Click on the image above to watch an audio slideshow
I didn’t even notice the smell until my friend Will McCallum pointed it out — I was too busy contemplating what it would be like to spend my nights in a cage set inside a one-room apartment with ten other men (not to mention the occasional cockroach). But the smell, when I finally paid attention, was pretty terrible. The apartment had two grimy bathrooms, one with a squat toilet and one with a sit toilet, and the smell of shit and stale sweat wafted through the whole place. We were in Tai Kok Tsui, a gritty neighbourhood just a few minutes away from one of Mongkok’s glossier shopping malls, covering a press conference by the Society for Community Organization, a non-government group that is working to eliminate substandard housing in Hong Kong.
Cage homes have been around for a long time. They first emerged after World War II when hundreds of thousands of refugees from mainland China arrived in Hong Kong. Today, there are still 53,200 people living in cage and cubicle homes. (Cubicle homes are apartments that are subdivided into tiny rooms separated only by flimsy plywood walls.) Some of these are licenced and regulated by the government, but housing activists say that thousands more people, including single-parent families, refugees and recent immigrants, live in illegal cage and cubicle homes where conditions are particularly dire. At a housing-rights protest we attended last October, we met women who lived with their children in vermin-infested cubicles less than 100 square feet in size.
Some people live in cages and cubicles because they are the waiting list for public housing; others choose to live there because they are often centrally-located. Some are refugees or undocumented immigrants who cannot afford a proper apartment and who are not eligible for government housing. I get the sense that inertia had something to do with it, too: when you live in a cage home, the toll on your health and mental well-being is such that it becomes hard to save up enough to leave. Most of the men in the apartment we visited did not work, and they spent most of their meagre welfare allowances on rent, which can be more than HK$1,000 per cage. The apartment we visited in Tai Kok Tsui had eleven cages. In that neighbourhood, a one-room apartment like that would rent for no more than $4,000 or $5,000 per month. You do the math — that’s a lot of profit for the landlord.
Along with another friend, Zoe Li, Will and I made a brief audio slideshow about cage homes. It was our first attempt at creating something like this, and the audio mixing is a bit rough, but I hope it gives you more of an idea about the underbelly of Hong Kong’s housing situation.
Tags: Hong Kong, Housing, Kowloon, Mongkok