The public housing scheme was seen as a watershed moment for the city for both the British and local Chinese residents. That is because for the British, the Hong Kong housing plan is the most vigorous and dynamic project ever undertaken that was not seen in other places in the world besides Singapore and that housing a large population with limited resources is certainly no easy feat. As for the local residents, it built a sense of community spirit amongst residents that started to envision that Hong Kong is their home and that they will be there to stay, thus planting the seeds of a unique ‘Hong Konger’ identity, which was seen in the next decade under the governorship of Murray Maclehose.4 Although I did not personally grow up in a public housing estate myself, but I had to say that this undoubtedly changed Hong Kong permanently and affected who I am today as my parents, who were sons and daughters of poor individuals from China who benefitted from the resettlement scheme was able to enjoy better living conditions and more access to secondary and tertiary education opportunities, hence showcasing how housing plays a key role in raising population approval in terms of governance and that increasing opportunities can change societal fabrics. As a result, it is evident that housing policy can directly alter the course of history on a certain place’s development.

Furthermore, this example ties to the wider theme in the compulsory reading. That is because as seen in the Tianjin reading, during the time when multiple foreign powers had their own zones, each attempted to use their own styles of housing to instill in the minds of the Chinese people on what it means to be ‘modern’.5 Additionally, the Meiji government in Japan attempted to construct Western methods of sanitations and dwellings in order to turn the Japanese into a ‘civilised’ race.6 Therefore, it is evident that there is a continuum that demonstrates the effective and central role housing plays in governance and constructing modernity.


  1. Tim Summers, China’s Hong Kong, Politics of a Global City, 2019, pp. 127-135 []
  2. Steve Tsang, A Modern History of Hong Kong, 2003, p. 204 []
  3. Wah Kiu Yat Po, December 19th 1963: By putting resources into public housing, it implies that the British colonial government is trying to introduce measures that aims to solve the most pressing problem in Hong Kong at the time, which is affordable housing and having a roof.  As mentioned in the article, each apartment does not have its own bathroom or kitchen and each apartment has an average space of 300 sq ft.  It can be seen as a massive milestone for the colony, as prior to the beginning of the scheme, the government constantly faced budget constraints and lack of policy direction in order to implement this plan, but within the timespan of a decade, the government managed to co-ordinate and build over seven public housing estate, each being able to house over a total of 100,000 residents of a population of nearly 3.4 million. (( Steve Tsang, A Modern History of Hong Kong, 2003, pp. 204-205 []
  4. Steve Tsang, A Modern History of Hong Kong, 2003, pp. 204-205 []
  5. Elizabeth LaCouture, Dwelling in the House, Family, House and Home in Tianjin, China, 1860 – 1960, 2021 []
  6. Jordan Sand, House and Home in Modern Japan: Reforming Everyday Life 1880 – 1930, 2005 []