In Hong Kong, you just can't get enough of it: space

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Mr and Mrs Tall are currently immersed in planning the decoration of their new flat. Design magazines are piled high at the old Tall homestead, and several expeditions to furniture and materials shops have already been made.

It’s fun, of course, but as always with life in Hong Kong, there’s a special challenge to it. You could say that when decorating any house or flat, you’ve got to reach a balance amongst a number often-competing elements: style, function, and price are all important, of course. But in Hong Kong, a fourth element almost always dominates the mix: space.

Almost everybody in Hong Kong could use more space at home. Flats here (very nearly no one lives in actual detached houses) are small. For expatriates, this almost always means adjusting to living somewhere that’s quite a bit cozier than you’re used to. The only exceptions are those granted very generous ‘expat packages’ providing ‘home country-style’ housing, which generally means the company pays for a townhouse or a very large flat. These days, though, the declining economy in Hong Kong means fewer and fewer expats are granted such perks.

In any case, Mr Tall receives no such a perky package from his employer, so it’s an ordinary Hong Kong flat for him. The new flat the Talls will soon occupy is ‘officially’ around 900 square feet – but that’s the ‘building area’, a special Hong Kong-only measurement that distorts reality about as effectively as a dose of LSD. ‘Building area’ includes the amount of space your flat’s walls take up; it includes your windowsills; it even includes a fraction of your building’s lift lobby proportional to the size of your flat!

In real terms, therefore, the Tall home covers something less than 700 ‘real’ square feet of usable space. This means every single one is precious!

This leads to a state of concern over using space that borders on the obsessive. There was a book I read as a university student that I remember nothing of except for its striking title: A Blessed Rage for Order. That phrase just about captures the prevailing Hong Kong attitude to the use of space. You care about where you put things. Clutter is the enemy.

For example, you start to notice how much space even the most mundane household objects take up. Clothes, for instance – especially Mr Tall-sized clothes. I’ve got one very nice raw-wool sweater I bought in Nepal. It’s actually far too warm to wear very often in Hong Kong, and yet I keep it because I like it very much. But it sits in my closet, inert, unproductive, occupying a disproportionate amount of precious, precious space . . . .

One way to combat the lack-of-space problem is designing creative storage areas. For example, many people here build false ceilings in their hallways for storage above (Mr and Mrs B have a splendid example), buy beds that can be completely lifted off their bases via huge hydraulic hinges (for storage underneath) and so on. But identifying these storage opportunities is easier said than done. You have to develop a real eye for spotting unused spaces that are practical to access, and big enough to hold useful things.

Fortunately for me, Mrs Tall is a Master of Order. Or should I say Mistress of Order. Hmmmm. Perhaps not. Anyway, she’s really good at planning out rooms so that they’re space-efficient. I’m equally but differently gifted; I’m blessed with the ability to ponder one of Mrs Tall’s sketched designs, look meaningfully into her eyes, say ‘My dear, you are a genius’ – and mean it.

I can even say a bit of this 'rage for order' has rubbed off on me. When I came to Hong Kong, I was a pretty big mess around the house, and for quite a long time I resisted the idea that I had to change the way I looked at my living environment. Now, however, I do appreciate an orderly room in which space has been cleverly used. If you’re recently arrived here, I’d advise giving in as soon as possible on this one: it’ll make life a whole lot more pleasant.