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Spotlight on safety of Hong Kong guesthouses

Publication Date : 13-01-2014

 

The stairwell in Continental Mansion, a residential building in Hong Kong's North Point, looks diseased. It is utterly blackened, as if tarred with black paint. There are white spots where bits of plaster have popped off from exposure to searing heat. Electrical wires, their ends burnt, dangle precariously.

About 70 people rushed down this narrow shaft in a panic two weeks ago, when a fire started in the morning and engulfed the building. Others clambered out of windows, using scaffolding for support.

It took two hours to contain the fire. By then, 25 people had been injured.

Many were budget tourists staying at Yesinn, a guesthouse with units on the third, fifth, 10th and 15th floors. Among them was Singaporean Tiara Zhang Zhi Zhen, 33, who is still in a coma in hospital.

The incident has raised questions about Hong Kong's regulation of guesthouses, and there are calls for rules to be tightened and the number of licences restricted.

In this expensive city, such lodgings are cheap, cramped - and popular. They charge budget travellers HK$160 to HK$500 (US$20.56 to US$64.89) a night, a bargain at about a third or less the rates of three-star hotels in similar locations.

Aside from 1,194 licensed guesthouses, Hong Kong has seen a spike in unlicensed guesthouses in recent years. The government is contemplating increasing penalties for those caught.

The Yesinn guesthouse was given a licence by the Home Affairs Bureau, which would have required it to adhere to safety regulations such as installing a fire alarm and a sprinkler system.

The Straits Times' The Sunday Times visited six guesthouses in different locations including Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui, and found that all have such measures in place.

But critics point to loopholes that compromise safety.

The key issue is that the majority of guesthouses are located within residential or mixed-use buildings - with shops on the ground floor and homes above.

Operators rent a flat, sub-divide it into small rooms that can each be as tiny as the size of a single bed or more generous at about 80 sq ft - and accommodate between one and four people.

This, in turn, translates into heavy human traffic in buildings that may not be able to cope.

On a normal day, residents compete with tourists and their luggage for space in the lifts. When an emergency occurs, like that day of the fire, the stakes are higher.

"The building is crowded because of so many tourists," Chiu Kim Sum, who chairs Continental Mansion's owners' committee, told local media after the fire.

In Causeway Bay, guesthouses such as Jetvan Traveller's House and Backpackers Hostel are decorated cheerfully. But they share one box-sized lift with four or five other units on the same floor. Corridors are narrow and stairwells, cramped.

On the seventh floor of the infamous Chungking Mansions, a warren of rooms, the Pay-Less Guesthouse, nestles within a larger labyrinth of five or six other guesthouses like a complicated jigsaw puzzle. Again, there is just one lift, and one stairwell.

Michael Li Hon Shing, executive director of the Federation of Hong Kong Hotel Owners, noted: "Commercial buildings and residential buildings have different designs. For example, there are more exits in commercial buildings, which is very important for evacuating people during a fire."

Besides the high human density, another risk is that the stipulation for a sprinkler system pertains only to guesthouses or hotels larger than 230 sq m. So operators which choose smaller residential units are exempted from this rule.

This poses a fire hazard, said legislator Ann Chiang during a Legislative Council meeting last Friday to discuss the topic. "Budget travellers may boil water or cook in the room," she said.

What is puzzling is the way guesthouses are licensed.

The government gives a licence when the premises meet "building structure and fire safety standards". But it does not take into account the Deed of Mutual Covenant (DMC) negotiated between the building's owners, property manager and developer - which may prohibit commercial activities either entirely or above a certain floor.

This means that while individual guesthouses might be safe - at least on paper - attention may not be paid to the overall profile of a building's tenants.

At Continental Mansion, for instance, the DMC does not allow guesthouses on the third floor, according to Chiu, who said her committee had repeatedly complained to the authorities to stop issuing licences.

But during the LegCo meeting, Home Affairs permanent secretary Raymond Young maintained that under the terms of the Hotel and Guesthouse Accommodation Ordinance, "the DMC is a private contract and we can't enforce it. The government has no obligation to comply with the DMC".

That drew the ire of legislators like Raymond Chan, who called for the law to be changed. "You cannot have a time bomb continuing like this, and you shouldn't be drawing a line and saying you stand behind it," he said.

Young said the government will keep "an open mind" on reviewing the law, while noting that changes will have wide ramifications and may also affect other commercial activities such as restaurants.

Indeed, the issue goes beyond guesthouses. Private kitchens operate within residential buildings, as do elder-care homes - a legacy of Hong Kong's land shortage and laissez faire zoning policy.

These have contributed to a certain vibrancy and quirky diversity in the city's urban topography.

Urban planning expert Cecilia Chu from Hong Kong University said: "We have a history of buildings with mixed uses. These are part of Hong Kong's heritage. And it's unfair to root all of them out."

Also, she noted, guesthouses fulfil a need for cheap lodgings - a point echoed by travellers interviewed by The Sunday Times. British teacher Carolyn Bell, 53, who is staying at a Yesinn branch in another block of Continental Mansion, said: "The place is spotless and comfortable. And it's economical."

One possible compromise, said Chu, is to restrict such activities to the lower levels of buildings, so that heavy-duty traffic is confined.

And Li said action must be taken quickly, in the wake of the Continental Mansion fire. "Accidents like this affect the tourism industry and the image of the city as well. It is a stain on Hong Kong's reputation."

 

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