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Using Public Space to Overcome Vulnerabilities: A Study of Chinese Migrants Living in Sub-divided Units in Hong Kong

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posted on 13.08.2020 by Yuxuan Wang
Despite Hong Kong being an affluent society, its high-density population still suffers from a housing shortage. As divisions from a standard unit, ‘sub-divided units’ are a common form of residential units that have been used in response to this shortage. Chinese migrants in Hong Kong, often referred to as ‘new-migrants,’ are one of the vulnerable groups living in sub-divided units. The overcrowded living space of sub-divided units presents challenges on new-migrants’ quality of life. Hit by heat stress, low income, weak social network, and identity as latecomers, these new-migrants have shocks and more pressing need for useful adaptations. Yet hardly any studies have examined the impacts of sub-divided units on new-migrants and how these new-migrants could overcome their vulnerabilities.
Public spaces play a crucial role in daily life and are often used by vulnerable populations to alleviate their vulnerabilities. While previous studies reveal the needs of those who live in overcrowded conditions to visit public spaces, few studies have delved into their adaptation mechanism in public spaces.

This study seeks to investigate how people living in overcrowded conditions overcome their vulnerabilities in public spaces, taking new-migrants living in sub-divided units in Hong Kong as a case study. Conducting semi-structured interviews and Q-methodology, this study investigated 28 new-migrants in order to explore the following aspects: 1. Their perceptions of sub-divided units and public spaces in Hong Kong; 2. Their activities in public spaces and the driven factors; 3. How these activities help alleviate their vulnerabilities and whether these activities create new meanings to public spaces.

The analysis suggests that new-migrants living in sub-divided units have three perspectives towards their vulnerabilities and public spaces: ‘spatial pragmatism,’ ‘adapted optimism,’ and ‘social withdrawal.’ According to each perspective, respectively, new-migrants respond to their situations in the way of visiting public spaces, being optimistic, or having social withdrawal. Five public spaces that participants visited are discussed, which include green spaces, community centers, commercial spaces, churches, and corridors. In these spaces, depending on their current needs, new-migrants succeed in creating a social space, a leisure space, a personal space, and, more importantly, a living space. Sub-divided units cannot fulfill the basic need of residential housing. As a replacement, public spaces provide new-migrants spaces to parent their children, exercise, and relax as an extension of their living space. Such a space to some extent becomes where new-migrants exactly live.

The findings of this research offer insights on how high-density housing residents make uses of public spaces. This study contributes to the literature by deepening the understanding of diverse public spaces and their creation of new space. It also illustrates the negative impacts of sub-divided units on new-migrants. On the practical front, effective public policies can be informed to improve the housing management of Hong Kong and the social cohesion of new-migrants.

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