Life in a Cage

Cage home

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.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Saturday March 14 2009at 06:03 am , filed under Asia Pacific, Politics, Society and Culture and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

9 Responses to “Life in a Cage”

  • bourree says:

    great site Chris! didn’t even know you had this and stumbled upon it.

  • C. Szabla says:

    I saw something on HK’s cage homes on CNN a couple weeks ago and wondered why you hadn’t discovered them before. But, of course, you had, and with far more context and detail.

  • Cage homes have become a journalistic trope for foreign correspondence in Hong Kong. Most of the stories about them are pretty lacklustre, though, and few people make the link between cage homes and broader housing issues.

    Once you’ve done cage homes and you’ve filed some stories on air pollution and Beijing’s shadowy influence, you’ve pretty much reported on everything there is to know in HK and you can move on to a cushy retirement of covering business news in Singapore.

  • […] explained in a great article at Urbanphoto, cage homes have been around for a long time, having first emerged after World War II when hundreds […]

  • KD says:

    Why do people choose to live in cage homes? Who live in cage homes. More detail man.

  • KD says:

    not gonna use this website again, no way. Interesting, but I still don’t know anything new that I didn’t know. Once again, more useful info! C YA

  • where do cage dwellers live in hong kong? I want to use it as a theme for my book.


  • Unu & Suzanne says:

    PLEASE REPLY. We want to help. Please let us know where this is. We want to educate people. We’re only student, but we go to a private international school. We have money. We know people who have money.



  • […] Let me start by talking about “My Neighbourhood.” I live in Hong Kong on the Kowloon side in a place called Tai Kok Tsui. I live on a big new estate with a lot of features that make my life very easy, and I have lived there for the whole time I have been in Hong Kong.  I love where I live,it is close enough to town for me to get whatever I want but is more local in lots of ways, something I really enjoy. It used to be/still is pretty notorious for its cage homes, or so some of my friends from the police rugby team tell me. ( See the following web link for an example. Cage Home) […]