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Cage homes in Hong Kong: capitalism this Christmas
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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 governmentвАЩs 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 donвАЩt count; they are the outcasts and вАЬhuman wasteвАЭ of modernity and globalization (Bauman, 2004). What вАШeverybody knowsвАЩ 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 вАЬmeasure of all worth in Hong KongвАЭ (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 вАШcageвАЩ and вАШcubicleвАЩ homes in Hong Kong (or, to others, that they are still living in these places). Hong Kong is described as having вАЬtwo worlds in one cityвАЭ by a local rights activist (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HU4jjdRzy3w, a video from 2009); one a вАШmillionaireвАЩs playgroundвАЩ, the other housing the people who Marx described as the вАШlumpen proletariatвАЩ, 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 вАШresidentsвАЩ. 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 вАШfeminization of povertyвАЩ 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 вАЬinsult to human dignity.вАЭ 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 вАЬpeople 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 ...вАЭ (my emphasis). It is difficult to comprehend how a reasonable individual can suggest that one вАШchoosesвАЩ to live in poverty; one вАШchoosesвАЩ to вАШconvenientlyвАЩ live away from loved ones; that one вАШchoosesвАЩ 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 вАШconvenienceвАЩ 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 KongвАЩs 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, donвАЩt 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

Comments   

# Mark Gee 2011-12-21 02:43
Thanks for this article, Michael.

Good that someone is keeping us informed of the situation there, and dispelling western-held ideas of Hong Kong as solely being a city in which people make money.

You may be interested to know that the OECD recently produced a report on growing income inequality within member states:

http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/40/12/49170449.pdf

Different local context, but similar global issues.

Best regards,

Mark

http://blinkeredjustice.blogspot.com
# Michael Adorjan 2011-12-21 07:03
Hi Mark, thanks for drawing this to my attention. The Hong Kong government's response still strikes me as remarkable. It evidences the most banal variant of rational choice theory and a 'sociological unimagination' to combatting social problems. But again, it's a question of which human beings matter and which do not.
# Colin Sumner 2011-12-21 08:58
This story reminds me so much of Soweto, and all that work 20 years ago on the lumpenproletari at and semi-proletaria t in sub-Saharan Africa.....not to mention the Dickensian rookeries in London a century earlier. Trans-global and trans-historica l issues indeed!
# Cage Home 2011-12-21 22:29
The basic problem underlining the growth of cage and cubicle home is the insufficient building permits issued by the government each session. Massive influx of huge immigrates from northern mainland and south-east neighbouring countries intensify the social inequality. These instabilities social problems such as welfare,healthy and housing grow with the increasing population. Christmas is drawing near, will the coming governor election in January creats an almighty super-human to set up any positive measures to calm down those persistent uprising social inequalities. I hope, he will and must.
Wishing you and your family a happy, healthy holiday season and all the best in 2012 !

Sincerely

Lamberg
# Michael Adorjan 2011-12-22 02:14
Yes you are right uncle Lamberg - and very nice to see that this blog is read and engaged by both scholars and their friends and family too - a true public forum for sociological and criminological debate.

You are right, and let's make some predictions. Leung is campaigning on issues of import to the general public, especially the marginalised, not just vying to eliminate 'cubicle homes' but also address Mainlanders coming to HK hospitals to give birth as well as build more public housing estates. Tang, on the other hand, has criticized annoying young 'post 80s' youth who make trouble by making unreasonable demands for things like affordable housing and universal suffrage. He also has the support of the top dog of HSBC as well as a number of the tycoons. Let's make some predictions shall we?
# Sue 2011-12-22 15:46
Very nicely written Mike. What comes to mind is the Bolshevic revolution which was a direct result of the social inequalities at the time. Alas, the world continues to have such inequalities in many societies. The recent upheavals in the middle east should open our eyes to the outcome of the pro-longed and ever widening gap between the haves and have-nots. I have to wonder if our capitalist societies have become devoid of basic human values which may be why governments turn a blind eye to the plight of the poor. There seems to be no sense of shame or social responsibility in so many societies around the world. Where are we headed?
# Mark Gee 2011-12-22 16:17
Sue/Colin

Historical contexts very pertinent.

One thing that we all seem to be talking about is 'cost.' Or at least dominant financial notion of it. This form of 'cost' seems to make most sense in neo-consumerist "paradise" because policymakers are able to evidence it quantitatively.

Other ideas of 'cost', including human, social and cultural, are left in its wake because it is not easy to quantify. At least not for governments and policymakers.

Hence so many quick fix solutions that focus on the short-term 'savings' without any thought for the longer term costs (human, social & even economic) to society over the longer term.

Best to all for 2012.

Mark

blinkeredjustice.blogspot.com
# Colin Sumner 2011-12-22 16:40
Good point about 'costs', Mark... That was something I hinted at in an earlier InBrief piece on 'Banking immoralities: rediscovering the moral economy'. Many seem to have forgotten the fact that the 'costs' of subsistence contain a moral component, e.g. in advanced consumerist economies the stakes are raised so that a HD widescreen tv becomes a 'need', and therefore part of the 'fair wage' calculation. Standards of living continue to inflate. However these cages in HK are so awful that we can see that they must reflect the desire of policy-makers there not to pay a fair wage [or find jobs for people] and to avoid 'encouraging' a huge migration from rural China and the formation of a politically uncontrollable semi-proletaria t [see Issa Shivji's work on this for Tanzania].
# Morgainele 2012-01-18 18:47
So what can be done? is there ANY role for political activists in the US? to play? Is it simply up to these poor people to get themselves out of poverty? Could more publicity SHAME the government enough to do something?
+1 # Mike 2012-03-21 06:08
I read the recent stories on this topic in the *Daily Mail* and and CNN.com, and I was struck that this US$200 per month figure was describing a place in Mong Kok.

My sister-in-law shares a proper apartment (not a big one, mind you) in the New Territories and all three roommates pay US$500 per month. Which is to say, they guy in the cage is over-paying for the convenience of living in Kowloon-- or for not wishing to take his chance with roommates he meets through classified ads.

My in-laws, by the way, pay US$85 per month for a studio-- it's in public housing, so obviously it's tax-payer subsidized. It's also in the New Territories. It's not big, but it has private kitchen facilities and toilet and shower facilities, and air conditioning, and all the rest. Obviously, new immigrants are not immediately eligible for public housing.
# Mike 2012-03-21 06:09
ps-- In case I wasn't clear, I meant that my sister-in-law and her two roommates *collectively* pay US$500 per month for a proper (albeit small) apartment.
# Mike 2012-03-21 07:04
If you'll forgive yet another comment from me, this one a question, one thing intrigues me about the "acceptability" of the cage home, and so perhaps you can address this: is it the cage itself that causes public outrage?

I ask because if those living spaces remained otherwise identical with just one change-- i.e., removing the cages-- you'd have something similar to the youth hostels in London. And while the normal image of the person living in those hostels is a self-actualizin g backpacker, I happen to know more than one EU citizen from outside the UK who had to live in such a hostel for more than a year. And yet this doesn't seem to provoke the same level of outrage.

Now, if it *is* primarily the cage itself that causes outrage, then the answer might be simple: take away the cages.

Of course, that won't solve the problem of making scarce space more affordable.
# Snotty Noze Bratt 2013-07-29 06:24
The "cage" part of that style provides those who live in them some small measure of security against the others living there. Removing the cage part, isn't really in the best interest of the residents.
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