The 10 cubicles on each side are separated by wires and pipes that run along the corridor. Their occupants—their faces covered in white masks amid the stifling heat—are squeezed into their tiny, allotted spaces demarcated by utensils, clothes and other mundane personal effects in the neon-lit human pen punctuated with electric fans, leaking sinks, and slices of blocked windows offering a grim vista of the back alley outside. Here, twenty-odd folks share one toilet – a privilege for which a few others next door would pay thrice their rent, just to halve the number of fellow users they have to share their own toilets with.
This is the interior of a 400 square foot flat tucked away in the mezzanine of a dilapidated building in Sham Shui Po—one of the poorest, yet also most rapidly gentrifying regions in Hong Kong, a city known for its sky-high property prices, extreme wealth inequality, free-wheeling capitalism, and more recently, anti-Beijing protests that have met with an even tighter control by China over the region it regained in 1997 from the British who ruled it for over 150 years. As the city marks 25 years of the handover, and finds itself in the center of a global power struggle between the U.S. and China, new concerns have been raised over the city’s space for civil and political debate and participation. A much more common problem is its extreme inequality. There’s far less outrage about it. The so-called “cage homes”, like this one in Sham Shui Po, are its most glaring manifestation.
One in five Hongkongers was living below the poverty line. This excludes those who receive government welfare. The official number is around 8% with welfare support. This is more than half of a million people. Over 220,000 people live in so-called “subdivided flats”, a dainty euphemism for the 4 by 4 by 6 ft spaces that the city’s poor, downtrodden, disabled, and neglected are crammed into at night. It’s out of sight and out of mind.
On June 13, 2017, an occupant in a unit of subdivided housing located within a Hong Kong building.
Paul Yeung/Bloomberg via Getty
Many of these tenants, however, are not visible at all during the day. They are, in fact, ubiquitous, cleaning the city’s streets and sewers, loading and unloading its merchandise, waiting on customers at the thousands of restaurants dotting the metro, and manning shop counters and offices. They constitute the army of workers who keep Asia’s financial hub buzzing, but are so poorly paid that they can’t rent, let alone purchase, decently sized apartments. It shouldn’t take $700 a month to pay for the primitive shelter they take refuge in – but in a city where more than half of young adults make less than the median wage and it takes on average six years for a family to be allocated public housing, living with dignity—or some semblance of it—doesn’t come cheap.
In the subconscious of some of the city’s more privileged citizens lies the conception that cage homes – and their residents – belong to a fundamentally different Hong Kong, one that is both alien and non-existent. One that should be distanced from and pitied in equal parts – as the news cycle lusts for flashier and more excitable narratives of the city: whether it be its status as a financial and commercial gateway for China, or its persisting symbolism as a geopolitical fault line between two competing ideologies. In the eyes of many who have long benefited from Hong Kong’s excesses, radical poverty is a fait accompli. It is the same for people who work hard and then sleep in their shoeboxes every night.
It shouldn’t be.
Hong Kong has a housing crisis—one that stems not from a dearth of supply per se but from a lack of Housing at an affordable price. It would take 23.2 years for someone earning the median gross household income—with no expenditure—to be able to afford a median-priced apartment. It is a terrible situation for youth, who are often deprived of opportunities for social mobility. They also have to live in an environment that makes it difficult for them to function. The ongoing pandemic, as well as the lack of support for residents living in cages, has made this a serious problem. Two months ago, I worked to collect emergency funds and supplies for tenants living in Tsuen wan and Kwai Chung cage homes. These districts were hit hard by the fifth pandemic wave. Social support was very limited for residents.
Continue reading: How Hong Kong Became China’s Biggest COVID-19 Problem
What is the secret to our success? There’s no simple explanation—neither those who attribute the crisis to speculative investors from the Chinese mainland with little to do with the unaffordability of the lower-end of the property market; nor those who trot out “unbridled capitalism” for everything, get it. To understand Hong Kong’s present malaise, we must turn to history.
British colonial administration tried to develop Hong Kong outside of the urbanized areas of Hong Kong Island or Kowloon in 1972. The New Territories—the vast swathe of rural, low-density land lying to the north of the city—was a natural site for development. To court Indigenous villages, the administration established the Small House Policy. It would have guaranteed government funding and land for all indigenous male villager builders to construct one house. This policy, which was inherited by the Hong Kong post-handover government, only limited the availability of land for non-indigenous residents. In 2017, the city’s outgoing chief executive, Carrie Lam, called for a “reasonable resolution to the issue”. A new modus vivendi, balancing all parties’ interests, is very much the need of the hour.
An apartment building in Hong Kong’s Quarry bay area contains a cluster of residential units.
Alex Ogle/AFP via Getty Images
It is not fair to place blame on indigenous villagers. They are just as important as the rest of the population. Instead, the responsibility should rest with those who are able and obligated to solve conflicts of interest through their political skills. Since Sir Haddon-Cave’s tenure as the city’s financial secretary in the late 1970s, the city’s administration had by and large adhered to “positive non-interventionism” as its guiding fiscal ethos.
Its attractiveness to foreign capital, businesses, and strong legal infrastructure made it a magnet for investment. Consequently, governments have abandoned proactive industrial policy design even after 1997. Over the last decade, the policy directly generated between 10-20% and 20% of the government’s revenue through land sales.
It is structural. The issue should not be individualized by denigration of specific bureaucrats and officials. Nor, indeed, should it be reduced into Manichean lenses—blaming property developers and the civil service for creating the crisis. The blame game is a good way to get political points across, but it does nothing for those suffering from deep-rooted poverty.
Continue reading: One Country, Two Systems’ Is Still the Best Model for Hong Kong, But It Badly Needs Reform
There is much that could be done. Long-term solutions aimed at improving supply of public housing—with the aim of empowering tenants to become home-owners eventually, have been extensively touted. The short to medium term would see the construction of compact, but well-maintained, desirable, comfortable, and clean transitory housing. Also, rent control and subsidy doubling could be helpful. In a city that has lost its trust in the government, it is possible to rekindle public and private partnerships by giving financial resources and support to understaffed but dedicated community groups. More fundamentally, we need a robust education and employment safety net designed to provide a viable ladder out of structural poverty for those who find themselves in the city’s dark underbelly. The city is looking to a new administration for the 25th anniversary its handover. This means that the moment has never been better to take transformative actions in aiding its poor.
There are few lies in Hong Kong that are older and sweeter than the one local proverb, “If you work long and hard at it, you’ll get to own your own house.” That’s the stuff of dreams, actually. As I think about those faces in the neon-lit, claustrophobic corridors I walked during the COVID-19 pandemic, I am reminded of two lines from Wilfred Owen’s Dulcet et Decorum Est: “In all my dreams before my helpless sight/He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.”
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