Brian Cassey: Life in a Coffin - Hong Kong
Images and Text © Brian Cassey 2012
On July 1 Hong Kong’s newly elected Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying took over control of the former British colony exactly fifteen years after it’s return to the Peoples Republic of China.
Leung inherits a hideous and complex housing problem in Hong Kong which has it’s roots in policy formulated by the British authorities during their administrative tenure from the 50’s through to the handover back to China by Governor Chris Patten in 1997.
Hong Kong is recognised as one of the richest places on Earth. However, according to the United Nations, Hong Kong now has the widest income disparity of any country on the planet as mega rich tycoons get yet richer and the numbers of poor skyrocket as already extreme rents and property prices rise still further.
Hong Kong has far more billionaires per capita - 36 in a total population of seven million, or over 5.1 for every million inhabitants - than any other place in the World, whilst close to twenty percent of the rest of the population now live below the accepted poverty level. Indeed, one in every four children in Hong Kong now exist in poverty and the situation over the past decade has worsened significantly.
It was the British during their administration who formulated a land policy that has long been the root cause of Hong Kong’s excessively high housing prices. The Brits instigated a system where they were the sole suppliers of land in the colony and used lease sales to highest bidding developers as their major revenue source. The land releases were programmed and limited to keep prices as high as possible - a policy that the Chinese administration has had no qualms continuing.
Mr Leung has promised to rectify the intricate housing malaise but detractors say that the challenge would be to do so without effecting Hong Kong’s entrenched and effective free market economy.
In the meantime the real time housing situation continues to deteriorate rapidly.
The latest developement in the unscrupulous landlords arsenal to maximise rentals returns in the current acute housing squeeze is the recent proliferation of the accurately and aptly named “Coffin Homes”. So called because of their resemblance to the last resting place of the dead, “Coffin Homes” are five and a half foot by two and a half foot plywood and iron boxes that constitute each residents sole living space. These are typically packed tightly, three high, into rooms in high rise apartment blocks. Thirty ‘coffins’ in a room is common place, although social workers report that they have recently found single rooms with up to a hundred residents living in coffin boxes.
As with all lowest cost housing the availability is engineered by landlord greed. Typically a coffin home resident will pay rent of HK$1450 a month (around US$190), which is considerably more per square foot of space than those living in luxury in HK’s five star apartments close by.
However, for some it is the last desperate move before life on the street.
Unemployed cleaner Cheung Kam Chu (49) rents a coffin home in a room of twenty six in an otherwise respectable looking apartment block in North Point, just a couple of stops on the MTR from the financial and five star centre of Hong Kong Island. Cheung has been applying for public housing with no result for many years and is resigned to life in his tiny blue coffin home. “Without the bed bugs I suppose it wouldn’t be too bad” he says. Almost all of his welfare income goes to the landlord as rent.
Cheung lives just a few inches away from and directly on top of tattooed casual worker Wong Chi Hung (37) who, at about six foot tall, cannot even lie full length in his ‘coffin’. In the next row a few feet away retired Wong Tat Ming (57) curls up to sleep inside his coffin home with all his meagre possessions dangling just above his head. Wong has no penchant for socialising or his room mates and he chooses to ignore them. Other residents of the room stand or lie around staring blankly.
Numbers of “Coffin Homes” establishments are multiplying around Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and the New Territories replacing some of the infamous older style “Cage Homes” - simply small stacked wire cages resembling dog cages.
Similar to “Coffin Homes” and also at North Point on Hong Kong Island, I visited a shabby ‘bed space’ cage home apartment where 14 men lived and shared a small room with just the tiniest combined bathroom and shower.
Here 61 year old former gas technician Roger Lee emerged from behind the lacey curtain of his six foot long ‘home’. “I’ve been here for three years now” Roger said, “and before this I was in another cage home. I’ve been on the public housing waiting list for many years but I’m single so have no hope.” Also resigned to end their lives in a cage were neighbouring Mr Ng and Mr Chin. Only slightly more optimistic was Lee Siu Cheung (64) who has been living a a cage home since arriving from Guangdong mainland China ten years ago. “I have my music to make me happy” he said.
Many families in Hong Kong are also facing eviction and a life on the streets. Landlords have taken to illegally setting up and renting out small cubicles in old disused industrial and factory buildings. As the buildings are not licensed for residential use once the relevant authorities discover the ploy they demand eviction.
Construction worker Leung Fat Wai (46) and his family - wife Au Wai Yung (47) and two children Liam Yam En (22) and Anica (20) are a typical example. For the past three years since arriving from Guangdong on the mainland they have lived in an old disused grimy factory building in Tai Kok Tsui, Kowloon and payed the landlord rent of HK$2700 (US$350) a month. Now they face eviction. They received a government notice to leave two months ago.
There were eleven tenants in the old building but now only they and their neighbour Lo Wai Chong (50) remain. They have since been threatened by the landlord who has taken to destroying walls and infrastructure around them in attempts to move them out. “We are frightened by the landlords threats. But I won’t go” said Leung “We have nowhere to go”.
When another illegally tenanted factory building was forcibly evicted recently only five out of a hundred of the tenants were offered public housing.
Another hundred tenants are soon due to be evicted ...
Also facing an uncertain future are those families who have made their home in illegal precarious shanty villages perched high up on the roof tops of high rise apartment blocks. These flimsy structures of iron, timber and paper board are obvious fires risks - recently a fire in an old eight-story tenement building in Ma Tau Wai killed four people and injured more than 20 - and they would disappear completely if a cyclone occurred.
Seventy year old Wong Kai Sing lives in a tiny ramshackle room made from roofing iron eleven stories up on the rooftop slab of an apartment building in Sham Shui Po in Kowloon. About a dozen households cling to the rooftop in an area no bigger than three thousand square feet. There are no lifts in the building and for ten years he has had to endure the climb up the dingy flights of stairs to his makeshift illegal and impossibly small iron humpy on the roof.
Because his room is so small - it just fits his single bed - he takes his meals in the stair well at the top of the building.
Chan Sui Hing (46) also lives in a shanty on the same rooftop as Wong - with her sick husband and two teenage sons. Like a large percentage of illegal home dwellers Chan came to Hong Kong from mainland China - in her case from Guangdong in 2005. She supports the family with her wage from her job at a construction site. She pays around HK$2000 (US$250) a month for rent and costs for her humpy which leaks like a sieve when the rains come.
"The rain falls inside the house from the holes on the ceiling. The wind almost blows the roof away!" she said.
Like most rooftop dwellers Chan is on the long long list for public housing.
It is estimated that more than three hundred thousand people are on the waiting lists for the precious public housing in Hong Kong and the number grows each year.
There is also a growing number who have been priced out of the housing market completely by rising rents. Some for whom even the rent for the dubious right to live in a ‘coffin’ is out of reach. Once it would have been comparatively rare to come across people living on the streets on Hong Kong. Now it is commonplace.
If there is such a thing as a hub for the homeless, it is the glitzy and expansive Cultural Centre on the waterfront at Kowloon from which you can take in the iconic view of the crowded high rise of Hong Kong Island across Victoria Harbour, the many multi million dollar properties on the Peak and, these days, the ‘Symphony of Lights’ laser and sound show.
Long after the show every evening homeless gather to bed down in the corridors of the Cultural Centre, occasionally visited by charity members proffering food and drink. At least the unfortunates here have one of the most famous views in the World to take in.
New incoming Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has promised to make it a priority to increase public housing development from the present 15,000 a year - a figure that barely makes a small dent in the list. He also has plans to revive an anti-poverty commission that was demolished under former Chief Executive Donald Tsang in 2007.
Leung will need to walk a delicate tight rope, and perhaps perform a financial miracle, to solve Hong Kong’s massive housing problems whilst at the same time maintaining HK as China’s biggest capital marketplace.
The twenty percent and still rising poor will most likely be too busy just surviving to care ...
© Brian Cassey 2012