Hong Kong's Cage Dwellers

Pressure mounts for the colony to eradicate `bedspace apartments,' but some residents want to stay

EXCEPT for oiling the door lock now and then, Chan Kan doesn't have many household chores. For the past quarter century the retired factory worker has lived with all her belongings in an iron cage that is 6 feet long, 4 feet high, and about 3 feet wide. ``It's affordable,'' Chan Kan says as she shuffles down a narrow aisle between cages stacked to the ceiling in a dark and dilapidated room.

``At first I lived in the top bunk, then in the middle one, and now here on the bottom,'' she says, stopping at the container she rents for $32 a month.

Some 4,000 poor, elderly men and women live in the segregated, cage-like dwellings, euphemistically called ``bedspace apartments'' by the British colonial government, but known among social workers as ``Hong Kong's blight'' or in Cantonese, ``black stains.''

The notorious hostels symbolize a Dickensian side of this laissez-faire society that persists despite welfare policies aimed at spreading out the gains of 20 years of remarkable economic growth among Hong Kong's 5.7 million people.

Built in the 1940s and '50s to lodge a flood of migrants from war-torn China, about 200 of the bunkhouses remain in old, inner-city districts like Kowloon City and Mongkok. Privately owned, they are run by middlemen who skim profits off the monthly rent of $26 to $38.

Scores and sometimes up to 100 people cram into single rooms on the upper floors of the tenements. Sweltering in summer, the rooms have poor ventilation, filthy sanitation, and no elevators. In Mongkok, where Chan Kan lives, a survey of the hostels showed that an average of 40 people shared each toilet.

Hazards in the buildings are extreme, with many lacking fire escapes and firefighting gear. Last December, a three-hour blaze in one tenement killed six people and injured 50. Panicked residents fled to the roof, and too many crowded onto a cherry picker, causing it to collapse down several floors.

The widely publicized incident spurred Hong Kong legislators to accuse the government of apathy toward the hostels. The abject penury makes ``a mockery'' of the colony, which boasts a vibrant, export economy and the world's second-largest public-housing scheme, critics said.

The Legislative Council, Hong Kong's mainly appointed parliament, voted last month to urge the government to move swiftly to eradicate the ``appalling'' and inhuman abodes.

``These people are left out of the safety net, and we want to rope them in,'' says legislator Maria Tam, who led the action.

But the government confronts a dilemma: Many of the inhabitants are reluctant to move out.

``They stay as long as they can climb up and down the stairs,'' says Lisa Leung, a social worker at the Mongkok Kaifong Welfare Association, which has persuaded only three people to leave their cages during the past three years.

Social workers say the higher rents of other available housing units are only part of the problem. Equally important are the traditional Chinese traits of industriousness and frugality, as well as more subtle, yet salient, matters of social status or ``face.''

Most of the inhabitants are men in their 50s and 60s who migrated to Hong Kong from southern China over the past 40 years. Of the women, many took vows of celibacy according to the custom in some southern Chinese villages earlier this century.

``It was a rule in our village when I was young that if a woman had the ability to earn a living she should not marry. It gave her higher status,'' says Miss Ng Szu, an 80-year-old hostel resident who came to Hong Kong from Shunde, Guangdong Province, 40 years ago.

A pressing goal for many migrants was to earn enough to support parents, wives, and children left behind in China.

Illiterate or with only primary school education, they took jobs as ``coolies'' in Hong Kong garment factories, docks, and tea shops. They ate cheap salted fish and vegetables from hawkers' stalls. Those forced to retire took up odd jobs like washing dishes or cleaning toilets in restaurants.

The tenants saw the cages as temporary, a place to sleep, another hardship to be endured as they saved every cent for the family and clan.

Chan Yin, a retired plastics-factory worker, still spends most of her savings to support her daughter and other relatives in China, bringing them gifts of clothing, sweets, and medicine on trips home twice a year.

With the gifts she gains ``face,'' a sense of worth, and even a feeling of superiority as she compares herself not with other Hong Kong residents but with her mainland kin.

``Their conditions are much more difficult than mine,'' says Chan Yin, 77, who lived in a cage in Mongkok for 28 years. Last year, Chan Yin converted three stacked cages into a tiny cubicle in the corner of the room.

Many cage dwellers retain the identity of tranients. Men especially cling to the idea that one day they will return to China, where the relatives they have supported will care for them.

``It's a kind of reward for them,'' Ms. Leung says.

Social workers say the ``caged people'' reject shared public housing or care homes because these represent a loss of independence, new obligations, and permanence. Public housing is far from the neighborhood hawkers and sympathetic employers on whom the lodgers rely.

Aware of these problems, Peter Tsao, Hong Kong secretary for home affairs, last month announced a three-pronged plan to relieve overcrowding in ``bedspace apartments'' by cutting the number of inhabitants in half.

Under the plan, $7 million in donations will be used to resettle 1,000 residents who depend on welfare in nearby, renovated buildings. Voluntary agencies will run the new hostels. Another 1,000 of those with modest incomes will be persuaded to move into public housing.

But social workers and legislators worry that despite government assurances, the plan could lead to an increase in homelessness, since all the 4,000 lodgers - whose average income is $300 a month - will face higher rents.

They also argue that the plan is only a short-term solution. Rapid urban renewal and the breakdown of the traditional family are likely to worsen the housing problem for Hong Kong's elderly singles in coming years, they warn.

``We want to make sure people moved out are not left in the streets,'' Ms. Tam says.

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