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Poor in cages show dark side of Hong Kong boom

By Kelvin Chan

AP Business Writer

LAST UPDATED: 02:53 p.m. HST, Feb 07, 2013

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 1,300 Hong Kong dollars ($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.

Some 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. Housing costs have been fuelled by easy credit thanks to ultralow interest rates that policymakers can't raise because the currency is pegged to the dollar. Money flooding in from mainland Chinese and foreign investors looking for higher returns has exacerbated the rise.

In his inaugural policy speech in January, the chief executive said the inability of the middle class to buy homes posed a threat to social stability and promised to make it a priority to tackle the housing shortage.

"Many families have to move into smaller or older flats, or even factory buildings," he said. "Cramped living space in cage homes, cubicle apartments and sub-divided flats has become the reluctant choice for tens of thousands of Hong Kong people," he said, as he unveiled plans to boost supply of public housing in the medium term from its current level of 15,000 apartments a year.

His comments mark a distinct shift from predecessor Donald Tsang, who ignored the problem. Legislators and activists, however, slammed Leung for a lack of measures to boost the supply in the short term. Some 210,000 people are on the waiting list for public housing, about double from 2006. About a third of Hong Kong's 7.1 million population lives in public rental flats. When apartments bought with government subsidies are included, the figure rises to nearly half.

Anger over housing prices is a common theme in increasingly frequent anti-government protests. Legislator Frederick Fung warns there will be more if the problem can't be solved. He compared the effect on the poor to a lab experiment.

"When we were in secondary school, we had some sort of experiment where we put many rats in a small box. They would bite each other," said Fung. "When living spaces are so congested, they would make people feel uneasy, desperate," and angry at the government, he said.

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 Grade 7 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.

His only income is $515 in government assistance each month. After paying his rent, he's left with $350, or about $11.60 a day.

"It's impossible for me to save," said Leung, who never married and has no children to lean on for support.

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. The hallway walls have turned brown with dirt accumulated over the years.

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 cubicle apartments are growing as more families are pushed into poverty. Nearly 1.19 million people were living in poverty in the first half of last year, up from 1.15 million in 2011, according to the Hong Kong Council Of Social Services. There's no official poverty line but it's generally defined as half of the city's median income of $1,550 a month.

Many poor residents have applied for public housing but face years of waiting. Nearly three-quarters of 500 low-income families questioned by Oxfam Hong Kong in a recent survey had been on the list for more than 4 years without being offered a flat.

Lee Tat-fong, is one of those waiting. The 63-year-old is hoping she and her two grandchildren can get out of the cubicle apartment they share in their Wan Chai neighborhood, but she has no idea how long it will take.

Lee, who suffers from diabetes and back problems, takes care of Amy, 9, and Steven, 13, because their father has disappeared and their mother — her daughter — can't get a permit to come to Hong Kong from mainland China. An uncle occasionally lends a hand.

The three live in a 50-square-foot room, one of seven created by subdividing an existing apartment. A bunk bed takes up half the space, a cabinet most of the rest, leaving barely enough room to stand up in. The room is jammed with their possessions: plastic bags filled with clothes, an electric fan, Amy's stuffed animals, cooking utensils.

"There's too little space here. We can barely breathe," said Lee, who shares the bottom bunk with her grandson.

They share the communal kitchen and two toilets with the other residents. Welfare pays their $452 monthly rent and the three get another $775 for living expenses but the money is never enough, especially with two growing children to feed. Lee said the two often wanted to have McDonalds because they were still hungry after dinner, which on a recent night was meager portions of rice, vegetables and meat.

The struggle to raise her two grandkids in such conditions was wearing her out.

"It's exhausting," she said. "Sometimes I get so pent up with anger, and I cry but no one sees because I hide away."

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Grimbold wrote:
It is all the sad consequence of overpopulation.
on February 7,2013 | 05:11AM
hilocal wrote:
Grimbold, doesn't the soaring cost of land have something to do with it? And the fact that the mother of the 2 children can't get a permit from the mainland to come to Hong Kong suggests conditions or opportunities where she is are worse. Otherwise, why wouldn't her children join her there?
on February 8,2013 | 06:00AM
allie wrote:
This will be Honolulu in a few years. Rich just keep getting richer and poor, poorer
on February 7,2013 | 05:34AM
Snator wrote:
Gee, and I thought houses here are small...
on February 7,2013 | 06:07AM
nitpikker wrote:
sounds very much like here. BUT... i wonder if they also have homeless on the streets too?
on February 7,2013 | 06:10AM
hilocal wrote:
nitpikker, very few, and they are not visible during the day.
on February 8,2013 | 06:02AM
50skane wrote:
At least 20 years ago I read about people living in small cages in Japan and other asian countries. I thought that was terrible way back then, but the problem over there is just getting worse. Wealthy countries tend to try and hide their impoverished and have a dilapidated areas where they try and keep them hidden from the rest of the world. That way their image of being a wealthy isn't spoiled. It's getting real bad and probably will get worse because the population growth is not going to stop any time soon. Very sad state of affairs.
on February 7,2013 | 07:18AM
iansuen wrote:
We can draw examples to Honolulu or our state, but Hong Kong enjoys a very high standard of living and low corruption, not to mention low crime as well. Homeless on the street are surprisingly rare over there.
on February 7,2013 | 07:33AM
BigOpu wrote:
Whats amazing about this is that some slum lord is demanding $167/mos to live in these cages...and people are paying. I don't think this will be Honolulu in a couple of years. No way, because homeless wouldn't pay $100 to live in a cage. Hell, they not even acting on free homeless shelters and medical.
on February 7,2013 | 08:36AM
hilocal wrote:
BigOpu, with our mild year-round climate, the homeless here can live outdoors.
on February 8,2013 | 06:06AM
oahuresident wrote:
Just read a book by Jared Diamond, UCLA professor: Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. He states that it is not possible for the entire world population to live in accordance with current western standards of living. Not enough resources because the world is already overpopulated. Some people have to live like the Hong Kong cage people in order for others, like many of us in Hawaii, to live in relative comfort.
on February 7,2013 | 08:49AM
hilocal wrote:
oahuresident, I've read that it's the distribution of resources that's the problem in many places. I do agree, however, that it's not possible for the world to live as we do; we are too wasteful.
on February 8,2013 | 06:10AM
Slow wrote:
Where are all of our conservatives now? It is obvious that the man in the cage is a lazy Democrat waiting for a government handout. Right Mitt? Right Rush?
on February 7,2013 | 09:33AM
false wrote:
this is already happening to people here, they're just not ending up in cages. But there are plenty of tents around. And it WILL get worse because nothing is being done to make it better. It's estimated that home prices in Hawaii will rise 30 percent in the next 3-5 years. Economic circumstances could push the rate of appreciation higher even faster if, for example, rich Chinese decide they need a second home in Hawaii and are able to secure green cards through investment. It's probably a ways off, but it could happen just as it did with the Japanese in the 70s. Think it's hard to buy a home now? Just wait.
on February 7,2013 | 03:02PM
joey wrote:
I don't get it. The grandmother takes care of her daughter's (the missing mom's) kids because the daughter can't get out of China? Why doesn't the mom take the kids back home to China? And the grandma has no income, but lives off of $1200/month in welfare. So she is complaining about getting everything for free? I feel sorry for her, and it's pretty poor housing and food, but it's all free. Why is she entitled to more for free on top of that?
on February 7,2013 | 08:52PM
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