HK running out of spaces for the dead

The dire shortage of urn spaces, or niches, in Hong Kong has led to a proliferation of private columbaria and a hot resale market. At Po Fook Hill (above), niches are sought after and could possibly cost more than $88,500.
The dire shortage of urn spaces, or niches, in Hong Kong has led to a proliferation of private columbaria and a hot resale market. At Po Fook Hill (above), niches are sought after and could possibly cost more than $88,500.ST PHOTO: JOYCE LIM

Land-starved Hong Kong has a dead serious problem - it is running out of space to deal with the dead.

The building of new cemeteries was banned in the 1970s and industry experts now expect the city, which had about 46,000 deaths last year, to face a shortfall of 400,000 niches by 2023.

Official efforts to promote green burial, including the scattering of ashes into the sea and at designated gardens located in columbaria, have failed to take off.

The government has reportedly been struggling to meet the demand for urn spaces, or niches, managing to supply only 2,540 as of last year and, to maximise use, has allowed up to four urns of close relatives to be kept in a large-sized niche.

The waiting time for a niche in a public columbarium, costing about HK$3,000, is currently at up to more than four years. This dire shortage has led to the proliferation of private columbaria as well as a hot resale market for niches.

 

  • 46k

    Number of deaths in Hong Kong last year.

    450k

    Public niches targeted to be built by 2022. As of last year, 2,540 have been built.

    16,321

    Applications for new niches in 2014. Only 12,053 new niches were allocated.

    100k

    Urns remaining in funeral parlours in 2014.

It is not surprising for niche resellers to reap as much as 10 times the amount in profit for places that they bought more than a decade ago, an employee at Po Fook Hill columbarium told The Sunday Times.

A niche broker, who wanted to be known only as Mr Lim, said niches at Po Fook Hill are highly sought after and one could possibly cost more than HK$500,000 (S$88,500).

Well-known celebrities like actor Leslie Cheung and singer Lydia Shum have niches in Poh Fook Hill.

"People sell their niches for different reasons. Some have bought them as an investment, hoping to make a profit later, while others are selling because they are moving out of Hong Kong or they may have found another place that they prefer," said Mr Lim who currently has about 100 resale niches available.

Mrs Jennifer Chik, an owner of a niche at Po Fook Hill, said: "It is like the property market here. Prices of niches have shot up rapidly over the years.

"I am glad I bought one for myself earlier. I would not be able to pay half a million dollars for one now."

The housewife, who is in her 60s, is adamant about not parting with hers. "All my life, I have fretted over not being able to own a home. I don't want my children to worry about where to keep my ashes after I die," she said.

The shortage of space for the dead in freewheeling Hong Kong has seen entrepreneurs come up with innovative ways to deal with the problem.

A group of investors intend to sink HK$500 million into turning a cruise ship into the world's first seaborne columbarium, the South China Morning Post reported two weeks ago.

The floating columbarium would be able to provide about 48,000 funerary urn spaces, according to the H.K. Ship Art Club, the main investor in the project.

The company said the vessel would be fully functional, with restaurants, gyms, hotel rooms and a movie theatre. The prices of urn spaces start from HK$60,000.

Mr Philip Li Koi-hop, president of the club, said the ship would be stationed mostly in the city, in Kowloon Bay near the Kai Tak Cruise Terminal.

"We would arrange small boats to transfer people from the pier to the columbarium," he was quoted as saying.

Going out to sea seems logical, considering that efforts to convert existing facilities or build new columbaria have often faced resistance from people living in the vicinity. Opponents often cite pollution from the burning of incense, traffic congestion, heavy human traffic and the effect on property prices.

Last month, a proposal by Kerry Warehouse, a subsidiary of Kerry Logistics Network, to convert one of its warehouses in Chai Wan district in the eastern part of Hong Kong Island into a private columbarium providing 82,000 urn spaces was rejected by the Planning Department. No reason has been given so far.

The critical shortage of niches in Hong Kong and sky-high prices offered by some private columbaria have seen more people crossing the border to look for burial and urn spaces, according to Mr Lim.

"For only HK$150,000, one can get a good burial plot surrounded by the mountains in Shenzhen.

"It is more affordable and some families have bought bigger plots so that the entire family can still stay together after death," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 09, 2016, with the headline 'HK running out of spaces for the dead'. Print Edition | Subscribe