Hong Kong’s deadliest blaze in nearly a decade, after killing seven people, has put the spotlight on the lack of fire safety enforcement at small, unlicensed restaurants hidden in dilapidated old buildings with no sprinkler systems.
Sunday’s fire tore through an 800 sq ft flat converted into a Nepalese kitchen-style diner on the first floor of a single-staircase, 69-year-old tenement building in Yau Ma Tei, where families were celebrating a child’s birthday as well as Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights.
Authorities identified the seven fatalities as four males and three females, aged eight to 40, who were taken to hospital where they were certified dead or succumbed to their injuries. Three men and four women were still in hospital on Monday with life-threatening injuries, one other was in a serious condition, two others were in stable condition and one had been discharged.
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The place known as “Jeere Khursani” – or “hot chilis” in Nepali – on Canton Road is believed to be one of many such establishments which circumvent licensing requirements for restaurants by operating as private dining “clubs” that are popular among ethnic minority groups seeking community gathering venues with relatively cheaper food and drinks.
Dambar Krishna Shrestha, a Nepalese resident, told the Post there were at least five to 10 such establishments in the same neighbourhood alone.
Even though there were many other licensed restaurants in the area, he said, low-income families from his community found them unaffordable.
“So the people who want to eat and gather turn to these clubs,” Shrestha said.
Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong expressed concerns over the tragedy and offered its deep condolences to the bereaved families.
“The office will provide assistance if the [Hong Kong] government has any needs,” it said in a statement.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who visited the scene on Monday morning, ordered relevant departments to take follow-up action.
Lam’s office said the Fire Services Department (FSD) and the Buildings Department would inspect 2,500 buildings, aged at least six decades, by the end of the year.
In addition to taking enforcement action, authorities would also contact ethnic minority groups to educate them on fire safety, the office said.
Authorities confirmed that the flat in question was not a licensed restaurant, while FSD division officer Cheung Kwong-yuen said the building did not have any fire suppression systems, such as sprinklers. He said the flat was an open unit filled with dining tables and chairs. The victims had been trapped in the back of the kitchen.
Cheung said the cause of the fire was still unknown, but local Nepalese residents noted that candles and lamps would have been lit in keeping with traditional Diwali celebrations.
Prakash Pun, president of the Hong Kong Nepalese Business Association, said it was customary to place candles at the doorstep to celebrate the festival of light. He urged the authorities to ascertain exactly what had gone wrong.
A police source with knowledge of the investigation said three families of four and another table of six customers were at the scene when the blaze broke out at around 9pm.
“We believe there were more than 18 people in the unit at the time of the accident, as there must have been a few restaurant staff present as well. Some could have escaped through the windows,” the source said.
“Lit candles were thought to have set soundproofing material on fire. There were no fire safety installations in the corridor, not even a fire extinguisher.”
Michael Shui, a salesman at a jewellery shop opposite the building, said: “I often see groups of Nepalis going up into the building with cakes in their hands. They’d wait for their friends downstairs before going up together. They’re all dressed very well, just like how you’d be dressed to go to a party.”
He called on the government to conduct more inspections at such tenement buildings in the area to make sure they were properly equipped to prevent fires.
Lawmaker Vincent Cheng Wing-shun, from the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, noted that many old buildings in the area lacked sprinklers.
“In many buildings, there’s only one exit, making escape difficult in case of a fire,” he said. He added that it would be difficult to get a grip on the problem because of the lack of owners’ committees to take responsibility.
There are approximately 13,500 buildings across Hong Kong that were built before 1987. Under the Fire Safety Ordinance, which came into force in 2007, buildings constructed in or before March 1987 were required to upgrade their fire service installations and equipment.
But close to 300 three-storey composite buildings, used for both residential and commercial purposes, were spared the need to install water tanks and pumps for firefighting purposes due to structural or spatial constraints.
Instead, these buildings could join a scheme rolled out by the FSD and Water Supplies Department for an improvised hose reel system, which would allow direct water supply from government pipes on the ground floor.
The FSD said the Yau Ma Tei building in question had not been inspected yet as required under the law, and that the department had not received any complaints about it regarding fire safety over the past five years.
The Buildings Department said the fire doors on the first three floors had been removed and orders to correct them would be issued to the property owners concerned. Notices about outstanding issues relating to the building and windows were sent in September 2018, but the owners had yet to comply.
As of last November, the FSD and Buildings Department had inspected 9,300 targeted buildings and served 7,800 notices. Only 7 per cent of them had complied. Some cited a lack of funds and missing owners, while others asked for more time to take action.
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