Hong Kong's Monster Building: Utilitarian Design that Captures the Imagination


What is Hong Kong's Monster Building?

Hong Kong’s Monster Building (怪獸大廈) is a relic of post-World War 2 Hong Kong that captures the imagination of residents and visitors in a way that modern glass and steel simply can’t compete with.

The overall layout of the Monster Building is E-shaped and has been split into five distinct - yet interconnecting – towers that take up an entire city block: Oceanic Mansion, Fook Cheong Building, Montane Mansion, Yick Cheong Building, and Yick Fat Building.

While newer structures have sprouted up all around the iconic curved shape of the Monster Building, tourists summarily ignore each one as they greedily snap shots of cramped apartments, corrugated metal awnings and what has to equate to thousands of air conditioner units.

This unique brand of architecture was designed with one sole purpose in mind: cram as many residents into as tight of a space as possible to avoid a ‘monster’ population crisis in the 1950s and 1960s.

Impressive Monster Building Statistics

How Many Floors: 19

How Many Apartment Units: 2,443

How Many People Live Here: Estimates range between 6,800 – 10,000

Total Square Area: 11,000 square meters

Building Architecture Type: Composite building – densely-packed residential buildings that also incorporate workplaces and shops

Cheap Prices: The monster building was designed to be Hong Kong’s cheapest housing estate. At one point, it was even advertised as having the ‘lowest mortgage rate in the world’

How to Get to the Monster Building

Take the MTR to Quarry Bay Station and leave through Exit A.

Turn right after exiting the MTR and follow King’s Road for a few hundred meters before the Monster Building looms in the distance.

You’ll see a footbridge just before arriving, which offers a great vantage point from which you can capture a full photo of the building’s curved exterior.

When you’re ready, head back down the footbridge and walk for another minute or two before turning in at an unassuming building entrance flanked by a butcher’s shop with the numbers 1032-1044 stuck on a mirrored surface.

This is the Fook Cheong entrance to the Monster Building’s courtyard.

A Brief Historical Timeline of the Monster Building

1950s and 1960s: Hong Kong experienced a sudden spike in its population due to an influx of migrants fleeing from the Cultural Revolution in mainland China

1950s and 1960s: To cope with the influx of Chinese migrants, the Hong Kong government began to rapidly develop public housing estates that could cram in as many people as possible

Early 1964: The Monster Building’s planning was conducted by Hong Kong businessman Watt Mo-kei and his company Cheong K, along with backing from Wah Yuen, another property company

1964: Parker Estate advertisements offer ‘lowest mortgage rate in the world’ and Hong Kong’s cheapest apartments per square foot

1965: Hong Kong hit by banking crisis and Watt leaves the Parker Estate project before the building was even constructed

1966: Star Ferry Riots

1967: More riots and instability in the city end up stalling the project

1972: Parker Estate finally completed after a third company, E Wah Aik San, took over and restructured the property into 5 separate buildings rather than 1 estate

1972 (Summer): First tenants move in

2014: Monster Building featured in the blockbuster Transformers: Age of Extinction

2017: Monster Building featured in the movie Ghost in the Shell

Today: The building complex is a popular spot with Instagrammers who want to capture a style of architecture that could only have existed decades ago

Why Was Housing Built So Rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s in Hong Kong?

Because of instability in China during the 1950s and 1960s brought about by the Cultural Revolution, Hong Kong saw a wave of Chinese migrants entering to the city.

It’s believed that anywhere from 560,000 to 700,000 people entered Hong Kong during this tumultuous period of history, creating a sudden rise in the city’s total population.

Why Does the Monster Building Look Like That?

This influx of people, often with little to no means to support themselves, meant that Hong Kong’s government had to come up with housing solutions that were cheap, efficient, used up as little space as possible and could be built quickly.

Thus, composite building architecture was born!

These buildings were a staple of Hong Kong’s landscape in the 1950s and 1960s and were designed to occupy entire city blocks while squashing as many flats in together as possible. In order to save on square footage, these composite buildings were also built to be as vertical as possible and often incorporated curves into their designs.

Composite buildings on street corners incorporate rounded edges into their designs. Rounded buildings featured cantilevered (protruding with no support) terraces on all floors above the ground floor.

To encourage trade and commerce in the harsh landscape of the ‘50s and ‘60s, it was mandated that composite buildings be part residential and part for other uses (usually commerce).

Many composite buildings opted to use the lower floors for commerce, though it’s also not uncommon to see signs hanging from upper floors of composite buildings advertising doctors, dentists and other professions.

The Monster Building’s lower floors still have shops selling everything from meat to clothes on the ground floor around the courtyard.

The Ethos Behind the Monster Building’s Utilitarian Design

With all this context in mind, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Watt Mo-kei, the man who orchestrated the initial planning of Hong Kong’s famed Monster Building, has a very specific and perhaps even morally questionable vision in mind.

As with other buildings Watt’s company, Cheong K, had built in the past, the Monster Building was to be as utilitarian as possible while flirting with how far legalities could be pushed to cram in as many people as possible.

This was done to keep up with Hong Kong’s inflating population and a growing number of impoverished people who needed homes, but couldn’t afford to pay exorbitant prices.

Even before the complex was complete, he was advertising flats that started at HK$15,000 (if only this were so today!).

The company also sweetened the deal with 2 additional promises:

  1. A 25 percent discount to anyone who paid the full amount in one lump sum
  2. An appealing package of one percent of the purchase price on a monthly basis for anyone who needed a loan to pay for a Monster Building home

How good was this deal?

If you could put up with the cramped conditions and very basic build quality, you were promised what was touted as Hong Kong’s cheapest flats per square foot basis ($40) and possibly the lowest mortgage rate in the world.

Examples of Other Composite Buildings in Hong Kong

Man Wah Sun Tsuen (文華新村) – Jordan

Chung King Mansions (重慶大廈) – Tsim Sha Tsui

Metropole Building (新都城大廈) – North Point

May Wah Building (美華大廈) – Wan Chai

How It Feels to Live in the Monster Building

Just by looking in from the outside, it’s clear that the Monster Building achieved Watt Mo-Kei’s vision of utilitarianism and cramming in as many people as Hong Kong law would possibly allow.

Residents have described the building as feeling ‘moody’. The view is also lackluster with most residents seeing only grimy walls and into other apartments when they look out the window.

Residents who wish to move out often don’t have the financial means to do so, which means that the Monster Building also still achieves its other primary goal of being affordable, though it comes at the cost of a lack of sunlight, proper ventilation, space and oftentimes cleanliness.

Be Respectful When Visiting

There are signs in the courtyard of the Monster Building that indicate activities like photography and disruptive gatherings are prohibited. It appeared, though, that as long as I was quick with getting my photos and didn’t make any noise, people were content to let me admire the architecture.

I imagine if people arrive in large groups or behave in an obnoxious manner, they will be summarily ejected by the security guard that was present there.

When visiting the Monster Building, please approach with respect and consideration for the residents. Visitors should refrain from causing disruptions or trespassing on private property, to ensure residents have a peaceful and secure living environment that’s free of unnecessary disturbances.

This is their home, after all!