Sze LaiShan helps the poor trapped in tiny 'coffin' and 'cage' tenements

Sze LaiShan aids the vulnerable underclass who live in poverty amid Hong Kong's vast wealth.

Jerome Favre
Community organizer Sze LaiShan helps the elderly, migrants, people with physical or mental disabilities, and impoverished children become part of Hong Kong society. Here, she poses in an apartment that’s been divided into cramped ‘cage’ homes.

The cloying odor of damp clothes and sweat from the five men crammed into the small room in a tenement block in Tai Kok Tsui, a rough-and-tumble Hong Kong neighborhood, makes the sticky summer night almost unbearable.

Squatting at the entrance to the 16-square-foot steel mesh cage that demarcates his world, Jeung Yingbin, says he pays nearly $150 a month to live in a space no larger than the inside of a small car.

The men share a grubby toilet and shower. There's no air conditioning, and a weak strip light shines onto peeling walls streaked with rust from the pipes overhead.

"I would like to live somewhere else, but it's too late. I am too old to live by myself, so I will stay here," Mr. Jeung says, his thin arms slung over his knees.

He relies on an energetic community organizer, Sze LaiShan, for help with his basics: food, clothes, and filling out welfare payment forms. But he also turns to her for friendship and support.

"Everything he owns is inside that cage," Ms. Sze says, gesturing toward a small heap of shirts and trousers and the scuffed plaid nylon bag he uses as a pillow.

"It makes me angry," she says. "The world looks at Hong Kong and sees the big office towers and rich people eating at expensive restaurants. They do not see that this city is also extremely poor, and many people are struggling to survive."

Since 1995, Sze (pronounced "see") has worked for the Society for Community Organization (SoCO), a nonprofit group that provides food, clothing, education, and advocacy for 10,000 of Hong Kong's poorest and most vulnerable: the elderly, migrants, people with physical or mental disabilities, and children in poverty.

SoCO also runs outreach programs for unfashionable causes, including those of ex-offenders and drug addicts. Volunteers brought in by Sze give free classes in everything from English and painting to computer skills.

Sze, who displays a disarming directness and a ready laugh, clearly enjoys spending time with her clients – so much so, says Jack Yan, a SoCO volunteer who has known her for a decade, that she remembers all of their contact numbers.

"She keeps them in her head, just like you do with your close friends," he says. "That's how she views the people she sees. Sze loves her work. She never stops.... It's incredible. She cares about people in need, and they are part of her life."

The city's poor need all the friends they can get. Densely populated and intensely competitive, Hong Kong is a notoriously unforgiving city. Its low-tax, free-market ethos draws investors from around the world, driving up property prices and rents to eye-watering levels.

Those who succeed here often make it very big, including "Superman" billionaire property developer Li Kashing, who is held up as an example of what hard work in an open economy can achieve.

Yet for Sze there are too many being left behind. A 2010 United Nations Devel­opment Program report ranks Hong Kong as having the world's greatest disparity between its rich and poor.

Many of Sze's clients live in "cage," "coffin," and "cubicle" homes – cheap, squalid spaces that put a different complexion on the glitzy face of this city of 7 million.

Hidden from view, their ranks are swelling. SoCO puts their number at 100,000, many paying landlords a higher rent per square foot of space than people living in the city's most desirable areas.

Through persistent lobbying, Sze helps hundreds of people each year move from substandard units to public accommodations – or at least get on the waiting list.

"These people don't feel part of society here. That's a sad and dangerous thing," Sze says. "It's important they know there are ways to make themselves heard."

Recently she led a group of cage-home dwellers to the city's seat of government – the Legislative Council – to deliver a petition calling for more low-cost housing.

She wants to make Hong Kong's power brokers tackle the causes of poverty, Sze says. "We can provide food, clothes, and support ... but really we need political action to get to the roots of why there are so many poor here," she says.

Her empathy for the urban poor stems from her own experiences. In 1981 Sze arrived in then British-run Hong Kong from China's hardscrabble Fujian Province. Her impoverished family found housing in a dormitory in a tenement block.

"Hong Kong was very poor then, but there was social mobility ... you could work your way up and hope for more," she explains. "That poverty is still here ... just with less opportunity to escape it."

Lee Pakshun, a young migrant from mainland China, is one of those trapped near the bottom of the ladder. Living in another shabby Tai Kok Tsui block, Mr. Lee says his hopes of making a good life in Hong Kong have been suspended for the four years that he has lived in a cramped 54-square-foot cubicle.

"I feel a lot of pressure in here. It is so small. I eat and sleep on the same bed," he says. "But Sze has taught me that I have a voice and must fight for my rights. That makes me feel positive ... like I can change my future."

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