| Larissa Lee Beck |
HONG KONG (dpa) – Poking his head out of his cage to look out a tiny window, Wong Lee can see a new glass building of luxury apartments. By contrast, Wong Lee’s rented space measures just two metres square. And he cannot stand up in it.
He is one of Hong Kong’s “cage dwellers” – forced by the Chinese city’s soaring rents to live in a tiny cubicles with wire mesh on the front. Like thousands of others, he is always worried about theft and cannot escape bedbugs, fleas and petty annoyance by the landlord.
Everything the 47-year-old owns is crammed into this space, his possessions piled up at one end, his shoes on a cardboard box. He can neither sit up properly, nor stretch out fully to lie down.
“It’s better than living on the street,” he says. In this room in a Hong Kong flat, there are nine cages stacked three high on around 10 square metres of floor space. An ancient fridge hums in a corner, and laundry hangs on the bars of the cages.
Three small bathrooms here are shared by 21 people. There is no kitchen, although there is wireless internet.
“I spend only 10 hours a day here,” Wong Lee, who was born in the city, says with a smile.
The housing shortage in the Chinese Special Administrative Region is a disaster in the making. It mirrors the wealth divide in the former British colony, which reverted to China in 1997.
Poverty factors fed the Hong Kong democracy movement that shut down parts of the city from the end of September until the beginning of December.
Wong Lee’s living conditions stand in stark contrast to those of the fortunate tenants of expensive high-rises. The wait on Hong Kong’s lists for subsidised social housing can be as long as 10 years. Officially there are 171,300 people without regular accommodation in Hong Kong, “but we estimate the figure as much higher,” says Chick Kui Wai of the NGO Society for Community Organization (SoCo) that tries to help people like Wong Lee.
There are said to be around 50,000 living in the cages. The sub-let cubicles have been a feature of Hong Kong’s accommodation market since the 1950s, when migrants streamed in from the rest of China. The situation is reported to have improved a bit in recent years, but seeing a cage is still a shock.
Wong Lee once worked as a security guard, earning enough to ultimately buy his own flat with the aid of a state subsidy. But illness forced him to give up his job and to sell his flat.
Currently he receives around 4,800 Hong Kong dollars (620 dollars) and an additional 1,500 Hong Kong dollars in rent support monthly. He pays 1,700 Hong Kong dollars from that for his cage.