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Cage houses for rent in Hong Kong

Case gabbia Hongkong

A Hongkong, une des centaines de salles-dortoirs qui abritent une demi-douzaine de lits superposés et grillagés. Loyer : 150 euros par mois.


Since 2003, the anniversary marking the transfer of Hong Kong to China on 1st July 1997, has become the official occasion to express dissatisfaction with the government of the special administrative region of Hong Kong. On this day, Paul Pak , 50-odd years old, leaves the “cage” in which he lives in Tsim Sha Tsui and joins the march through the centre of Hong Kong, under the banner of the NGO “Soco”, which fights endlessly for the cause of the poor, new immigrants and the poorly housed. “Too hot, not enough air conditioning, too dirty and too expensive. Lots of fleas and insects that bite,” is how he sums up his accommodation, where, someone else adds, “Donald Tsang (Chief Executive of Hong Kong) would not last five minutes.

For many, the permanency of the cage houses in Hong Kong, a territory whose GNP per inhabitant is superior to that of Switzerland, is an enigma, while others deem it scandalous…

The entrance is dirty and cramped, like in all the buildings of this working-class district. An old door made of scrap metal, which has been painted and repainted, is hidden in the crumbling wall between the kebab-on-wheels cart and a DVD display stand, which take up the entire pavement. The wall is covered with dilapidated metal post boxes and electric metres concealed by years of dust. And on top of all this, a few Chinese characters painted in red on the same wall, offering “rented accommodation” on the seventh floor—seven floors of worn down and uneven steps. At the end of a long corridor, a dormitory with around half a dozen bunk beds, grills on the outside, and a little French window on the “façade” of the house-bed. The grill protects against theft, and allows residents to hang belts and plastic bags; such practical and much needed stowage when you live in less than two metres square...

Yau Kwei Neng is resting behind a cloth panel. He presents his ID card as a way of introducing himself. He was born on December 19th 1941, and left mainland China to work on the construction sites in Hong Kong until he developed cancer, which now prevents him from working. He ended up living here without ever managing to save enough money to bring over his wife and two children, whom he left behind less than 100 kilometres away and has not seen since. Return to China? Maybe. “When (he is) old.”

Every morning at five, he goes down the road to have a bowl of tea and steamed ravioli. He prepares his own dinner: there is a stove on the roof terrace. And the daily challenge is the long time between the steamed raviolis in the morning and dinner in the evening. The 2000 Hong Kong dollars (200 euros) in benefits that the government gives monthly to the elderly is not enough to have three meals a day, once he has paid his “rent” (1500 Hong Kong dollars, 150 euros).

With regard to the humiliating living conditions, which he always considered to be temporary, he stated that lack of privacy that this type of accommodation imposes on its inhabitants is “not natural.” There have been disputes in the past. A man was almost killed. But, today, they are all “friends.” The state of the toilets (a hole in a small room with no lights) is “not okay,” he says thoughtfully, adding that he is “accustomed to it.” Yau Kwei Neng occupies his time by recopying Chinese characters that he has forgotten in the pages of a notebook, which he then erases when it is full. The noise in the streets? It does not bother him; he is a bit hard of hearing. Except for the fleas, his worry is that in 2008 a bag of rice went from 30 to 50 dollars.

In a lower bunk, the most sought-after category because you can store your belongings under the bed, another inhabitant braves the darkness of the place by trying to read “philosophy and history” through his thick glasses. He would like to learn more about the French president, who intrigues him. Wu So chiu, a former tenant who was also the only woman living in the dormitory, returns to have dinner or to play cards with her partners in misfortune. She has since received a more decent accommodation, but is bored all by herself…

Cage houses emerged in the 1950s as temporary accommodation for immigrant labour. Ho Wei Wah , head of the NGO Soco, presented a dossier to the United Nations. The United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) has repeatedly observed that “cage houses are an insult to human dignity” and that “the inaction of the Hong Kong government is unacceptable in the face of the abundant financial resources at its disposal.”

The gap between living standards in Hong Kong widens each year. Nothing has changed with its unification with China. Those working for the social good all agree that this problem can only be tackled through the advent of a “true” democracy. A clear housing policy was put in place under Tung Chee Hwa’s mandate as Chief Executive from 1997 to 2005: there were 50,000 social houses built per year between 1997 and 2004. But these social initiatives alarmed Hong Kong homeowners, whose main source of wealth is often their accommodation.

The government, therefore, ceased assisting the poor under popular pressure, to avoid impoverishing the rich. “Many people now feel that it is useless to request public accommodation.” Ho notes that “some have even seen twenty-years’ wait’ on their file receipts. So what’s the use?”

Official figures claim that now, there are only 30 cage houses in Hong Kong. The government controls the hygienic and fire safety conditions. But this is just playing with words, because the government has defined cage houses as accommodations with 12 or more tenants per room, and landlords quickly understood the advantages of abandoning the twelfth tenant. As Soco explained to us, “this measure has only made the situation worse, because if landlords reduce the number of tenants, as the government recommends, they are no longer subject to the checks associated with the cage houses.”

Here, the occupants are mostly “new migrants” arriving from mainland China over the past few years, and who believe in the Hong Kong El Dorado. Officially, over 100,000 people live in such “poor housing conditions.”

Florence de Changy


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Arleene McFarlane, Agnes Magdziak