In times of change, Hong Kong’s neighbourhood of love clings to its scandalous roots.
On an unusually suburban street in Hong Kong’s Kowloon Tong neighbourhood sits Romantic Hotel with its once-bright yellow sign. Behind its rusted padlocked gate, the orange paint peels under the summer sun. The large sign, now a panel of broken bulbs, extends into the street, calling attention to the overgrown concrete building that once housed lustful trysts.
On the other side of the cement wall is a newly painted, well-kept kindergarten with a small patch of grass where children play – a rare occurrence in concrete-coated Hong Kong.
Kowloon Tong is a neighbourhood of dualism; on one rather unpopulated street, love motels, posh kindergartens and old folks homes share the quietness. Inside the doors of the love motels, the quietness disappears within earshot of the moaning. On the “short stay” motel review site goopenroom.com , user “Little Flower” recalls her boyfriend saying in the waiting room, “Finally someone is moaning louder than you”.
In Hong Kong, love motels have routinely undergone more scrutiny than they perhaps deserve. As the housing market continues to heat up in a city that has come third this year on The Telegraph’s lists of both most expensive and most densely populated cities in the world, it is no surprise that many young people in their 20s and 30s prefer to pursue romantic options outside the cramped homes they often share with parents and siblings.
According to the Transport and Housing Bureau, there are on average three people per household in Hong Kong. In 2016, 44.8 percent of Hong Kongers were living in public housing. The average square footage per person in public housing is approximately 13 square meters, which is slightly less than 140 square feet.
This means that a young person in their 20s living with their parents in a household of three may be sharing a meagre 129 square feet. It is no surprise that young people on goopenroom.com refer to love hotels as a “second rent,”or, as user My Flower more affectionately says of his favorite motel, “this is my second home with my honey.”
More and more utilitarian short-stay hotels known as Park n’ Shop or “Bak Gai” establishments are springing up throughout the city as millennials come of age without space for sex.
Kowloon Tong represents an old-world version of love hotels, where hidden parking spaces, restraints, and mirrored ceilings lured in the lascivious, the adulterous, and the pay-for-play clientele. The demand may be subsiding, but it not gone.
Secrecy is still an asset in Kowloon Tong. A black sign that translates to “Fortune God” gives way to the most concealed motel of the bunch. Car stalls are blocked off with striped vinyl, and in the lobby there are four cameras displaying all of the access points to the building.
The receptionists will not allow us questions or a glance at a room. The building is not in great shape, but the parking area is nearly full at 4pm on a Tuesday – it seems the discretion is appreciated.
Down a narrow alley, across the street from York’s Kindergarten, sits the back entrance to Boutique Hotel. A man with a baby strapped to his chest dismissively walks past a smear of graffiti stating that “Yue Yue’s Penis tastes the best.” That Yue Yue is usually a girl’s name in Cantonese is not the highest paradox of the instance.
The exterior of the hotel is decorated with small golden sculptures that could pass as tadpoles or sperm, depending on how you look at them. In the lobby, two men are paying at the counter as their female counterparts sit patiently on velvet chairs. The noticeable age difference and revealing outfits suggest a different dynamic than young lovers in need of privacy. The rooms are HK$350 for three hours.
One block down from Boutique Hotel, a mother named Priscilla is waiting to pick up her kids from the primary school on “To Fuk Lane”.
Priscilla says the hotels and the schools aren’t such a bad juxtaposition. “When my husband first brought up our kids going to school here, I said, ‘What! Kowloon Tong?’ But it hasn’t been a problem at all – the motels are very discreet, obviously they aren’t really going to advertise or anything like that, people know they are there.”
Apparently, not everyone knows. Priscilla tells me about an Australian mom whose family had to be at the school around 4am, so they booked a hotel across the street, unaware of its unique role and reputation. “When I told her she was quite surprised, but they stayed anyway. She said it was great, that the beds were comfortable and it was quite affordable.”
The love motels are generally more affordable than other options in Hong Kong, and some of the hotels in the area are going in a more multipurpose direction. The Ten Hotel, the newest of the bunch, has a large sign that reads “For Business and for Travelers”.
The interior is far closer to a completely normal, modern hotel than its older neighbors. By the receptionist’s observation, most guests at the Ten are businessmen from China and academics attending symposiums in the area.
“However,” she adds with a smile, “Summer is the busiest time, especially on weekends, so they aren’t our only clients.”
Hong Kong historian Jason Wordie says that many of the motels are closing not necessarily because of lack of business but rather as a result of “islanders deciding to close leases because of development options. The height restriction doesn’t exist anymore so the only thing preventing the redevelopment in some cases is the splitting up the family legacy between too many people.”
With the ability for redevelopment, the increasingly ubiquitous Park N’ Shops, and the seemingly endless need for the glitzy kindergartens that keep appearing in Kowloon Tong, the love hotels had better have more than”‘busy summers.”
For decades, these decaying mansions have housed illicit affairs and young lovers without the space for a sex life in their family homes. If the red-hot real estate market does not cool in the near future, this juxtaposed neighbourhood may become just another skyscraper landscape of Kowloon, perhaps peppered with a few fancy kindergartens and a Bak Gai here and there.