Taste for the grandiose stamps mark on urban landscape

By Simon Collins

Grand mansions on small sections are popular among Chinese immigrants. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Grand mansions on small sections are popular among Chinese immigrants. Photo / Sarah Ivey

When veteran architect Ron Sang drives around the outer fringes of Auckland near Albany or Botany, he can always spot a house built for a Chinese buyer.

"Generally it has a high portico on the outside - a big, high, ostentatious-looking porch, usually double height," he says.

"Generally above the door you have a window and through the window you can see chandeliers. Inside the door you'll see a big, ostentatiously curved stairway. They like to show wealth."

These grand mansions on small suburban sections - what sociologist Paul Spoonley, adopting a Canadian term, calls "monster houses" - have become the stereotypical Chinese footprints in our cityscape.

By popular account their Chinese buyers pushed up prices beyond the reach of average Kiwis. Then many of the husbands went back to their businesses in Hong Kong or China, leaving their wives and/or children in the mansion to complete their education.

Today, 20 years on from the first wave of Hong Kong migrants, there is a new twist to the story.

Many of the Chinese have moved on, either back to Asia or to leafier parts of town such as Remuera and Epsom. And their "monster houses" in the outer suburbs are now as likely as not to be inhabited by Kiwis.

"All cultures want them - South African clients, New Zealand clients," says a younger, New Zealand-born Chinese architect, Elvon Young, 35.

"We do design lots of 'monster houses', primarily for Kiwis. They are large, but not necessarily with pillars."

Other economic and lifestyle factors, partly related to the growing gap between our rich and poor, have helped to double the average size of our new houses from just over 100 square metres in the early 1970s to over 200 square metres today. But wealthy Chinese investors have certainly had an effect.

Mr Sang, a Fiji-born Chinese architect who came here in 1957, designs for anyone at "the very top end of the market". But his Chinese clients are in a league of their own.

"Every house we do for Chinese immigrants is normally twice the size," he says. "It's about 300 square metres for New Zealanders. You double that to 750 square metres for a Chinese family.

"The price range is $2.5 to $3.5 million. That's the norm, excluding the land. The land is at least another $1 to $2 million."

Some of the extra space is needed for visiting relatives.

"When the grandparents visit they don't just come for a few days. They come for three months," Mr Sang says.

Other design elements stem from feng shui principles, such as never having the front and back doors within sight of each other in case the energy that comes in the front door blows straight out the back.

For 40 years, Mr Sang has made big front doors his trademark, often two metres wide and three to six metres high "to let the energy come into the house".

Malaysian-born Hamilton architect Chien Chow says the big front doors also reflect traditions of photographing the bride as she leaves her parents' house to get married, and carrying the dead out of the house to be buried.

"When you have a coffin at home you need six people, three on each side, so the doors are quite big," he explains.

Cast-iron lions on either side of the door are "guardians to your house", says Mr Sang, who has two pairs outside his own home in Epsom. They are common outside banks and hotels in China and increasingly here too - outside Auckland's Pullman (formerly Hyatt) Hotel, for example.

"Kiwis don't like that kind of showing off," Mr Sang says. "The difference with the Chinese is that they like people to see it."

Ironically, however, many of the most stereotypical "Chinese" houses are actually designed by New Zealand developers.

"There are developments that have been specifically designed for the Chinese investment market," Mr Young says.

"So when you come to New Zealand and the developer offers you one of the 'monster houses' that are all over the subdivision, you don't actually think they are offering you anything out of the norm.

"Also, the Asian communities are in pockets. People want to go where the Asian shops are and where their friends are."

Studies show that Auckland's Asians are actually much less segregated than either Pacific people or Maori. Predictably, given their relative wealth, one study found that Asians in the 2006 Census were "sharing areas with NZ Europeans to a much greater extent than they do with Pacific Islanders and Maori".

The map on the page opposite, produced by Professor Spoonley's team at Massey University, shows pockets where more than 20 per cent of people were Chinese in 2006 in newer parts of the North Shore, Pakuranga and Botany, in the inner-city student zone, in Epsom's "Grammar zone", and in Mt Roskill and New Lynn.

Mr Sang says many wealthy Chinese who started in the outer suburbs have since moved into Epsom to send their children to top schools. Often they demolish older homes so they can build their own.

"Every house we do now we have to demolish one," he says.

Coral Wong of the Property Investors Association says the wealthy influx from Hong Kong and Taiwan on long-term business visas drove up house prices in the early 1990s.

"That caused the property market to really overheat," she says.

Reserve Bank research by Andrew Coleman and John Landon-Lane found a close correlation between net immigration and house prices nationally over 45 years up to 2006. Every 1 per cent increase in population was associated with an 8 to 12 per cent increase in house prices.

Even allowing for other factors such as the economic cycle which could be influencing both immigration and house prices, the correlation persisted.

Dr Coleman concluded that immigration drove prices up partly just because everyone expected it to.

Put the other way around, his numbers suggest that house prices rise by 1 per cent for every increase of one-eighth of 1 per cent of the population, or about 5000 people.

"So every 5000 immigrants equals a 1 per cent increase in house prices. That is very large by international standards, and is not well understood, but definitely if they all arrive en masse that is when it seems to be destabilising," he says.

Net immigration from Hong Kong and Taiwan peaked at a combined inflow of 6160 in 1995, but shrivelled to just 708 people last year.

Net migration from mainland China peaked at 14,745 at the height of the language school mania in 2002, but also dropped back to 3568 last year, third behind India (6314) and Britain (5273). An outflow of 20,000 New Zealanders reduced the overall net inflow to just over 10,000.

Harcourts agent Matty Ma, who took 58 high-end properties to the Shanghai expo last year, sold fewer than 10 of them because policy changes have made it harder to get residence here without good English and skills.

Although the investor category rules have been liberalised again recently, Ms Wong says most Chinese investors don't qualify because the rules require transferring money through the banking system.

"That's not possible because the foreign exchange central bureau will not approve," she says.

"After the policy changes I don't have any clients coming in. But what we are seeing now is the Chinese corporates coming in with $10 million to invest."

- NZ Herald

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