A March 13 2021 Facebook post reading “imagine living in this apartment complex in Hong Kong” generated a lot of interest (and shares):
No additional context or comment was included by the original poster; the post was shared thousands of times. The image evoked a number of emotions among commenters — who typically expressed discomfort upon viewing the structure, and some had questions:
“What happens if the elevator is out of order? My anxiety would be at an all time HIGH! I wonder how much space they have in those apartments? Can’t be much. I can’t do it….”
“It’s is overwhelming but I guess the people who lives there possibly has no other choice. None of us live there so we can have all the different reactions because we don’t have to deal. God bless those who have to live under those conditions”
“Imagine seeing one building and making a judgement about an entire society.”
Some users had anecdotes about Hong Kong apartments:
“I Remember flying through the middle of these types of apartments to get to the old runway in HKG airport when i was a flight attendant .. on a big 767 or airbus. Was crazy. You would literally see ppl hanging their washing while you were doing the landing checks lol b4 being seated to land for arrival. ✈️🥴”
“Been there, saw that. There is no other choice but these buildings. The pollution is absolute, so much so that you can see the air you are breathing. You cannot see the sun. Foreigners quickly develop a hacking cough. It is a living hell.”
“Most of the comments reek of American provincialism. Hong Kong is first world. These apartments are probably very comfortable. There are enough large elevators to accommodate the needs of the residents, including moving furniture, with backup generators in case of power failure. I grew up in apartment buildings. You have access to a lot more neighbors, even in inclement weather … Oh, and those people who think it’s a health hazard — Hong Kong has done great against Covid-19.”
Some comments were predictably partisan:
“Isn’t this what Joe [Biden] wants to build for America? … Correction!!!On the presidential debate, President Trump describes how at that time former Vice President Biden’s energy plan includes taking down private housing, and building Sky rises, with tiny little windows. This is the image that came to my mind.
“How did the President get in this conversation? Come on people let’s stop beating up on each other, and be grateful that we don’t have to live like this. This is a painful sight.”
Although some commenters maintained they had seen similar apartment complexes firsthand, neither the post nor the comments provided additional detail about the origin of the image nor the veracity of the photograph.
On Reddit and Tumblr
On May 8 2020, a Reddit user shared the same image (also lacking contextual information) to r/interestingasfuck:
Its title inherently referenced the subreddit to which it was shared, asserting “This Apartment Complex In Hong Kong” was “interesting as fuck.” Comments on the post shared a tenor with comments on the March 2021 Facebook iteration; a top comment read:
“Spent two weeks in one of these about ten years ago. If you enjoy no hot water, cockroaches, no space, your hair never drying, and the constant smell of mothballs, you’ll be right at home. On the bright side, there was a bakery below that had unreal special buns.”
“I’ve always wondered. What’s the demographic of people who stay in these apartments? Are there students as well? What kind of jobs are they most likely to do?”
“Middle to upper class. These are expensive apartments. About 50% of HK people live in government subsidised housing. This is not government subsidised you can tell by the large window sizes.”
In a separate response responding to a question about the “cockroaches” and “no hot water” comment, the “expensive apartments” commenter added:
“Wait so does the OC’s comment about cockroaches, no hot water still apply to these ‘expensive appartments’ as you put it??!”
“It shouldn’t. Hot water heaters are all owned by each flat so maybe they had a bad landlord. I have lived in many (9 different ones) apartments here for 22 years and never had a problem with hot water. Cockroaches are attracted to garbage anywhere in the sub tropics. However again never had a problem with them. Maybe one crosses your path about every couple of months, but unless your very squeamish not a problem.”
That same account commented a third time in response to questions about how elevators serviced buildings of that size:
A building like this would have 3 elevators minimum. Usually 1 stops at all floors, 1 at even only & 1 at odd only. So not a problem unless one is broken.
Newer building you might have to use a residential keycard which means the lift/elevator will only stop on your floor.
Most people use public transport to work or school so living close by to those stations or stops saves you commute time.
In big office buildings the wait might be longer at peak times. Again newer building have improved that by having you key in what floor your going to at a central point in the lobby. Then a computer screen tells you which lift/elevator to go to. It makes them more efficient and adds security.
A separate commenter said:
Middle class families.
You are at HK$7 to 9 million per flat in that picture. That’s about US$1.2 million each. You also need 50% downpayment. Rent wise, the market rate is about HK$18k to HK$25k per month, so about US$2.3k to 3.2k.
So white collar folks.
Discourse on both posts from 2020 and 2021 respectively typically involved Americans (and Australians) drawing inferences, threads peppered with commentary from users who claimed to have seen, visited, or lived in similar apartment complexes in Hong Kong. People in the second group commonly addressed assumptions about poverty and social status, asserting that the buildings were for “middle to upper class” residents.
A reverse image search quickly revealed that the image was not taken in 2020 or 2021; versions on Tumblr dated back to at least 2010:
Original Image and Inspiration
However, the image was even older than that. Under “oldest,” the first iteration crawled on the internet appeared to be the original post. On January 27 2005, Flickr user Peter Morgan uploaded the image (titled “HK97b”) with the following description:
Inspired by Michael Wolf’s photos of Hong Kong buildings, but probably originally by the urbanization section of the Massive Change exhibit.
Incidentally, a Google Image search of the photograph automatically suggested “Michael Wolf Hong Kong” as a descriptor; Morgan cited Wolf as inspiration in the description of the image. An obituary for Wolf published in the New York Times in April 2019 credited him with popularizing “disorienting” images of Hong Kong.
Framing buildings in disorienting fashion, he created images of Hong Kong’s density. He also recorded the minutiae of its everyday life.
HONG KONG — Michael Wolf, a photographer who was known for his vertiginous depictions of rainbow-hued skyscrapers in Hong Kong as well as the minutiae of everyday life there, died on Thursday at his home in Cheung Chau, an outlying island near the city. He was 64.
Later, it explained:
“He took a building that is very three-dimensional and compressed it into a surface in a way that would make one feel breathless and lost in scale,” Tugo Cheng, an architect and fine-art photographer based in Hong Kong, said by telephone.
By tightly framing high-rises in a way that showed neither sky nor horizon, Mr. Wolf created architectural photographs that gave the viewer the impression of infinity and repetition.
In March 2021, a Facebook post (“Imagine living in this Apartment Complex in Hong Kong”) circulated virally, but as was often the case, information about the building and photographer was not included. Flickr user and photographer Peter Morgan uploaded the image in January 2005, citing Michael Wolf’s work as inspiration (and Google inaccurately suggested the image was Wolf’s work.) Hong Kong’s apartment buildings are well documented and often photographed, and Morgan was inspired by Wolf’s signature compositions of the architecture of Hong Kong.