HK Business

Have-Nots Squeezed and Stacked in Hong Kong

Written by Alan Chiu Tsang

On the first floor of a hulking residential building, at the end of a dimly lighted corridor, a narrow door opens up into Hong Kong’s economic underbelly.

Twenty-two men live in this particular 450-square-foot apartment in the neighborhood of Mong Kok, in cubicles each hardly larger than a single bed, stacked above one another along two narrow passageways that end in a dank toilet and shower room.

Each cupboardlike cubicle has a sliding door, a small television, some shelves and a thin mattress. Most of the men have lived here for months, some for years.

“Luckily there is air-conditioning. If not, sleeping would be impossible,” said Ng Chi-hung, 55, who is unemployed and occupies one of the bottom bunks. “If you live in such environment, you have to adapt to everything.”

Cheng Tin-sang, 59, occupies the bunk above, which is reached via a short metal ladder. Unable to work because of a heart ailment, Mr. Cheng wanders the streets all day.

“I sit in places like McDonald’s,” he said. “Anywhere with air-conditioners will do.”

Hong Kong’s per-capita gross domestic product is higher than that of Italy, and not far short of those of Britain and France, according to World Bank figures. But for unskilled or semiskilled people like Mr. Ng, the city is a tough place to be, said Wong Hung, an associate professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong specializing in urban poverty and employment.

Hong Kong’s economy underwent a major change in the 1980s, when much of the manufacturing activity that made the city famous in the 1950s and ’60s moved across the border to mainland China. In its place came banking, insurance, trading, logistics and real estate — service sectors that now employ nearly 90 percent of the work force but that have been unable to absorb many less educated workers, Mr. Wong said.

At the same time, Hong Kong has some of the highest living costs in the world, a huge and growing burden on those at the bottom of the income ladder.

Mr. Ng, for example, has worked on construction sites and made deliveries. His last job, as a waiter, paid 7,000 to 8,000 Hong Kong dollars a month, about $900 to $1,000. The monthly rent on his 15-square-foot bunk in Mong Kok is 1,440 Hong Kong dollars.

At least 170,000 people live in such dwellings in Hong Kong, according to Policy 21, a research unit tasked by the government to take stock of the situation. Such housing can be found all over the city, in units fenced off with plasterboard or cagelike wire mesh, carved out of apartments that once housed a family each but that have since been subdivided multiple times. This subdividing of privately owned apartments is legal as long as safety and sanitation requirements are met.

“It is quite hard to know how many there are,” said Sze Lai Shan, who works for the Society for Community Organization, a nongovernmental organization that campaigns for social equality. “We hear about them from the people we work with — they tell us of new flats that have been subdivided or old ones that have closed down.”

While tiny housing of this kind has existed in Hong Kong for many years, it has expanded as soaring property prices have pushed more and more low-income earners out of the market for regular housing in recent years. Rent on these spaces has risen nearly 20 percent in the last four years, and now gobbles up about a third of the residents’ incomes, a report released by Ms. Sze’s organization this month showed. On a per-square-foot basis, the spaces cost at least one-third more to rent than regular apartments that are not subdivided, which average about 22.70 Hong Kong dollars, or $2.93, a square foot per month.

“It is very expensive to live here, so I have to be more frugal, and I cut my food expenses,” said Yuen Luen-yuk, 49, who moved to Hong Kong from Zhanjiang, on China’s south coast, eight years ago and has a low-paying job looking after the residents at a home for people of retirement age.

Her living space, with a ceiling too low for an adult to stand, is part of a subdivided apartment in the neighborhood of Kwun Tong. Nine other people live there; they share a dim kitchen, a basic bathroom and a narrow corridor cooled by humming electric fans.

“I’ve not thought about renting something better,” Ms. Yuen said, “because that means all your salary will be given to the landlord.”

Hong Kong’s housing situation is now one of the reasons the government of Leung Chun-ying, who took the helm of the city’s administration last year, is deeply unpopular. Mr. Leung has pledged to add 20,000 units a year to the city’s already large stock of social housing for low-income earners.

And a committee tasked with reviewing housing strategy this month made numerous recommendations to deal with Hong Kong’s housing problems, including a proposal to set up a licensing system for subdivided apartments in a bid to better regulate safety and health conditions.

Housing experts fear, however, that such measures will not be nearly enough. New government-subsidized housing — with small but far more comfortable apartments than the tiny spaces in which Mr. Cheng and others live — will take years to build, the government acknowledges.

The waiting list for public housing has been lengthening steadily as rising prices have squeezed more and more low-income earners out of regular apartments. About 230,000 are now on the list, according to government figures, up from 165,000 two years ago.

With families and older people given priority for government housing, single people like Mr. Ng, Mr. Cheng and Ms. Yuen face a seeming interminable wait, and their hopes for moving out of their tiny bunk spaces are waning.

“If I were younger, I could work hard to save for a down payment” to buy an apartment, Ms. Yuen said. As it is, she said, “I do not have much hope in the future. I am just living from one day to the next.”

About the author

Alan Chiu Tsang

Alan is a freelancer photographer and author for
He graduated from Hong Kong university in 2005.