Property

Pressure Points

Pressure PointsLamma remains a synonym for tranquillity and laidback-ness in the minds of many. Burnouts dream of Lamma when the city’s suffocating skyscrapers, frantic traffic, dearth of green and being packed like sardines on trains becomes too much.

As do rent refugees fleeing Hong Kong Island’s rents. Hermann, a Swiss former IT pro with IBM is one of them. Thanks to the dotcom bubble burst in 2000, Hermann, dubbed Lamma- Gung, went through a rollercoaster year: from being headhunted with million-dollar pay offers to joining the legions of dropouts and moving to rural Lamma. “[It’s] a nice flat that would be unaffordable for us in town,” says Lamma- Gung, who not only finds home in a 700-square foot village house with balcony and rooftop garden, but also became managing editor of an online community magazine.

Surrounded by rolling hills, the ramshackle Lamma largely retains its villagey vibe. The 13-square kilometre island — the city’s third largest — is home to just 6,000 residents; Cheung Chau, five times smaller than Lamma, houses 30,000. The neighbourhood is free from towering apartments but 3-storey village houses, old Chinese-style 2-floor houses and studio flats as small as 350 square feet are common says Jackson Property’s Chloe Ng. The long line of bikes next to the pier probably drops the hint the island is car-free, and islanders get around by bike and small Gator-like vehicles.

The island is one of few districts yet to be invaded by a McDonald’s or Starbucks. There are no cinemas, no supermarkets. What there is are all the ingredients for a peaceful life: unspoilt pathways, beaches, wildlife, a close-knit community — plus warm sunshine when the rest of the city is plunged into mist claims one resident. Instead of spending a Sunday on typical activities (shopping, movies) islanders go sunrise-mountain biking, beach cleaning and dragonboating.

Expect no SoHo luxury when it comes to food. You get to pick from boxes of fresh fish and crustaceans outside a seafood restaurant or grab a cheap pint from an expat-oriented bar with rural back garden set-up. A 25-minute ferry ride from Central takes you back to Lamma’s main terminal Yung Shue Wan. “I would much rather sit on a ferry and read the paper than stand on the MTR or a crowded bus,” says 15-year resident Carole Lewis, owner of five flats listed on property site lammaflats.com.

But the good old days could be under siege. The island’s greenery and secluded beaches have proved far too tempting for developers. A luxury residential project, Baroque — a joint development by King Wong and Agile, a major mainland property giant — would have created a world-class marina with the city’s most expensive residences on south-eastern Lamma had it not been rejected by town planners in December.

What’s more, authorities are eyeing Island South’s quarry for conversion into housing developments. A 400-hectare artificial mega-island could rise from the sea north of Lamma, as part the government’s desperate attempt to boost land supply by reclamation.

Then there’s Lamma Garden, one of the island’s first luxury seaside developments boasting a clubhouse, infinity pool, and 24-hour private ferry. According to realtors with Global Property, an outright sale of the 11 residences to wealthy buyers, each up to 3,000 square feet, is set to create a recordbreaking Lamma deal worth over $100 million.

The largely untapped potential for luxury development has probably galvanised the island’s property market. For years, Lamma property rarely found itself in the public eye. A search on property sites of major agencies goes nowhere, save for the occasional single ad placed by a private landlord. A 350-square foot studio flat listed on forum AsiaXpat fetches a rent of $7,500, almost double over the last year or two.

Realtors on Lamma attribute the hike in prices to limited supply; just a few village houses built every year under a right granted only to descendants of male indigenous villagers in a city with a low birth rate. The rent hike didn’t surprise landlords, including Lewis, either. “This is the same everywhere in Hong Kong. Our rental prices have stayed fairly steady for the past two years, depending on the length of stay.”

Surging rents could also shatter the “hippie” tag. Islanders are more likely to work for a multinational in Central than behind a bar in Wanchai. “The hippie label is a leftover from people who haven’t been to Lamma since the ’80s,” Lewis adds. A somewhat inconvenient truth behind the over-inflated prices (a temporary phenomenon according to Lamma-Gung) is landlords testing the market with luxury renovations to village houses to command outrageous rents from new arrivals. “Often it’s their employers paying the rent,” theorises Lamma-Gung. “The rents are unlikely to surge anymore and will go down to more reasonable village levels this year, hopefully.”

Nevertheless, the result is flushing out of tenants, if not substantial rent hikes. Lamma- Gung faced a rental increase of 30 percent last summer, but his fondness for the community urged him to stay for another year after a great deal of budgeting.

“It’s the ‘live and let live’ attitude,” says Lamma-Gung on his blog. “Nobody really cares how you dress and behave as long as you don’t bother other people. There’s no pressure, no high expectations, no need to show off, no pressure to look rich or important, no shame in being, old and ugly.”