HONG KONG – For many of the richest people in Hong Kong, one of Asia’s wealthiest cities, home is a mansion with an expansive view from the heights of Victoria Peak. For some of the poorest, like Leung Cho-yin, home is a metal cage.
The 67-year-old former butcher pays $167 a month for one of about a dozen wire mesh cages resembling rabbit hutches crammed into a dilapidated apartment in a gritty, working-class West Kowloon neighborhood.
The cages, stacked on top of each other, measure 16 square feet. To keep bedbugs away, Leung and his roommates put thin pads, bamboo mats, even old linoleum on their cages’ wooden planks instead of mattresses.
I’ve been bitten so much, I’m used to it, said Leung, rolling up the sleeve of his oversized blue fleece jacket to reveal a red mark on his hand. There’s nothing you can do about it. I’ve got to live here. I’ve got to survive, he said as he let out a phlegmy cough.
About 100,000 people in the former British colony live in what’s known as inadequate housing, according to the Society for Community Organization, a social welfare group. The category also includes apartments subdivided into tiny cubicles or filled with coffin-sized wood and metal sleeping compartments as well as rooftop shacks. They’re a grim counterpoint to the southern Chinese city’s renowned material affluence.
Forced by skyrocketing housing prices to live in cramped, dirty and unsafe conditions, their plight also highlights one of the biggest headaches facing Hong Kong’s unpopular Beijing-backed leader: growing public rage over the city’s housing crisis.
Leung Chun-ying took office as Hong Kong’s chief executive in July, pledging to provide more affordable housing in a bid to cool the anger. Home prices rose 23 percent in the first 10 months of 2012 and have doubled since bottoming out in 2008 during the global financial crisis, the International Monetary Fund said in a report last month. Rents have followed a similar trajectory.
The soaring costs are putting decent homes out of reach of a large portion of the population while stoking resentment of the government, which controls all land for development, and a coterie of wealthy property developers.
Leung, the cage dweller, had little faith that the government could do anything to change the situation of people like him.
It’s not whether I believe him or not, but they always talk this way. What hope is there? said Leung, who has been living in cage homes since he stopped working at a market stall after losing part of a finger 20 years ago.
With just a seventh-grade education, he was only able to find intermittent casual work. He hasn’t applied for public housing because he doesn’t want to leave his roommates to live alone and expects to spend the rest of his life living in a cage.
Leung and his roommates, all of them single, elderly men, wash their clothes in a bucket. The bathroom facilities consist of two toilet stalls, one of them adjoining a squat toilet that doubles as a shower stall. There is no kitchen, just a small room with a sink.
While cage homes, which sprang up in the 1950s to cater mostly to single men coming in from mainland China, are becoming rarer, other types of substandard housing such as 50-square-foot cubicle apartments are growing as more families are pushed into poverty.
Many poor residents have applied for public housing but face years of waiting.