The Town Centre Concept


The town centre concept was for the first time systematically implemented at Wah Fu Estate and then applied in some later public housing projects. This concept fosters the sense of community among residents.

Wah Fu Estate was developed as a de facto new town without industrialisation. Given its remote geographical location when it was built, HKHA ought to provide sufficient and convenient facilities to satisfy the daily needs of the residents. Wah Fu Estate is not the first housing estate with a town centre concept. However, it is the first public estate where this concept was implemented comprehensively. Some principles of the town centre concept were later modelled in many other public and private housing estates and became the features of Hong Kong’s architectural style.


Wah Fu Centre

Wah Fu Centre is pivotal to the town centre concept. Different from most early public housing projects, Wah Fu Estate is an isolated community. During the masterplan stage, as shared in an interview, the chief architect Donald Liao imagined what a housewife would need (for instance, go to wet market, get children to school, etc.) in her community. Wah Fu Centre was designated as where the daily needs of a housewife, and other residents, could be met. In the original plan, Wah Fu Centre is the only shopping complex of the whole estate. Before the shopping mall and wet market at Wah Fu (II) Estate and Wah Kwai Estate was built, residents mainly relied on the facilities at Wah Fu Centre for daily necessities.

Located at the No. 23 Wah Fu Road, Wah Fu Centre is a three-storey multifunctional shopping complex with a modernist architectural style. The underground floor is where wet market and grocery stores (now including a supermarket too) located. It also includes an unloading area for the shops. Ground floor (i.e., the level leading to Wah Fu Road) and first floor are where the shops and other facilities located.

The axonometric drawing below shows the multifunctionality of Wah Fu Estate.

Nowadays, it looks ordinary to put different functions into the same building complex. But Wah Fu Centre is HKHA’s first multifunctional building. Such a concept revolutionised the imagination of function and space in the 1960s. In earlier resettlement estate and industrial estate schemes in Hong Kong, most commercial activities and facilities were found at the ground level (e.g., the shops facing the street; children’s playground). The wet market at the open space between residential blocks was also uncovered. It looks like a traditional wet market. Wah Fu Centre created much more commercial space and better environment. When compared with other public housing projects, the community space of Wah Fu Estate was greatly improved.

In the planner’s mind, Wah Fu Centre functions more than a shopping mall. It also serves as the town hall of the community. But its shopping function seems more important with the arrival of consumer society in the late 1970s. Wah Fu Centre is neither Hong Kong’s earliest shopping complex (Ocean Terminal, completed in 1966, was the first shopping complex in Hong Kong) nor the first town centre in public housing project (North Point Estate, completed in 1958 and demolished in 2002, was built with a town hall). But Wah Fu Centre provided the residents with new experience. Most wet markets in Hong Kong were found at the open space at ground level. The walking and shopping experience at Wah Fu Centre were no longer confined to the street level. It marked the beginning of Hong Kong’s transformation to a high-rise city.

The development and adaptation of the town centre concept

Wah Fu Estate was an “imaginative alternative” of public housing estate[1], which became the model of HKHA’s later projects. For instance, Oi Man Estate, which began resident intake in 1974, was built with a similar layout plan to Wah Fu Estate. Located at the hillside of No. 12 Hill in Kowloon, Oi Man Estate is built with a combination of 12 blocks of old slab and twin tower. Chung Hau Street is the axis road that divides Oi Man Estate into two phases. Oi Man Plaza (a complex with multiple functions), wet market and bus terminus are located at the heart of the Estate. Similar to the podium around Wah Fu Centre, the open space outside Oi Man Plaza also became the centre of the estate. Most community activities are organised there.

The success of Wah Fu Estate continued to influence the design of other public housing projects in the 1970s. Wo Che Estate (began resident intake in 1977; consists of 13 residential blocks) was built on flat land after reclamation at Sha Tin. Though twin tower was originally designed to handle the slope along Kellett Bay, such a design was adopted to Wo Che Estate without much alternation. Similar layout plan is also observed in projects with a smaller scale like Lai Yiu Estate (began resident intake in 1976; consists of 5 residential blocks). Rather than clustering all blocks together, Lai Yiu Street cuts across the estate. Similar to Wah Fu Road at Wah Fu Estate and Chung Hau Street at Oi Man Estate, Lai Yiu Street serves as the main road where easily accessible by residents and several bus stops and minibus stops are located. Obviously, the shopping complex and wet market are also surrounded by the residential blocks, which provide easy access and a lively environment to the residents.

HKHA’s later projects adopted more flexible layout plans and designs of the residential blocks. The impact of Wah Fu Estate became less obvious. However, some principles of the town centre concept (i.e., creating a self-sufficient neighbourhood by providing sufficient facilities around the estate’s centre) continued to be practiced in most public housing estates. Most estates’ centre has a wet market and a shopping complex. The defining feature of Wah Fu’s town centre concept is the multifunctional shopping complex. Since the concept of a multi-functional and multi-storey shopping complex was implemented in most public housing estates, wet market and other facilities began to be housed in a covered space at different levels. Nowadays, shopping complex of public housing estate was often “shared” by other residents from other private housing estates nearby, vice versa.

When Hong Kong began to develop real new towns in the 1970s, the scale of Wah Fu Estate is incomparable. The community needs much bigger community space. The model of Tuen Mun Park, an urban park as the town centre at Tuen Mun New Town[2], became the model of other new towns. Similar to Wah Fu Centre, the planners also emphasized that the park should be located at where convenient to transportation hub and public facilities[3],

The making of sense of community in Hong Kong

What made a community? How to develop a sense of community? Obviously, living together in the same residential blocks or housing estate is insufficient. In a new town like Wah Fu Estate where without any church, temple or historical buildings, Wah Fu Centre (as a shopping mall) was designated as the most obvious town centre. Similar to other Asian cities, Hong Kong is dominated by high-rise buildings and densely populated. In such a high-density setting, ironically, the sense of community was not always associated to the blocks where they reside. A recent research in Hong Kong found that it is sometimes even more common for residents to avoid contact with their neighbours. Such a finding contrasts drastically from the nostalgia of living in public housing (emphasizing strong bondage and mutual help among neighbours). Rather than close neighbours, neighbourhood in Hong Kong was more often associated to “a larger physical space” and its facilities. Parks, shops, library and shopping centres are more important to the making of sense of community. [4] This explains why the town centre concept is core to Wah Fu Estate and regarded as a pioneer of public housing estate in Hong Kong. Not only because Wah Fu Centre is located at the centre of the estate and many community activities happen there, but also it is the centre of the everyday life of the residents. Together with other spatial elements (e.g., pedestrian pathway networks, locations of bus stops, etc.), the landscape design of Wah Fu fits the way of life of Hong Kong people when city underwent a transformation to a high-density high-rise city.

Inadequacies and changes over time

The above examination of the town centre concept showed that the construction of sense of community at Wah Fu is facilitated by the spatial arrangement of the estate. Such an “imaginative alternative” is now imagined as an ideal home and community. But Wah Fu Estate is never perfect. The implementation of the town centre at Wah Fu Estate showed inadequacies and changes over time.

The first, and probably the most, significant alternation to the town centre concept is the expansion of the Estate’s scale. In the late 1970s, the Housing Department constructed two more twin towers, Wah Chun House and Wah King House at the northern end of the site, to meet the growing housing demand of Hong Kong. Wah Fu (II) Shopping Mall was also added to provide additional space for wet market, supermarket, convenient store, restaurants, kindergarten and carpark there. The rooftop podium of the shopping mall became another option for community activities. Ten years after Wah Fu Estate began resident intake, Wah Fu Centre is no longer the only town centre. Nowadays, there are two bus termini around the upper estate (i.e., Wah Fu (North) Bus Terminus at Wah King Street and Wah Fu (Central) Station at Wah Fu Road). In other words, Wah Fu (II) Shopping Mall established as another centre after the size of Wah Fu expanded. Wah Fu (I) and (II) are symbolically separated into two.

There were more than 50,000 residents living at Wah Fu Estate during its peak years. Some facilities were insufficient to meet the huge demand there, especially when the accessibility to other regions remained inconvenient. For instance, the catering facilities at Wah Fu Centre were insufficient to provide a range of restaurants. Some early residents recollected that there were several restaurants along the slop of Victoria Road (opposite to now Wah Chui Street Sitting-out area). Without enough competitions, a survey also showed that goods at the wet market there were more expensive than other districts[5].

Besides, some planned facilities were not ready on time. Some primary schools and secondary schools opened a few years after the first batch of residents moved in. It means that some students needed to take a long travel to other districts to attend schools. The shortage of school places was one of the major reasons why Wah Fu Estate was originally unpopular to applicants[6].

Some facilities underwent different modifications to better fit the needs of the residents. In 1972, a student living in Wah Fu Estate wrote to a local newspaper to complain the library’s inconvenient opening hours (12:30noon to 7:30pm) to the afternoon school students[7]. Many other problems arose when the estate became overcrowded. In 1979, another resident wrote to the newspaper to complain the long queues of taxis at the informal taxi stand at Wah Chun House (next to the bus terminus) and Wah Tai House (opposite to Wah Fu Centre), and illegal parking at Wah Fu Road along Wah On House[8].


Is town centre concept still relevant now?

Wah Fu Centre is pivotal to Wah Fu’s town centre concept. It is probably sufficient for basic needs. But a multifunctional complex itself is insufficient for community building. This chapter reviews that podiums with landscape design for social and community activities, accessibility to the town centre and other regions, a certain level of complexity in road and pedestrian paths network, as well as the proximity of other facilities around town centre are all essential to make the concept works.

Many new towns suffer from isolation and social problems. The town centre concept might have helped alleviated the problems. Wah Fu Estate is an aged community now and occupies roughly half of the original capacity. An aged community with a shrinkage of resident population reduced the demand for public transport and daily necessity at the city centre. Better transportation system to other regions and other housing estate projects at Kellett Bay and Waterfall Bay also means that Wah Fu Estate is no longer a remote isolated community. The implementation of Government Public Transport Fare Concession Scheme for the Elderly and Eligible Persons with Disabilities also greatly reshapes elder residents’ travel distance for daily necessity. The construction of lift tower and the provision of more bus stops also changed the walking habit of the residents. Other factors, which are not specific to Wah Fu Estate, like food delivery service to elderly’s homes, online shopping habits, the relocation of residents and the closing of old shops, etc. also reshaped the sense of community in public housing estates. The installation of password-protected gates made the pedestrian pathway network no longer that accessible within the estate.

These factors above reduce the need for a town centre and stimulate us to rethink the meaning of community. Is the town centre concept no longer relevant to Wah Fu Estate now? How could the redeveloped Wah Fu Estate in the future learn from the good practice of town centre concept? We are going to have more discussions in the coming chapters.


[1] Express and News San Antonio, November 25, 1971

[2] The colonial government carried out new town projects (also named as “satellite town, industrial satellite, industrial township”) since the 1950s. The plan of Tuen Mun New Town was announced in 1965 but commenced only until the mid 1970s. The government hoped “to alleviate high density in the urban areas” by developing new towns (Hong Kong Memory Project, unknown date).

[3] Bakar, 2002, p.27

[4] Forrest, et al., 2002, p.229.

[5] The Salvation Army, 1981.

[6] South China Morning Post, 24 March 1968.

[7] South China Morning Post, 29 December 1972.

[8] South China Morning Post, 31 July 1979.