Hong Kong’s caged poor

Whilst still under British colonial rule Hong Kong faced a housing crisis, the solution was to put poor people inside cages—seven decades later that’s where they remain

10 November 2021 | Story and images by Marcus Reubenstein

Hong Kong is a key focal point for western politicians and commentators determined to advance US interests and maintain its geopolitical and strategic primacy over all other nations.

Since the 1997 handover of the Chinese territory—snatched by the British at the end of the Opium Wars in 1842—the definition of “one party two systems” has been stretched both by the Chinese government in Beijing and equally by leaders in London and Washington DC.

Young Hong Kongers, whose leaders freely admit they have the backing of the United States, demand freedom from the clutches of Beijing and western media and idealogues demand Hong Kong’s immediate return to democracy.

But Hong Kong was never a democracy it was a British colony handed over by China’s Qing Dynasty rulers, who signed away their territory aboard HMS Cornwallis while its 74 guns were pointed at the then Chinese capital of Nanking.

It was literally gunboat diplomacy that delivered Hong Kong to Britain’s colonial possessions which, at that point, included all of Australia.  

In 2021, that history is of cold comfort for around 200,000, many older forgotten men, forced to live in cages in the modern-day slums of one of the world’s richest cities.

It’s an issue that doesn’t play well with western mainstream media; but many would argue Hong Kong’s greatest problem is its housing crisis.

The average home price in Hong Kong is more than twenty-times median household incomes, making it one of the most expensive—and inequitable—residential property markets in the world. The comparative cost of Hong Kong residential property, on income basis, is almost twice that of the booming Sydney property market.

Bloomberg calls it “a property boom built on invisible slums.” The US-based not for profit Borgen Project says, of conditions inside Hong Kong’s cage homes, “A significant number of these living spaces are in breach of safety regulations, and one can consider the squalid living conditions of these tiny coffin boxes violations of human rights.

Forgotten people

Chan Kim Ying thinks he is 58 years old; the community worker who visits him every few weeks says he is at least 65. His memory is failing and he’s lost his identity card. Given most of his life is confined to a steel cage, which can barely fit a single mattress, it’s probably more accurate to say he’s lost his identity.

Chan Kim Ying, a life is confined to small cage in room with ten other men

Along with countless thousands of others, he came to Hong Kong from China in the 1960s in search of a better life. He didn’t find it.

The steel cages have a practical use in as much as they offer security to their impoverished inhabitants; but it comes at the price of their dignity in a society where ‘public face’ means everything.

Living conditions “Worse than slums of Delhi”

Geerhardt Kornatowski, a research fellow at Japan’s Osaka City University has spent ten years studying homelessness and poverty across Asia. Nothing, he says, compares to Hong Kong, “Its cage homes and cubicles are one of, if not the most, appalling forms of housing you can imagine.”

He was joined on a study trip to Hong Kong by an academic from a major Indian University who was so shocked she described the living conditions as, “worse than the slums of Delhi.”

Ying’s caged apartment room is in a twelve-story building just a five minute walk from the upscale shops and boutiques of the Mong Kok shopping district. Upon my entering all but two of the eleven men sharing this tiny space quickly shuffle out. They can’t afford to risk bringing shame upon themselves, or their families, should their images be published online.

Along with Chan, Tang Man Wai has no family. He too is from the mainland and has not had regular work for a decade. His monthly welfare payments is less than 20% of the average wage – most of that goes on the rent for his cage. He relies on charity to help pay for food and other basic necessities.

Tang Man Wai in his cage home, also known as Hong Kong’s “coffin cubicles”

Sze Lai Shan is a social worker with Society for Community Organization; hers is one of the few charities that looks after cage home inhabitants, “Because in Hong Kong poor people are surrounded by the very wealthy this puts a great deal of social pressure on them to keep out of public view. In Hong Kong there is a great social stigma attached to being poor.”

Rich living on top of the poor

Despite the fact that almost 20% of Hong Kong’s population lives below the poverty line, they don’t want to be seen, nor do they want to be seen, by the remaining 80%. However, due to Hong Kong’s chronic lack of space, the two groups can literally live one above the other.

“It’s given rise to the term vertical poverty”, says Kornatowski, “where even in the same building there can be remarkable differences between income levels and living standards. It makes you wonder what’s in for the lower classes when one of the most prosperous and open economies in the world is also home to the greatest gap between rich and poor anywhere in the developed world?”

In a perverse twist, those living in cage homes effectively pay higher rents than even the wealthy. Most cage home are less than 2 square metres and stacked three high from floor to ceiling triples the “floor space” of these apartments.

A report in 2010 found, on a square metre basis, cage home rents in Hong Kong “soar above” those of many luxury apartments.   

According to Sze, this situation is not about to change. “There’s no rent control so landlords can raise rent to any amounts they want. It not only affects those already living in cage homes; it pushes people into them as many can’t afford to pay market rents in Hong Kong.”

So called SDU’s (sub-divided units) are common in Hong Kong; an SDU is defined as a single dwelling in which multiple tenants reside. A 2015 Hong Kong government report found that one in five people living in SDUs were children under the age of 15.  

“This is an updated version of an article about Tang Man Wai and Chan Kim Wing, who were interviewed and photographed by Marcus Reubenstein in 2011.