A woman lights candles and incense at the memorial niche of a relative at a cemetery in Hong Kong. Photo: AFP
A woman lights candles and incense at the memorial niche of a relative at a cemetery in Hong Kong. Photo: AFP

During the annual Ching Ming Festival – also known as Tomb Sweeping Day – huge crowds around China, Taiwan and elsewhere flock to places of final rest to tend to their ancestors’ graves and burn incense, fake cash and elaborate paper effigies.

In Hong Kong, the tradition, which this year falls on April 4, brings chaos to communities as the crowds cause traffic jams and delays. But it also highlights one more grave issue – the city’s booming property prices… for the dead.

Hong Kong has been ranked the world’s most unaffordable housing market and the city’s chief executive-elect, Carrie Lam Yuet-ngor, has painfully admitted that efforts by the government to suppress the city’s property prices have failed.

Yet even in death, there’s no escaping the property bubble.

Hong Kong, where cremation is the norm, has basically run out of room for urns. Tens of thousands of families are estimated to be temporarily storing their relatives’ remains in funeral homes. Temporarily often means for years. At the same time, prices to secure a one-square-foot wall niche in one of the city’s private columbaria – buildings designed to house cremation urns – have rocketed.

“The whole situation is bizarre”, says Suzie Yu, a mother of two living here. “The price for a pigeonhole sized niche for an urn can be as expensive as an apartment. The public places are full and private ones are popping up at the strangest places, even in old factories. Many are not even legal”.

To secure a public space for the ashes you need more luck than money. The cost is only around HK$4,000 (US$515), but citizens are at the mercy of an obscure lottery system. Most people don’t win, and the queues keep getting longer.

Instead, many people turn to private options. Some of the city’s private columbaria charge more than HK$1 million (US$130,000) for a niche about the size of a sheet of A4 paper.

At Lung Shan Temple in Fanling district, one of the city’s most expensive columbaria, a private double niche costs HK$1.5 million. In some rare cases, prices are even higher.

For the same amount of money, you could buy a small apartment in central Tokyo, a villa in the Italian countryside, a beachfront apartment in Bali or a houseboat in London. Asia Times has scouted around for some attractive alternatives:

  • In Roppongi, an area in central Tokyo famous for its popular nightclub scene and foreign embassies, a 370 sq ft flat with a balcony is currently on sale for US$134,000 million (JPY15m).
Apartment blocks in Roppongi, Tokyo. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
  • In an ancient village in the Italian region of Tuscany, a scenic gourmet destination for foodies, a small country house is being advertised for US$111,000. It overlooks a small spring well and is located close to vineyards and olive tree plantations, the ad says.
2 bedroom character property for sale, Tuscany, Italy. €105,000
A rustic country home in Tuscany. Photo: Rightmove
  • In Bali, the Indonesian island renown for its beautiful beaches and relaxed living, a one-room apartment at a “world class beachfront resort” is up for grabs for US$135,000.
1 Beachfront Apartment, Legian, Bali. USD135,000 Photo: Bali Realty
Beachfront apartment, Bali. Photo: Bali Realty
  • In London there is right now a 45ft cruiser-style Cheshire Narrowboat docked in a “much sought after private residential moorings.” It’s going for US$119,000 (£95,000).
1 bedroom house boat for sale, Wharf Road, Islington, London. 95,000 pounds. Photo: Rightmove
House boat, Islington, London. Photo: Rightmove

The heart of the problem in Hong Kong is that the high demand for niches far outweighs supply. The Census and Statistics Department has estimated that the shortage of niches will increase to 398,145 by 2023.

Ironically, as prices for niches increase, so does the practice of cremation: 90 percent of the city’s dead were cremated in 2013, up from 38 percent in 1975.

To cope with the increasing demand the government and private companies are planning to add hundreds of thousands of new slots for urns across dozens of sites. But many plans have been halted after public protests.

“Hong Kong desperately needs space for the dead,” said Yu. “But the Chinese are superstitious and few want to live near a columbarium”.

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