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Cage homes in Hong Kong: capitalism this Christmas

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Christmas 2011 is almost upon us, with the ethos of capitalism under fire the world over. Let us remind ourselves why this is so, and why so many now want a much more socially responsible form of economy, by paying a visit to an iconic capitalist city... In Hong Kong today some people still live in cages. They are not prisoners. They are simply persons rendered invisible in a world city where belonging and citizenship are instilled through financial capital and personal connections. In this article I describe this social problem within the context of rising levels of inequality in Hong Kong. I also present the Hong Kong government’s response to the problem and underscore the inadequacy of this response.

The social fact remains: in contemporary world cities, those with social capital (not only money but the right connections and associated knowledge) are valued much more than those without. Those outside don’t count; they are the outcasts and “human waste” of modernity and globalization (Bauman, 2004). What ‘everybody knows’ is that there is an ever-widening gap between the rich and poor. Hong Kong is no exception. Though Hong Kong is known to be a fast-paced international city that values luck, entrepreneurialism and wealth, its transition into a global city during the 1990s was accompanied by occupational polarisation and widening income inequality (Chiu and Lui, 2004). Those at the bottom of the social class ladder experience great challenges in simply getting by on a daily basis.

Hong Kong is consumption centred, with only money and wealth as the “measure of all worth in Hong Kong” (Mathews and Lui, 2001:10). These pressures are further exacerbated by rising levels of income disparity. In 1996, the year before the handover of Hong Kong from British to Chinese sovereignty, the top 20% of households held 56% of total household income, while the bottom 20% held as little as 4% (in 1986 these figures were 51% and 5% respectively) (Gray, 1997: 540). Conditions have not improved since, with the Gini Coefficient worsening from 0.451 in 1981 to 0.533 in 2007 (Hong Kong Government 1992; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_income_equality).

Still, it may come as some surprise that people are living in ‘cage’ and ‘cubicle’ homes in Hong Kong (or, to others, that they are still living in these places). Hong Kong is described as having “two worlds in one city” by a local rights activist (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HU4jjdRzy3w, a video from 2009); one a ‘millionaire’s playground’, the other housing the people who Marx described as the ‘lumpen proletariat’, those at the very bottom rung of the class hierarchy.

Cage homes are fitting descriptions: they are literally cages, averaging 6 x 2.5 feet, which hold the life possessions of their mostly elderly ‘residents’. Many cage home dwellers travelled from mainland China and, often in their youth, came to Hong Kong to find employment and, ironically, better living conditions. Social workers estimate that as many as 100,000, mostly male, live in cage or cubicle homes and partitioned dwellings. Recently modified versions are beginning to be applied to other groups such as families and elderly women, possibly contributing to the ‘feminization of poverty’ in Hong Kong. See http://www.weirdasianews.com/2009/11/21/hong-kong-citizens-living-cages-literally/

To add further insult, many cage home dwellers end up paying more rent per square foot than some luxury apartments. A CNN journalist found one such dwelling where living in the upper decks cost about US$100/month, while the lower deck costs about US$150/month, because there you can stand up (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D5hlF2RYdY0&;feature=related).

The United Nations has called cage and cubicle homes an “insult to human dignity.” It may thus be striking that such dwellings exist in approved governmental housing. The government does not seem motivated to change the situation. In a statement to a Dateline journalist inquiring into the condition of cage homes, the government stated “people choose to live in bedspace apartments and cubicles because these apartments, apart from commanding a low rental level, are mostly conveniently located in the urban areas ... hence, there is still a demand for this type of private accommodation ...” (my emphasis). It is difficult to comprehend how a reasonable individual can suggest that one ‘chooses’ to live in poverty; one ‘chooses’ to ‘conveniently’ live away from loved ones; that one ‘chooses’ to raise a young primary-school-age daughter in conditions where cockroaches regularly run over her body at night (see the first video clip above). Furthermore, this suggests at best a gross misunderstanding of privacy, as many of these dwellings have as many as 20 people sharing bathrooms (including the daughter mentioned above), which sometimes double as kitchens.

The only real ‘convenience’ here is taken by the Hong Kong government through their continued unethical rationalizations and lack of action. Some social workers who work closely with cage home dwellers point out that only half of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council parliamentary members are directly elected, which leads to little public accountability - at least regarding those segments of the public that are not held to warrant accounting to. Cage home dwellers, it seems, don’t count, and despite the great efforts of social rights activists to draw attention to the problem, they will remain invisible to those who see citizenship strictly linked to finance.

Michael Adorjan is an Assistant Professor at the University of Hong Kong and a member of its Centre for Criminology.

References

Bauman, Zygmunt. 2004. Wasted lives: Modernity and its outcasts. Oxford: Polity.

Chiu, Stephen and Tai-lok Lui. 2004. "Testing the Global City: Social Polarisation Thesis: Hong Kong since the 1990s." Urban Studies, 41(10): 1863-1888.

Gray, Patricia. 1997. "Deconstructing the Delinquent as a Subject of Class and Cultural Power." Journal of Law and Society, 24(4): 526-51.

Mathews, Gordon and Tai-lok Lui. 2001. Consuming Hong Kong. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press

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