A house to build a dream on
HK’s latest housing facility catering exclusively to single, young people opened this month. However, tenants wishing to stay on are expected to get involved in community events. Evelyn Yu reports.
Ablack piano is set off to the side beside a grey wall arrayed with framed photographs of Hong Kong as it was in the 1960s, lush, overexposed and heavily atmospheric. Upon closer inspection the photos prove to be images from Wong Karwai’s break through film, Days of Being Wild. The metronomic ticktock, tick-tock of a cast iron clock beside the concierge counts the passing time, in the lobby of the newly renovated complex, the third project of M³ International Youth Community.
The cinematic theme is reflected throughout the five-storey rental building which opened this month in Prince Edward. Completing the retro-look, there’s a wooden table in front of a tiled, yellow mosaic, on the adjacent wall. The table bears a close similarity to the one in the movie’s classic poster featuring six of the leading actors and actresses sitting in a cha chaan teng, or a Hong Kong cafe.
The careful attention to detail is all part of a plan to dispense with the stereotypical image of cramped, shabby apartments where young people here usually live, in the city with the dubious distinction as one of the world’s most expensive rental markets.
Rents here start at HK$4,312, but there’s more to the place than simply a cozy place to come home to at the end of the work day. The complex is meant to foster a strong community spirit, says Samuel Gu , one of six M³ cofounders.
Hong Kong’s first youth community for rent places heavy emphasis on individual development in a place where young people may pursue their dreams, he says. Tenants not only share apartments, they are expected to take part in reading parties, cooking seminars, self-defense workshops, photography competitions, etc. There’s a big public space with an LCD TV, projector and conference room. Solitary types need not apply. Periodic performance reviews will be carried out, and tenants who aren’t making friends with other tenants and who are not engaging in community activities are likely to find their renting contract terminated.
Gu came to Hong Kong from the mainland. So did four other co-founders. “Young people come to the city with big dreams, yet the acute housing problem wears down their dreams in Hong Kong’s cramped apartments, day by day. Finally they retreat to the mainland,” he said.
“What is your dream?” is the question posed on M³’s official website. It reads like a standard sales pitch, but in the case of M³ the question isn’t rhetorical. The founders accept only tenants under 45, who are not married and don’t have kids. Most importantly they must have a dream they are pursuing.
Admitting that it seems quite a grandiose plan, Gu counters that the dreams of young people in Hong Kong are easily squashed in the first place because of the undesirable state of the housing market.
He thinks the community should offer a base for ambitious young talents, a place where they can settle down, feel comfortable, and grow together in a congenial, closely-knit setting.
The standard they set has already been welcomed enthusiastically by the city’s young people. When M³ opened its first residential unit last year, the 30 independent rooms in Sham Shui Po, received over 400 applications within a month, Gu said.
There’s a screening process. Applicants are interviewed on the phone by M³’s staff. They are expected to give an account of their dream in life and how they are going about pursuing it. Gu said successful applicants, more often than not, are young professionals, architects, software engineers, entrepreneurs, foreign students, etc.
The M³ International Youth Community is modeled on the mainland’s highly successful You+ International Youth Community, a pioneering effort in the youthtargeted rental market.
Co-founder of You+, Liu Yang, said he’d endured all the frustrations of being a tenant for 17 years. During that span he said he moved over 30 times from damp basement in Beijing, to claustrophobic quarter in Hong Kong. He fought with landlords who failed to return his security deposit, or who sold the place out from under him and gave him the boot.
“We all say young people are the hope of future, but when it comes to renting, when young people are trying to make their way in big cities, they are not treated with even basic respect, let alone love and care,” said Liu.
In 2011, Liu sold his house and car, with all the money he had, rented an industrial complex in Guangzhou. He spent eight months renovating the empty building, which once had served as a factory for Colgate Palmolive. Gradually he transformed the place into a modern youth community, for itinerant youth who have abandoned their hometowns to seek their fortunes in the big cities.
The pioneer of the rental hostel model made the headline in 2014, when You+ attracted funding of 100 million yuan ($15 million) from Lei Jun, founder of Xiaomi smart phone, a man widely acclaimed as China’s Steve Jobs.
Liu Yang contends that You+ is a base where young people can start to work out their dreams. “There are lawyers, geeks, entrepreneurs of varied sectors all live under the same roof. Resources are connected and optimized, it is a valuable asset critical for young people’s development.”
Gu echoed that one of his entrepreneur tenants, who works at an education agency, already raised a seed fund amounting to millions of Hong Kong dollars.
Business is riding high for Gu and his partners. They want to expand but the cost of renting new accommodation is a deterrent.
You+ sets up shop in derelict industrial complexes. That’s not allowed in Hong Kong. Securing buildings or entire floors of existing units is the greatest challenge, he says.
The fact that they are forced to develop in residential buildings pushes up the costs. A 5- to 8-squaremeter room in M³’s Sham Shui Po community averages HK$4500 a month. For around the same price, tenants at You+ can rent a 15-squaremeter bedroom in Beijing. Some You+ communities offer public commons up to 2,000 square meters.
Both Liu and Gu mention that even with high demand, the communities barely turn a profit once costs are factored in. What keeps them going is the satisfaction of giving other young people an opportunity to live comfortably and realize their dreams.
It is hard to explain the love and care chemistry under the roof, Gu said, but sometimes tenants may receive an unexpected delivery of flowers. Unlike other apartments where there are too many taboos in the communities, there is a garden where tenants can smoke. Pets are also welcome.
Liu recounted when one of his tenants was immobile for a few months due to a leg injury, a female tenant attended to him, brought him different food every day and signed on his casts. The young couple just registered for marriage.
“I have been served as a marriage witness for my tenants around 20 times, where to find a better landlord than me?” Liu happily questioned in the interview.
Gu disclosed that thanks to the new funding, M³ is working on two more shops this year, set to bring more dream hatcheries for young people in the city.
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We all say young people are the hope of future, but when it comes to renting, when young people are trying to make their way in big cities, they are not treated with even basic respect, let alone love and care.”
Liu Yang, co-founder of You+ International Youth Community