In the richest city in the world, thousands of people live in cages
Depending on how you see it, Hong Kong is either a sprawling metropolis brimming with profitability or a curious leftover of colonialism. Frequented by men in suits from all over the world, it is a global city which plays host to hundreds of multinationals. However, while westerners may fly in and out without giving much thought to the locals, their lives are far from modern or progressive.
Hong Kong is home to more millionaires per square mile than any other city which, on the face of it, seems like a good thing. However, all this money has actually made it a fairly inhospitable place. It has the highest rent of any city in the world - meaning many people are priced out of regular housing.
Instead, thousands of the city’s inhabitants live in “bedspace apartments”. Here, residents live in coffin-like boxes or narrow, metal cages. Overcrowded and often unhygienic, it is a life far removed from the comfort of the Rolls Royces which prowl the city.
“My previous rent was HK$3,000 [$380]. That was too expensive, so I came here,” explains bedspace apartment resident Choi Wan to Rice Media. “I get HK$1,800 [$230] from the government, and my friends give me HK$100 [$13] extra to help me pay my rent. Many volunteers come and donate food. I don’t know how I would survive otherwise.”
According to the Society for Community Organization, around 100,000 people live in inadequate housing in Hong Kong. Often, a regular apartment will be subdivided into two to three separate residences. If that means that one of these residences doesn’t have a kitchen then, in many cases, residents simply make do and cook in the bathroom. Here, wages simply can't keep up with the cost of living.
“I am 70 years old now, no one will employ me,” says Michael, another resident. “I used to be a security guard.” Like many of his peers, he survives on money - the equivalent of $640 per month - from the government. “My favourite food is rice,” he continues. “I like char siu fan [barbecue pork and rice]. I know a place you can get it for HK$20 [$2.50].” Michael then adds: “But the money always runs out.”
“I used to be a security guard too, but I got very sick,” explains Sam. “My liver has a lot of problems and I cannot work anymore. No one will hire someone who falls sick all the time.”
The cages tend to measure 6ft by 2.5ft and house everything from clothing to cooking equipment. Often, pads, yoga mats or old linoleum are used as a barrier against the wooden slats of the cages - where bedbugs lurk. In most cases, the cages of Hong Kong’s highrises can be seen as an unfortunate symptom a fractured society. But others are taking a more pragmatic approach.
Sandy Wong is a Chinese entrepreneur who believes that his pods - or “luxury cage homes” as they are being called - are the answer to Hong Kong’s housing problem. Costing somewhere between $360 and $580, they provide creature comforts such as wifi, charging ports, air conditioning and a light-up mirror which bathes the pod in a futuristic purply blue light.
Installing as many as 18 of these pods in small to medium sized apartments, it would still be something of a nightmare for anyone with claustrophobia. Furthermore, they are not without their detractors and are an easy target for anyone keen to see the problem solved rather than the situation normalised.
However, they do provide a temporary solution to a housing crisis which doesn’t look like it’s going away. “[Inadequate housing] is an issue that can't be solved,” Wong Explains to CNN. “But if you're living in these comparatively nicer spaces, then you can accept sharing facilities.”
Often, up to 20 people live in spaces of around 300 square ft (28 square metres). However, bedspace apartment resident Sam seeks refuge in the open air. “It’s nice there and there is fresh air,” he says, speaking fondly of his local park. “It’s better than being inside all day. Then I come home and sleep.”
Here in Hong Kong, the median property price is 19 times the median annual household income. It is a means to an end not just for those who rely on government support, but also those who work regular jobs but can’t afford the extortionate rent.Within spitting distance from these overcrowded tower blocks are soaring skyscrapers containing some of the world’s most luxurious apartments. From the marble-clad comfort of these sprawling residences, the cages of the tower blocks opposite are almost visible. In no other city is the divide between rich and poor this stark.