Image: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images
Image: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images
In countless dark, crowded rooms across the city, the scene is the same. Hundreds of poor souls live crammed into the smallest imaginable spaces, literally climbing over one another to reach the tiny scraps of space they call their own.
The walls and floors are caked with dirt, and there’s nowhere for people to cook or wash their clothes. When they want to take a shower, they must perch over the squat toilet.
Bed bugs run rife, constantly gnawing at the residents’ skin. And many of the homes are so small that the inhabitants can’t even fully stretch out to sleep. Welcome to the harsh reality that faces many of the poorest people living in Hong Kong.
Among the most densely populated cities on the planet, the former British colony is in the depths of a housing crisis. Since the global economic meltdown of 2008, the cost of buying a home in the area has doubled.
Foreign investors keen to buy property in the city have exacerbated the situation, too. Now, for many local lower- and middle-class people, the opportunity to buy a decent home is out of reach.
Instead, everyone from families to single elderly men are seeking out alternative accommodation – often in some unlikely places. According to the Chinese human rights campaigning group Society for Community Organization, as many as 100,000 people are living in inadequate dwellings across Hong Kong.
This category includes unenviable housing solutions such as shacks on rooftops, and apartments that have been subdivided into extremely small individual sleeping compartments. It also covers a living situation that many people would think isn’t even fit for an animal and which should have been resigned to history long ago.
First introduced in the 1950s to cater for single male workers, these unbelievable cage homes are, shockingly, still a part of everyday life in Hong Kong. Offering comparatively affordable accommodation for around $150 a month, the tiny, cramped and demeaning spaces are, sadly, the only option for many of the city’s residents.
At first, there were just a few thousand of these types of communities across the city. But by 1997 their popularity had massively increased, peaking at around 100,000 “homes.”
A large number of these so-called “cage homes” are located in West Kowloon, a traditionally working-class area of the city. And while some of them are, astonishingly, official operations run by licensed landlords, many illegal ventures have also sprung up to cater to increasing demand.
For the unlucky residents of these makeshift dwellings, life is tough. Often a dozen or more cages are crammed into an apartment, stacked up to fit as many people as possible into the available space.
There’s not much room to call home, either. The cages are typically about six feet by two feet, and many inhabitants share these cramped quarters with all their worldly possessions – leaving little space for anything else.
Those living in the cages have to share minimal toilet facilities and deal with unhygienic conditions. They also need to use bamboo mats and pads in a bid to keep bed bugs at bay.
“I’ve been bitten so much I’m used to it,” 67-year-old resident Leung Cho-yin told the Daily Mail. “There’s nothing you can do about it. I’ve got to live here. I’ve got to survive.”
Unsurprisingly, such living conditions breed an unpleasant atmosphere. A visiting British photographer described the communities as “hot, dark, intense and unfriendly.”
With local residents already up in arms over the crisis, experts warn that the cage-home environment could foster further unrest. Chillingly – but perhaps fittingly, given the degrading conditions here – Frederick Fung, a legislator, compared the situation to that of rats in a laboratory.
“When we were in secondary school,” Fung said, “we had some sort of experiment where we put many rats in a small box. They would bite each other.”
He went on to draw comparisons between such discomfort and anti-government sentiment, which has been on the rise. To counter such feeling, some officials have been speaking out against living conditions and pledging to invest more in public housing.
Leung, however, remains apprehensive that his situation will ever change. “They always talk this way,” he said, “but what hope is there?” With 210,000 citizens on the waiting list for public housing, the situation in Hong Kong doesn’t look likely to be changing any time soon.
Amazingly, however, some residents, such as 64-year-old Tang Man-wai, don’t seem to mind their lot much. It wasn’t until all of his friends moved out and doctors detected mold on his lungs that he made an application to move into better housing. “Living alone is boring,” he confessed to the South China Morning Post.