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Tight Squeeze
<p>Brian Cassey</p>

Brian Cassey

Cheung Kam Chu, 49, lies in his ‘coffin’. Below him is Wong Chi Hung.

From Mansions, To Cages, To Coffins — Hong Kong’s Rotten Property Ladder

Millionaires are crowding into Hong Kong, while unscrupulous landlords profit from a giant income gap with micro living spaces.


Hong Kong is rolling in millionaires. According to the global wealth survey released this week by RBC Wealth Management and Capgemini, the island nation has 36 per cent more millionaires than it had a year ago.

And it has one of the highest per capita rates of billionaires in the world; 39 billionaires in a total population of 7 million.

The RBC wealth survey also noted – positively for investors – that Hong Kong real-estate prices grew by 20.4 per cent in 2012.

But Hong Kong also one of the widest income disparities of any country on the planet; high rents and property prices have hit the poor hardest.

<p>Brian Cassey</p>

Brian Cassey

Illegal iron and timber shanties perched on the rooftop of a 12-storey apartment block in Sham Shui Po, Kowloon.

Unscrupulous Hong Kong landlords have devised micro living spaces to profit from the squeeze. First came ‘cage homes’ a few years ago. More recently, the housing economy has produced ‘coffin homes’, rooftop shantytowns, and a growing population of homeless in Hong Kong.

<p>Brian Cassey</p>

Brian Cassey

In a country with no pension scheme and with around 20 per cent of the population living below the poverty level, the housing shortage hits the elderly hardest: one in every three old people in Hong Kong now lives in poverty. And the disparity in living standards among the population has worsened significantly over the past decade.

<p>Brian Cassey</p>

Brian Cassey

Mr Ng, 63, sits outside his bed space at North Point on Hong Kong Island.

“Hong Kong is a heaven to rich families, hell to grassroots,” notes the Income Inequality in Hong Kong report produced by researchers at Ho Lap College. “The grassroots are not benefiting from the prospering economy … The rich [are] gaining from the sufferance of the poor under the surge of real estate prices.”

Many blame Hong Kong’s crazy house prices on the legacy of British colonial authorities, who made money by leasing land in sizes only developers could afford. The land releases were programmed and limited to keep prices as high as possible – a policy the Chinese administration has continued.

<p>Brian Cassey</p>

Brian Cassey

Tang Man Wai, a former restaurant worker, sits in his cage home.

Current Chief Executive and President of Hong Kong, C.Y. Leung, has promised to address Hong Kong’s housing shortage. Meanwhile housing demand well and truly exceeds availability.

A COFFIN-HOME RESIDENT pays some HK$1,450 a month (around US$190), which is considerably more per square metre than those living in nearby five-star apartments.

Tiny, 1.68 by 0.76 metres plywood and iron boxes are sometimes stacked three high, and it’s not uncommon to have 30 ‘coffins’ in a room. Social workers have reported finding single rooms with about 100 residents.

<p>Brian Cassey</p>

Brian Cassey

Cheung Kam Chu, top, and Wong Chi Hung.

Cheung Kam Chu

Unemployed cleaner Cheung Kam Chu, 49, rents a coffin home in a room with 25 others, in an otherwise respectable looking apartment block in North Point, just a couple of stops on the MTR metro train from the five-star financial centre of Hong Kong Island. Cheung has been applying for public housing for many years and is now resigned to life in his 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.

Wong Chi Hung

Cheung lives just centimetres away from, and directly on top of, tattooed casual worker Wong Chi Hung, 37, who, at about 1.8 metres tall, cannot even lie full length in his ‘coffin’.

<p>Brian Cassey</p>

Brian Cassey

Wong Tat Ming (left), 57.

Wong Tat Ming

In the next row, retired Wong Tat Ming, 57, curls up to sleep with his meagre possessions dangling just above his head. Wong ignores his roommates.

The atmosphere inside is hot, dark, intense and unfriendly. As I first arrived in the corridor outside, I could hear the landlord inside yelling at the residents; I beat a retreat and returned later.

<p>Brian Cassey</p>

Brian Cassey

Yan Chi Leung is mentally ill and lives in a tiny wire cage in a room with 19 others.

IN A SHABBY ‘BED SPACE’ CAGE APARTMENT I visited, also at North Point, 14 men share a small room and one tiny combined bathroom and shower.

<p>Brian Cassey</p>

Brian Cassey

Roger Lee, a 61-year-old unemployed gas technician, sits in his home at North Point on Hong Kong Island.

Roger Lee

The 61-year-old former gas technician Roger Lee emerges from behind the curtain of his 1.8-metre-long ‘home’. “I’ve been here for three years now,” Roger says, “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 are neighbouring Mr Ng and Mr Chin.

<p>Brian Cassey</p>

Brian Cassey

Construction worker Leung Fat Wai, 46, left, and his wife Au Wai Yung.

Leung Fat Wai

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 an example. For the past three years, since they arrived from Guangdong on the mainland, they have lived in an old factory building in Tai Kok Tsui, Kowloon, and paid the landlord rent of HK$2,700 (US$350) a month. Now they face eviction. They had received a government notice to leave two months before I photographed them.

There had been 11 tenants in the old building, but now they have only their neighbour Lo Wai Chong, 50, for company. Their landlord has begun to destroy walls in an attempt to move them on.

“We are frightened by the landlord’s threats. But I won’t go,” says Leung . “We have nowhere to go.”

<p>Brian Cassey</p>

Brian Cassey

So Hon Wan and her seven-year-old daughter, Ting Yee Man, live in an iron and timber shanty perched on the rooftop of a 12-storey apartment block in Sham Shui Po, Kowloon.

When another illegally tenanted building was evicted recently, only five out of 100 of the tenants were offered public housing.

SHANTY VILLAGES PERCHED on the rooftops of high-rise apartment blocks also spring up from time to time. These flimsy structures of iron, timber and paperboard are fire traps, and they offer little protection during the typhoon season, from May to mid-September.

<p>Brian Cassey</p>

Brian Cassey

Seventy-year-old Wong Kai Sing outside of his impossibly small — and illegal — iron and timber shanty in Sham Shui Po, Kowloon.

Wong Kai Sing

Seventy-year-old Wong Kai Sing lives in a tiny room made from roofing iron, 11 stories up on the rooftop slab of an apartment building in Sham Shui Po, in Kowloon. About a dozen households cling to this rooftop – an area no bigger than 300 square metres. There are no lifts in the building, and for 10 years he has had to climb the narrow stairs to his makeshift illegal dwelling.

Because his room is so small – it just fits his single bed – he takes his meals in the stairwell at the top of the building.

<p>Brian Cassey</p>

Brian Cassey

Chan Sui Hung, 46, lives with her sick husband and two teenage children in this iron and paper board shanty that leaks when it rains.

Chan Sui Hing

Chan Sui Hing, 46, with her sick husband and two teenage sons, lives in a shanty on the same rooftop as Wong. Chan came to Hong Kong from Guangdong, mainland China, in 2005. She supports the family with her job on a construction site. She pays around HK$2,000 (US$250) a month for rent. Life becomes unbearable, she says, during the rainy season: "The rain falls inside the house from the holes on the ceiling. The wind almost blows the roof away!"

<p>Brian Cassey</p>

Brian Cassey

Homeless people bed down for the night at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, on the Kowloon waterfront facing Hong Kong Island.

Like most rooftop dwellers Chan is on the waiting list for public housing.

It is estimated that more than 300,000 people are on that list, and the number grows each year.

THERE IS A GROWING NUMBER of people who have been priced out of even the coffin and cage markets.

Homelessness in Hong Kong was once rare, but many hundreds now live in doorways, under overpasses, and in tunnels.

<p>Brian Cassey</p>

Brian Cassey

The glitzy and expansive Cultural Centre on the waterfront in Kowloon seems to be a magnet for the homeless in Hong Kong. As the city begins to settle into the relative quiet of the early hours, the homeless bed down here. They are occasionally visited by charity workers proffering food and drink, as they nightly take in one of the most famous views in the world.

27 comments on this story
by Simon Crerar

Outstanding, heartbreaking piece of photojournalism

June 24, 2013 @ 8:59pm
by Dave

Fabulous set of photographs here.....I'll be back to read the full story on my main frame in the morn.....

June 24, 2013 @ 9:10pm
by vxdollface

Wow I didn't even realise it was that bad! :(

June 24, 2013 @ 11:20pm
by paul sakkal

An extremely saddening story. Enlightening and guilt-racking; we allow this. Human greed knows no end.

June 25, 2013 @ 12:28am
by AJ

The article mentions that a couple of people moved from Guangdong; I imagine they're not the only ones. Why are people moving to Hong Kong when there is such a dearth of housing? Why do they stay?

June 25, 2013 @ 12:12pm
by Melissa

This is horrifying. Did you ask any of your subjects what incentive they had to leave Guangdong in China for this in Hong Kong? Is it worse in Guangdong? Did they think they would be rich in Hong Kong?

June 25, 2013 @ 12:24pm
by neg rivera

when you are desperado... having all needs but no entitlements or income by employment... you will do whatever it takes to keep your family afloat... its natural instinct. but its sad that so many are looking, living and doing nothing to help the most needy and vulnerable people of that city. shame of unscrupulous politicians and landlords!!!!

June 26, 2013 @ 1:19am
by kenny poon

very easy to answer, won't be persecuted freedoms not offered in the mainland and the utmost important freedom of speech, sometimes freedoms are worth more to people than money.

June 26, 2013 @ 2:59am
by Iris Tan

I highly doubt freedom of speech would be on their priority list given their financial situation. Moving to Hongkong with two children, its most likely they were hoping for a better education for them as well as higher wages even if it means toughing it out in such living conditions. They probably didn't have the resources to do thorough research about the prospects for them in Hongkong before quitting their jobs back home and making the move.

June 26, 2013 @ 5:08pm
by Caitlin

I don't understand why those with wealth and power do not recognise the threat to themselves from such poverty. Uprisings/revolutions are so much more expensive than basic welfare, and It is clear these people struggle to eat bread, let alone cake. Similar here where people pay for walled estates/monitored security rather than paying the equivilent in tax.

June 27, 2013 @ 8:02am
by Wilmot mather

This is so sad- rich getting richer & the poor getting poorer. The rich can help the poor since the rich when they die will also go into the same graves--death the great leveller.

June 29, 2013 @ 8:50am
by james hong

There should follow Singapore example or revolt

June 29, 2013 @ 9:25am
by kimberley

OMG i am so much into being thankful for what i have ..thank you God.

June 29, 2013 @ 3:38pm
by louisquinze

We should all heed this - the entitlement attitude of the wealthy is so without humanity.

June 29, 2013 @ 7:01pm
by Charlesy

I didn't know that the housing situation in such a flourishing economy is so dire. I just shared this article so that people can appreciate whatever little comforts they have in the homes.

June 29, 2013 @ 10:56pm
by David

Yes follow S'pore's example and lose their freedom !

June 30, 2013 @ 7:39am
by Walter P. Komarnicki

it would be in everyone's interest to ensure decent affordable public housing in Hong Kong;

if an outbreak of tuberculosis were to occur, the media would go into a feeding frenzy to find whom to blame, and chances are it wouldn't be the owners of the skyscrapers and penthouses.

June 30, 2013 @ 2:05pm
by Lim Teik Hock

@ David, Freedom to do what? What is it that they would like to do that people in S'pore can't that makes it worthwhile for so many of them to live in such conditions wherever (and not just Hong Kong)? They could be victims of their circumstances and have to deal with it best they can, as much as people in S'pore have to deal with their own circumstances. Even the one living in such conditions and who consciously choose to live like so for whatever reason may not represent the views of all the rest suffering such conditions everyday.

July 2, 2013 @ 5:57pm
by Lucy tan

Have u tried to do similar survey across the major cities of uk or the us?

July 3, 2013 @ 1:00pm
by Lucy Tan

"Homelessness in Hong Kong was once rare, but many hundreds now live in doorways, under overpasses, and in tunnels." -- also, this is utterly inaccurate. Homelessness in HK, like in major cities all across the world, has always and probably always be a problem. Rather than generalise, should try giving ratios ie what percentage of population lives on the streets??

July 6, 2013 @ 2:07am
by H. S. Narula

The conditions depicted here are probably not much different from the conditions suffered by others in other underdeveloped and poor countries like India, Indonesia, Cambodia, etc. We are shocked only because Hong Kong is supposedly not an underdeveloped or poor country.

The government there should be able to do a better job with the poor, but this is perhaps where capitalism fails. Most people see the glitz and glamour of Hong Kong. Few people see the reality of the downtrodden;....... or perhaps choose not to see.

Another inconvenient truth?

July 8, 2013 @ 2:51pm
by Lucy Tan

I beg to disagree that these conditions belong to underdeveloped n poor countries. Have you seen the underbellies of San Francisco, New York, London, Paris, you name it? The poor are always there. It's just that it doesn't make news in Western media and/or journos which/who prefer to look elsewhere for such sensationalism. This is the real inconvenient truth!

July 8, 2013 @ 7:44pm
by L O Chin

Capitalism failing? you're kidding. Maybe if the government had a plan for how to deal with all the mainlanders crossing into HK as though just by being there they will hit the jackpot, a lot of the pressures at the lower end of the market would be relieved.

July 17, 2013 @ 12:07pm
by credibility

arrr... at least these people have a roof over their heads... try a whole family kids and all living under a bridge and during the day they have to scramble for food or go hungry... those people pays rent... however little... that means they have some income... they are the lucky ones

August 29, 2013 @ 9:54pm
Show previous 24 comments
by Liliane

And really, being a millionaire does you nothing here in HK. Any apartment over 40m2 would cost you a million, even more if you live in the main parts of Kowloon and HK Island. So really, and I do hate to say this, but having a million dollars here doesn't get you far here. Buy someplace to live and boom, you're broke.

September 1, 2013 @ 9:30pm
by Steven Chiu

Some proposed to get rid of these 'dwellings' without thinking through how to address the root causes. There are roughly about 170,000 to 200,000 people living in these 'dwellings', while those 230,000 on the government subsidized housing waiting-list have to wait an average of 4.4 years, the average annual supply of govt. housing is only 15,000 flats/year for the next 5 years.

The question is: Where CAN they go?

I mean, arbitrarily getting rid of these 'dwellings' by regulating and prohibiting these "unscrupulous landlords" isn't a viable solution at all. It would just mean the flats would be shared by multiple families with a higher potential of conflicts between 'neighbors' (in the case of subdivided flats at least) and with reduced privacy, which is really dangerous to vulnerable children.

I know, because I used to live in one as my mother, sister and I share an 2-room, 30-sq. meter apartment with another family of 4. Thinking back, I'd have probably preferred we had some privacy. We were immigrants from the Mainland China, so we kinda accepted that life was gonna be tough. (but it still sucks to be poor, believe me:)

Instead of just removing the supply of these 'dwellings' by force/law, we should focus on increasing the supply of alternative housing! We can't just force these people out until we have a plan to house them all! Some of these places are being shut down with NO regards as to where these people can go. Some can't even afford the very cost of relocation!

I don't know who to blame. These 'bad landlords'? Or those who stood idly by as the society forces these unfortunate people to the edge?

September 30, 2013 @ 6:31pm
by Jimmy Chu

Why don't this reporter and camera person come to Oakland or San Francisco or ANY major cities across America and toke pictures of the homeless people here and how they live. Take pictures of how American homeless people got shot at, beat up or just plain frozen to death, EVERYDAY.

January 11, 2014 @ 10:37am
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