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For some in HK, home is a wooden 'coffin'

Vincent Yuen (above), 32, in his subdivided flat, live in comparative squalor in one of Asia's wealthiest cities. (ST PHOTO: LI XUEYING)

Publication Date : 07-09-2012


Just a 20-minute train ride away from Hong Kong's glitzy city centre is Sham Shui Po, the city's poorest district.

On the streets, hawkers sell their wares - three potatoes go for HK$5 (64 US cents) and four cans of beer, HK$11, providing affordable bulk for the stomach and escape for the mind.

Upstairs, H.W. Ng, 35, sits in his home, a wooden box measuring 0.9m by 1.5m - one of Hong Kong's "coffin homes" - which he rents for HK$1,200 (US$155). It is stacked above another man's, and 61cm away from the next pair of boxes.

Singapore uses "shoebox homes" metaphorically to describe apartments smaller than 500 sq ft. There is nothing metaphorical about these coffins. Dark and dank, they reek of sweat, mould and despair.

Ng is stick thin, his arm's scant flesh bearing a faded tattoo of the Sanrio characters Little Twin Stars. When he was young, he says, his ambition was to become a scientist. But he grew up, was imprisoned for a few months for theft, and is now jobless.

Now, the former delivery boy dreams of "having more money - or emigrating from Hong Kong".

Down south in Aberdeen, round the bay from Repulse Bay, where company honchos and celebrities enjoy their sea-view villas, Vincent Yuen, 32, has a palace, in contrast.

The university graduate has a mini TV set, his own toilet - which he doesn't use because "it would be too smelly in here" - and a chair where he lounges with his iPhone. He lives in what locals call a "subdivided flat" of 40 sq ft, about the size of an HDB flat's storeroom, which he rents for HK$1,800. It is a relative bargain: Rents for similar places range from HK$1,500 to HK$4,000.

Each month, he takes home HK$13,000 as an administrator for Hong Kong political party the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong. He is also an aspiring politician - he ran in last year's district council election, but lost.

He lives here, he explains, because he is saving up to buy a home. After seven years of work, he has saved HK$200,000; he needs another HK$400,000 to make the down payment for a small flat, maybe a 300 sq ft space in the same area that would cost HK$2 million. He grimaces: "But first I need to find a girlfriend, and it's a bit difficult. I can live with such conditions, but can she?"

Two young men in their 30s, one a former convict, and another an aspiring politician. Both living in squalor at odds with Hong Kong's wealth.

Today, there are 100,000 to 150,000 people who live this way. Another 12,000 sleep on the streets, estimates Sze Lai Shan, a social worker with the Society for Community Organisation (Soco), which fights for better living standards for the poor.

She allows that things are better than when she began her work 17 years ago, when there were 200,000 people living in such dismal conditions.

Also, more are "moving up" from coffin spaces to subdivided units. The coffin spaces have been around for decades, while the subdivided units started sprouting in 2000. But while more spacious, they are more dangerous due to dodgy rewiring and partitions that block fire escape routes. Notices beseech residents not to clutter the narrow stairways with rubbish, saying: "Let us not all die together."

A fire at a block of such units in Mongkok in November last year killed nine.

Sze tells of the sense of hopelessness that pervades the buildings. Some residents, when asked if they wish to move to public housing, simply shrug.

One 71-year-old woman was finally persuaded to apply for a rental flat. She waited for a few years for it - and within a year of moving in, she died.

Says Sze: "We shouldn't have to wait for her to say yes, and then make her wait. She should have been entitled to a decent, clean, basic home from the beginning." Hong Kong is the city with Asia's highest income gap, where 20 per cent of the population live below the poverty line.

At the same time, even as they struggle to stay afloat, housing prices have gone through the roof.

The irony is that on a per square foot basis, coffin dwellers are paying more than what some tenants in the posh Mid-Levels District pay. A survey by Soco found that a third of these households pay rents of up to 75 per cent of their incomes.

Experts say what is crucial is to boost the supply of public housing.

Currently, there are 728,600 public rental flats in Hong Kong, covering about 30 per cent of the population. The government aims to build 15,000 units a year, but there are over 190,000 households in the queue - typically a three-year wait or more.

Meanwhile, those in the sandwiched class such as Yuen are stuck, unable to qualify for rental flats and unable to afford private homes. The Housing Ownership Scheme, where the government sells flats at about 70 per cent of market value to households earning below HK$30,000 a month, was scrapped in 2003 when property prices plummeted.

Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying has pledged to revive the scheme, amid talk over whether Hong Kong might follow Singapore, which provides public housing to 82 per cent of the population.

Developers are up in arms over this. Donald Choi of the Nan Fung Group, for instance, believes there should be more rental flats to satisfy "housing needs", as opposed to public flats for sale.

"If Hong Kong, as a society, says yes, we should increase help to the weak, by all means. But we should separate housing needs from ownership needs - ownership needs are not a basic need."

These debates do not occupy people like Ng, or his neighbour, who wanted to be known only as Tse. Tse, 55, who does "everything, including selling porn discs", points to a picture he put up on the wall of his coffin home.

It has one Chinese character - "yuan", or "fate" - which is covered by his blue-inked scribbles.

They say: "Be contented and you will be happy."


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