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Hong Kong's 'cage homes' reveal wealth gap

HONG KONG, May 24, 2007 (AFP) - Space is limited in the cage Kong Siu-kan calls home: a few pieces of clothing are stuffed at one end of his bed, other items perch on a makeshift shelf and a glass of water sits beside his pillow.

Kong's fellow tenant, 78-year-old Tai Yum-po, has made better use of his space: he hooks his towel, jackets, pot noodles, bags of washing powder and toothpicks to his bed.

Hidden behind the high-rise office blocks and glitzy shopping malls of Hong Kong, a huge number of ordinary people have been left behind by the economic boom since the city returned to Chinese rule a decade ago.

As as international financial hub it boasts some of Asia's richest people and more Louis Vuitton shops than Paris or New York.

Yet out of its seven million residents, an estimated 1.25 million -- people like Kong and Tai -- live below the poverty line.

They share a room with nine other men in one of Hong Kong's notorious "cage dwellings" -- small, dingy flats that have been further subdivided into cages where there is no room for anything other than a bed.

For these men, home is four walls of rusty steel wire mesh with a sliding door at one end that allows them to slide in and out.

"I tried to find work for years, but I'm getting old and no one would hire me. So I gave up," said Kong, a thin, 61-year-old father of two grown-up sons with whom he has lost contact.

"I couldn't have imagined I would have ended like this but I don't feel too bad about this any more," he said.

Official figures show a growing chasm between the rich and poor: one in 15 households in 2006 had a monthly total income of 770 US dollars or less (6,000 HK dollars), four percent more than a decade ago.

Those earning 3,850 US dollars or more a month have risen two percent.

Cage dwellings are just one example of worsening poverty in this southern Chinese territory, where only 35 percent of the 3.4 million working population pays income tax and the top 100,000 earners contribute 60 percent of salaries tax.

Built in the 1940s to accommodate a wave of Chinese refugees fleeing the civil war on the mainland, about 100 cage homes remain, housing some of Hong Kong's poorest and most downtrodden.

Economically, Hong Kong has had a rough ride of the past 10 years since the end of the colonial era.

It was plunged into turmoil by the Asian financial crisis of 1997 -- which sparked a seven-year recession -- as well as the fallout of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks in the United States, avian flu and an outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

At its nadir, in early 2003 when SARS plunged the city into psychological and economic depression, home values had fallen 70 percent and gross domestic product slumped to 3.3 percent.

Although the economy has made a full recovery, figures show the number of people on low-paid jobs has risen sharply, as has the number working more than 55 hours a week.

Ho Hei-wah, director of the Society for Community Organisation, a rights group, said wages that were cut during the economic slump have not returned to pre-1997 levels partly because more jobs have been lost to mainland China.

"One big problem is, even if people have jobs, their salary is very low. We call them working poor," he said.

Closer integration with China has meant more Hong Kong companies have moved to the mainland to tap into its breakneck growth and cheap labour, leaving the city with fewer jobs and workers forced to accept lower wages to get them.

Low Usick Kan, a scaffold worker of 40 years, said fewer jobs and low pay had forced workers to seek employment in the neighbouring booming casino haven of Macau, where the monthly allowance just for housing and transport is higher than a Hong Kong wage.

Wong Hung, an assistant professor at the social work department of Chinese University, said the absence of a minimum wage policy was also to blame.

"Jobs are getting fewer and fewer but we have more workers with no minimum wage protection. I can only expect the trend of lower income to continue," he said.

Mr Leung, a Chinese mainland immigrant who did not want to give his first name, works 12 hours a day six days a week as a security guard for 6,000 Hong Kong dollars a month.

His wife brings in an extra 4,000 dollars by working in a restaurant, but they have barely enough to provide for their family of two teenagers.

The outcome: the four are among 130,000 people who live in what is termed "inadequate housing."

The Leungs live in a cubicle big enough for a bunk bed, a small fridge, a desk and a fold-up table. It has no windows: for ventilation they rely on the draught from holes above the walls.

It is one of 13 sub-units in a dimly-lit, 50-year-old building with flaky walls, wet broken concrete floor in the communal kitchen, a toilet without a seat and another floor with broken tiles.

The blackened ceiling and walls show the age of the building.

"Hong Kong is so great, isn't it," Cheung said sarcastically as he sweated on the bunk bed with three fans on full power.

Cheung said the room gets so hot he sometimes sleeps on the tiny area left in the cubicle; the children are forced to study on the bunk bed.

Life might seem more comfortable for Yuen Chi-ming, a cleaner at a swanky air-conditioned office block and who lives in a government-subsidised complex, but he only gets 4,800 dollars a month for working 10 hours a day.

"The rich get richer; the poor get poorer. That's a fact," he said.

"There's nothing we can do. You may get rich by winning the lottery, but that's only a dream. A lot of people dream about it but it would never come true."
 

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Dozens of families squeezed into split flat
The Standard
Monday, August 08, 2011







A 1,600-square-foot space in an industrial building in Tai Kok Tsui has been split into 46 cramped quarters for families, it has been found.

Most of the tenants live in 30- to 40-sq-ft units, with narrow corridors. Two cubicles share a bathroom.

The subdivided industrial flat in the Bedford Road building may be a sign of things to come as building owners illegally convert their properties for residential use, according to the Housing Rights of Tai Kok Tsui Industrial Building Residents Concern Group.

The group said it knew of several such units in the area.

Meanwhile, the Society for Community Organization said it found those who live in subdivided rooftop flats have to cope with summer temperatures of up to 41 degrees Celsius - about nine degrees higher than outdoors.

Tenants in the Bedford Road building eat, sleep and live in a unit the size of a single bed. Poon Kwong-lau, 62, rents a place for HK$1,200 a month.

He has a rice cooker and a small television set, which he rents from the landlord for HK$50.

He has not applied for public housing because he and his wife are divorcing. The air in their unit is stuffy and smelly as the air-conditioning is switched off after midnight. They live in fear because they know they live there illegally but have no other choice.

Yeung Fook-choi, who pays HK$1,150 for a 40-sq-ft unit each month, said: "When some officers from the Housing Authority come to check our floor, the owner asks us to take all our stuff to the roof and leave for the day."

The owner labels the doors of the smaller units as "work room" or "sales department" to trick the officers into believing it is not a place for living in.

Others just do not like to move out, however. One resident named Lo, who has a 100-sq-ft unit, was twice given public housing in Tung Chung, but refused it because her son, who has a heart problem, needs to visit hospital.

"I have to regularly take my son to Queen Elizabeth Hospital and Kwong Wah Hospital in Kowloon. The transportation fees and inconvenience are our concern," Lo said.

Lawmaker Leung Yiu-chung believes that the 15,000 flats announced by the Housing Authority to be built in each of the coming five years is not enough to satisfy public demand. "We hope there will be 35,000 units of public housing provided each year," he said.

The concern group urged the government to speed up its public rental housing program so waiting times can be cut.
 
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