There is a shortage of housing in Hong Kong. Actually, there seems to be building all the time and new flats are being regularly put on the market, but they are expensive. Indeed a trawl through the real estate adverts reveals a less than 500sq foot flat (1 bedroom) that is on sale for just over $10 million (HK), which when you do the conversion is a bit under $1.3 million US. This is not a particularly spectacular flat in a particularly spectacular location. This is about normal. It will rent for about $31,000 per month (about $4,000 US/£2,500), which is also normal. The thing is, according to the last census, nearly 60% of the population earns less than $25,000 (HK) per month. In fact, if you think about it, to get a mortgage for this ONE BEDROOMED flat, you would need to earn in excess of $100,000 (HK) per month, quite a bit in excess. The same census figures reveal that less than 5% of Hong Kong’s population earns more than this. There is a numbers problem here. So what do people do?
There are a number of fairly shocking strategies that people resort to in order to live. One solution has been to live in what are effectively shanty towns. These illegal structures have been a part of the Hong Kong city scape since the beginning. Indeed, remember the scene in the wonderful movie The World of Suzie Wong? (Spoiler alert) Torrential rains are part of the situation here in Hong Kong, and as much of this housing is build on the steep slopes, it is clear that accidents like the one in the movie are part of the hazard of this city. According to the government nearly 300 incidents of land slides are reported each year, and over the years hundreds of people have died. Indeed, Hong Kong spends over a billion dollars a year maintaining the slopes.
Similar to this, of course is the stilt housing that you might find in Tai O, though these are celebrated as traditional forms of housing and tourists flock to wander the boardwalks of the village. You can also get a view via the boats that will take you on a tour of the water ways. A living museum, but also a damp and precarious way to live.
Of course, perhaps one of the most shocking solutions is the subdivision of small flats into what are known locally as cage houses. This is effectively a one room flat that is divided via metal cages or bamboo into several units that are just large enough to hold a bed and maybe a chair. Sometimes the space within the cage extends to the ceiling, meaning that a bunk bed can go into the space, and then a family can live there. Sometimes the cages are stacked on on top of the other so that the dweller(s) cannot stand. Twenty-five to thirty people can live in a divided flat. Those near the windows, pay a bit more because they have access to direct air circulation, though this is not necessarily fresh air as Hong Kong has a problem with pollution. In the winter months, the temperatures within the flats are ok. In the summer months, when the average temperature outside is 35 C, and humid, the flats are unbearable. But you can rent such a space for about $2000 (HK) a month. All residents share one lavatory with a shower and a shared cooking area. SOCO, a local charity that is highly involved in publicising the housing problem for the poor estimates that the cost to rent a cage house in Hong Kong per square foot is greater than if you were to rent in the midlevels (a more affluent part of town), it is just that in the mid-levels you have to rent the whole flat. SOCO also estimates that there are over 100,000 people living in cage houses in Hong Kong.
Every year SOCO participates in a local arts project to make visible the situation of cage houses. The most recent exhibition was calledSojourning as Tempura. A google images search will locate many of the photos from the publication. What is particularly striking about the recent photos is that they are taken from above; a birds eye view of life in a cage house.
People who live in this housing are all ages, from the very old to the very young, from single people to families. While not as susceptible to the perils of landslides as those who live in the shanty towns are, the big danger here is fire. Buildings within which the cage houses are located are old. Electricity cables are out in the open and are a spagetti mesh at ceiling level. Often unscrupulous landlords have built subdivisions such that block entrances and roof access because sometimes additional housing is built illegally on rooftops. Indeed as recently as October 2012, 9 people were killed in a blaze because they could not escape their flats due to blocked exits (South China Morning Post, 13 Oct 2012). Sadly, fire is a reoccurring story in Hong Kong and one which initially moved the British colonial government to build the first housing estate in Shek Kip Mei in the 1950’s after a fire made more than 50,000 people homeless overnight.
While not as visible as in many cities in Europe and North America, there are also homeless in Hong Kong, which one runs across sleeping under roadway flyovers or in the lesser used pedestrian underpasses. The 2011 HK census identifies nearly 60,000 people living in temporary or non-domestic quarters, where non-domestic can be anything from an industrial unit (a la loft living, albeit illegally) to living in a builders shed or like this man in the underpass.
Hong Kong is touted as being one of the freest economies in the world. This sort of freedom comes at a cost, one which is paid for primarily by the poor. I hear expats working in the city talk about the expense of living in Europe compared to the benefits of living in Hong Kong. They argue Hong Kong is better because it is cheap. But cheap in what way? Cheap not in terms of housing, but in terms of taxes. Of course low tax means limited spending on social services to support those who are most marginal in society: children, the elderly, the ill. I read the news reports of politics in the US and I see the rise of a mean public discourse, and here I refer to a tightness or an unwillingness to share or give. I hear this discourse and I think of Hong Kong. Is this really what we want our future to look like? Do we want cage houses and shanty towns to be a normal part of the urban landscape? Is it acceptable that housing is unaffordable to the majority of the population and that we as a society are not responsible for contributing to the solution? Is it acceptable to be mean?
You can read more about landslides in Hong Kong here.
SOCO’s web site is here, though mostly of the information is presented in Chinese. You can cut and paste the documents into a translator, such as you might find of Google in order to read the reports. I find this is pretty reliable.
If you want to know more about Shek Kip Mei Estate, you can find information collected by my students here. There is also information about both the fire in Shek Kip Mei and the history of public housing provided by the Hong Kong Heritage Museum available from here.