‘Contrast Sensitivity’: An insight into poverty and inequality in one of the richest places in the world

Blog 3: Housing in Hong Kong

I was very interested in finding out more about housing in Hong Kong as I am currently working on a participatory youth research project, Beyond4Walls, exploring housing and communities in Scotland.

Yat Tung Housing Estate (Photo:Lisa Whittaker)

Yat Tung Housing Estate (Photo:Lisa Whittaker)

Hong Kong is very densely populated, 7 million people live on about 1,108 km² (427 mi²) of land in the region. According to the 2007 census, the breakdown by type of housing was as follows:

  • Public rental housing: 31.0%
  • Housing Authority subsidised sale flats: 17.1%
  • Housing Society subsidised sale flats: 0.7%
  • Private permanent housing: 49.3%
  • Temporary housing: 0.7%
  • Non-domestic housing: 1.2%

Public housing is a major component of the housing in Hong Kong. According to the latest data (2011) released by the Hong Kong Council of Social Service in October 2012, Tung Chung is now the poorest district in Hong Kong. Yat Tung Estate, which comprises approximately half of the Tung Chung population, includes the third-largest number of Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) households in Hong Kong. Yat Tung is the largest area of public housing in Hong Kong.

I spent one day and one evening in Yat Tung during my trip, despite being densely populated and isolated there was a strong community feel to the area. Sai Ngoi To Yuen is a phrase some young people used to describe Yat Tung estate. It comes from a famous Chinese poem and means a place for taking refuge; a fictitious land of peace; a retreat away from the turmoil of the world. Yat Tung definitely felt far removed from other areas; I’ve added a map below as a reference point. This means many local people rely on local services and employers while others have to travel further afield for work.

Map of Hong Kong (right) and Yat Tung (left)

Map of Hong Kong (right) and Yat Tung (left)

The tower blocks and outside space seemed very well planned, with well-lit outdoor spaces where people could meet, as indoor space was extremely limited. There were also several exercise areas and spaces for people to play sports:

Yat Tung (Photo Lisa Whittaker)

Yat Tung (Photo Lisa Whittaker)

Space is precious in Hong Kong, everyone I spoke to could tell me the size of their home in sq. ft. which I found fascinating as I don’t think this is similar in Scotland. As I was to learn for people living in poverty, space was extremely limited.

Yat Tung 2 (Photo: Lisa Whittaker)

Yat Tung 2 (Photo: Lisa Whittaker)

Subdivided housing, caged and coffin homes

More than 170,000 people in Hong Kong are living in cramped subdivided flats, underlining the scale of the city’s housing crisis. Low-income families and immigrants are forced to live in the tiny subdivided units, unable to afford sky-high rents in the crowded city of seven million. The stark reality of subdivided homes were captured in a recent photo exhibition ‘Living at the Limit’ by the Society for Community Organisations in Hong Kong. This is one example:

Living at the Limit Exhibition

Living at the Limit Exhibition

But subdivided homes are not the smallest spaces available for rent in Hong Kong. For many of the richest people in Hong Kong home is a mansion with an expansive view from the heights of Victoria Peak. For some of the poorest, home is a metal cage or ‘coffin’. It is estimated these cages are home to tens of thousands of people, stacked on top of each other – measure 6ft by 2.5ft and rent is in the region of £100 per month. Soaring costs are putting decent homes out of reach of a large portion of the population. A CNN article in 2011 led with the headline ‘Hong Kong’s poorest living in ‘coffin homes’ and described Mak’s situation Mak, 72, has lived in his four-walled “coffin home” overlooking the city’s Wan Chai neighborhood for the past decade. His entire living space is no bigger than a twin-sized bed, and has just enough room for him to sit up. In 2013 it was reported that 210,000 people are on the waiting list for public housing, about double from 2006. Cage homes sprang up in the 1950s to cater mostly to single men coming in from mainland China. Substandard housing such as caged homes and subdivided apartments are growing as more families are pushed into poverty.

 If I thought this situation was bad I realised that it is even more desperate for the thousands of refugees and asylum seekers who come to Hong Kong.  This will be discussed in the next blog.

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