100 sq ft living in Hong Kong: can pictures cultivate empathy?

I have been long fascinated about people who manage to live in unusual or tiny dwellings. Where we live deeply shapes how we live, and to draw a biological metaphor, those who can or must live in extraordinary situations.

Michael Wolf made a photo exhibit called 100×100 depicting residents of (one of) Hong Kong’s oldest public housing developments. The pictures of 100 apartments — each is 10 square feet; more like SROs than the apartments we think of — tell more about the residents than old Hong Kong colonial housing policy. Some in the blogosphere have been depressed or awe-struck by what they see. I am impressed by different ways — with strong common themes — people cope with their situation and make it home.

I can’t help but think that Wolf makes us care about strangers by amplifying their (presumed) invitation to photograph their private quarters.

First, while most of the resident are elderly, I don’t think they are “retired.” Notice the rubber gloves hung to dry in several of the photos. One man has a commerical sewing machine. Two old men have a mound small cabbages: lunch, or his livelihood? Despite the same space and common furnishings — most people have bunk beds with the uppers used for storage; nearly all pictures show kettles and rice cookers — they all have a distinct style from sparse to jam-packed. Ovaltine seems popular. Most cover up the fixed air vents, using everything from tape to paper bags from McDonald’s. Many have small shrines, posters with stylized calligraphy hinting at something auspicious, or both. Some come up with clever ideas; I am partial to the resident who hangs pictures on a wall like fish-scales and packs a lot in.
A door to a home; window to the soul?

Hat tip: Gridskipper, “100 x 100 HK Photos”

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. My partner’s grandfather lives in Hong Kong. He is a retired hairdresser and his apartment is bigger than these ones; but not by all that much.

    I am neither depressed nor awestruck; and I am not sure that these residents would welcome either response. Like all people everywhere, they have their pride; we should be greatful that they have let us into their lives and respectful of their dignity.

  2. I agree, and hope I didn’t give the impression — possible, having re-read my words — that one should be depressed or awe-struck by these residents’ housing. Apart from the appeal to universal dignity, there is also the reality that people have a remarkable ability to make do. This, perhaps more than anything, was what attracted me to these photos, and by the diversity of responses which give the personal expression I described above. A diversity made more plain by the uniform and concentrated spaces.

    That said Demas, does your partner have any insights into the life skills one learns in compact living? Sustainable life skills gained and lost are also dear to me. (We may really need those skills one day.)

  3. As far as I can tell, people’s personal space and belongings expand to fill the available space :) That is, it is quite possible to live in a very small space if you always have (but maybe harder to go from a large house/flat into a smaller one!)

    Maybe there is also a difference in how you use your home – with limited space (and in a large and vibrant city like Hong Kong) there is less of a ‘home is my castle – all my life and entertainment is here’ attitude.

  4. I was absolutely fascinated by Tumbleweed houses which are standalone (and possibly mobile) houses that start in the same general size range as the apartments.


    My husband was less impressed, and I’m not sure that the sleeping lofts are feasible for elderly people. But they are interesting.

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