From Mansions, To Cages, To Coffins — Hong Kong’s Rotten Property Ladder
By Brian CasseyJune 24, 2013
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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!"
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.
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.