CHUNG TAK LIVES IN A CAGE
Hidden from the glitz of rich Hong Kong, tens of thousands of people are living in cages. Literally.
Text and Photos: Remko Tanis
in Hong Kong, SAR
“You’re asking me how I’m feeling?” Chung Tak, 62, is lying on the dirty mattress in his cage. “It’s been ages since I felt anything other than insect bites and tremendous heath.”
Chung Tak’s home in Hong Kong is a cage. He pays over a hundred euros a month in rent to occupy the lowest mattress in a bunk bed of three high. Each bunk is surrounded by an iron fence, making it a cage. A little lock allows Chun to close off his bunk, protecting his few possessions when he is not here.
Chung’s cage is in a room on the third floor of an old, dilapidated building in the Yau Ma Tei neighborhood of Hong Kong. The room measures twenty square meters and contains five other bunk beds, each three mattresses high. Eighteen cages a room.
Some residents use clothing pins to hang cardboard or dirty towels on the inside of their cage. It gives them the slightest sense of privacy, even though there is clearly none. It gives them a sense of protection against roaches and rats, but the animals make it in anyways.
Chung’s cage is right next to the washroom which he shares with all the other residents. It’s nothing more than a closet with a sink. A hose about a meter long hangs on the wall. To create the illusion of a shower, you have to hook the hose up to the little sink faucet.
Two toilets are right next door, filthy and smelly as a public restroom at a big city bus station that hasn’t seen a brush in ages.
There’s no kitchen. There are three ceiling fans, but they are unable to put up even the appearance of a fight against the subtropical climate of Hong Kong. The temperature in the cages easily gets to 35 degrees celsius.
Chung has been living like this for ten years now. “I shared a room with my family before. When I lost my job as a produce salesman, I got divorced. I lost everything since.”
Having no money makes it hard to survive anywhere, but it’s near impossible in Hong Kong, one of the world’s richest cities. Land is scarce, making apartments extremely expensive.
“In Hong Kong, being poor is considered your own problem, not that of society,” says Sze Lai of SoCO, an organization which tries to look after the people living in cages. “The government doesn’t want to build too many low rent apartments. It considers land something you sell for a lot of money, not something you give away to cheap housing.”
According to official figures, there are fewer than twenty thousand cage people in Hong Kong. The government says most of them choose to live like this, because the cage apartments are generally located in areas closer to downtown. Low rent apartments meanwhile are concentrated in the suburbs, which means long commutes in overcrowded metros.
Sze: “In reality, there are over 100,000 people living in cages. The government only counts those who share a room with at least twelve other people, which is the minority.”
SoCO is trying to pressure the authorities to help the cage people, but finds it is fighting alone. Sze: “People from the richer middle class of Hong Kong will sometimes make a donation to us, or provide warm blankets for the winter, but they don’t want to do much more. They fear any further action might put their own position at risk.”
And so the cage people remain, hidden from view. On the outside of Chung’s building you’d never guess it is filled with cages. Looking up in the narrow but bustling side street, all you see is the underside of air-conditioning units, poles to dry laundry on and dozens of signs hanging from the buildings.
The dire situation is also covered up by the people living in these cages themselves, like Chung. Understandably they don’t feel like advertising it in a society where it’s crucial to save face.
They don’t want it known they’ve lost almost all dignity, living in a cage with barely enough money to eat more than one meal a day, having to fight at least ten others over the use of a dirty toilet.
Tai Lun Po is sitting in his underwear on the edge of his mattress, eating. He is one of the few residents here who isn’t afraid to speak up. “I’ve got little left to lose,” he says.
He worked in construction, carrying heavy stuff around, until he turned 70. He’s been living in a cage since he was 50. Now he’s 80. He’s on the list for a place in a retirement home, but he was told it will be at least another three years before any space opens up.
Until then, Tai stays in his cage.