HONG KONG: Red-whiskered bulbuls start chirping around 5am at Wonderland Villas, a hilltop complex in leafy northern Hong Kong whose own history charts the city’s political, economic and social fortunes.
Built in 1984, the year colonial power Britain signed an agreement to hand Hong Kong back to China, the complex was one of the pioneering designs of its time, a cluster of 22 curvaceous white apartment blocks complete with clubhouse, tennis courts and swimming pool.
Prices at Wonderland have risen, waned and risen again, as Hong Kong property has swung through boom and bust to become one of the world’s most expensive markets.
The lack of affordable housing has become a major political issue for Hong Kong as it approaches the 20th anniversary of the British handover of the city.
But Wonderland was once an attainable aspiration.
Former tailor Winnie Wong, now 70, bought a three-bedroom apartment there with her husband in 1997, when Hong Kong was transferred to China and became a semi-autonomous city.
Some emigrated ahead of the handover, worried about Beijing calling the shots.
Wong said she was concerned, but decided to hold on.
“My dad once said, the more you flee, the harder it gets,” she told AFP.
From the late 1970s, China began to open up its economy, helping transform Hong Kong from a manufacturing hub to a service oriented gateway to the mainland.
The Wongs are typical of a savvy post-war generation who traded up as Hong Kong grew.
They bought their first apartment in 1970 for HK$45,000 (US$5,775), moving seven times before they splashed out HK$7.85 million on their Wonderland Villas home – it is now worth double that.
The comfortable 1,600-square-feet (149-square-metre) apartment, decorated with artworks and family photos, boasts lush green views and a large terrace.
“For my generation, it was easier to buy a home if you worked hard,” Wong says.
After rising steadily through the 1980s and 90s, property prices crashed in the last quarter of 1997 as the Asian financial crisis sent markets tumbling.
Hong Kong’s economy was dealt another blow in 2003 when an outbreak of the respiratory virus SARS killed 299 people in the city.
Those crises were reflected at Wonderland – while the Wongs kept their heads above water, almost 30 indebted homeowners were forced to forfeit their flats between 1997 and 2003 and prices plunged by more than two thirds.
However, thanks to China’s economic growth and Hong Kong’s encouragement of mainland tourists, which boosted retail industries, the market rallied as the 2000s wore on.
Industrialists and wealthy businessmen snapped up homes at Wonderland as they had in its heyday.
A handful of mainland buyers also bought there, but most preferred higher-profile central condos expected to rise more in value, albeit with less space.
“From the perspective of expats or mainland Chinese, when they invested in an unfamiliar place they would choose well-known properties or those built atop subway stations. So that started to turn around the direction of investment,” local estate sales manager Ken Lee said.
Despite falling out of fashion, a Wonderland Villas home like the Wongs’ still fetches HK$16 million. But while they have watched their investment grow, younger generations find it increasingly hard to buy.
A 2017 survey by research organisation Demographia named Hong Kong the world’s least affordable city for housing – the median property price exceeds the median annual household income 18.1 times, well ahead of Sydney and Vancouver in second and third place.
Mainland buyers parking their capital in Hong Kong property is one factor driving up prices.
The local government also stands accused of colluding with developers instead of pushing for affordable accommodation.
Residents are increasingly forced to live in cramped conditions at spiralling costs.
Some analysts say a recent government pledge to create more homes should eventually bring values down.
“With more projects going to be launched in the market, (developers) have to price them more competitively,” property analyst Joyce Kwock of Nomura told AFP.
Residents at Wonderland Villas are now mostly retirees, their families, and those who enjoy proximity to nature.
Its airy layout and verdant, suburban surroundings contrast with the newer urban towers that favour glass, marble and chandeliers.
The next generation of Wongs have set up home there – one of the couple’s daughters lives in a neighbouring block with her own family.
As many middle-class parents now do, the Wongs helped her with the down-payment.
“It’s hard for younger people to make it independently now,” Wong told AFP.
She and her husband have no plan to move as they enjoy a happy retirement.
“It would be hard for us to find another place this green,” she says. “We like the quiet here.”