Coffin homes: the grim reality of Hong Kong’s housing system

Over the years, Hong Kong has infamously become home to 200,000 people, including 40,000 children, living inside unsalubrious cubicles known as ‘coffin homes’, leaving them with few to no hopes of finding better living conditions in the future. Here is a closer look at this part of the Chinese population which has been left aside for decades.

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Photo by Benny Lam.

What are coffin homes?

The designation ‘coffin homes’ is no euphemism. From the cramped spaces of the dwellings to the suffocating atmosphere that weighs on the overall infrastructures, these habitations truly give the impression of being buried alive. As one of the world’s major financial hubs, Hong Kong has been knowing a continuous economic growth for years which has led the housing costs to skyrocket without giving the chance to the poorer part of the population to adapt accordingly to this sudden change. Thus, many residents have found themselves forced to find shelter in coffin-sized housings rarely bigger than 180 square feet.

These ‘apartments’ pile up within flats illegally divided to welcome around 15 owners, and vary from stacked wooden bed to metal cages. The people living there are for the most part retirees with small to no pension, working poor, drug addicts or people with mental illnesses, basically all people who could not/cannot follow the quick globalization of their own city, and fell under the poverty line (individuals earning less than HK$4,000 (approximately 386 pounds) a month, or families of four with a household income of under HK$19,900 a month (approximately 1919 pounds).

To picture the situation more clearly, here is a photo taken by Associated Press photographer Kin Cheung on March 28, 2017, which faithfully reports on the living conditions within Hong Kong’s cubicles.

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Photo by Kin Cheung.

This picture shows a 63 year old man, named Wong Tat-Ming, inside his 18 square feet coffin home for which he pays 2,400 Hong Kong dollars a month, meaning approximately 231 pounds. This is one out of the many types of coffin homes that we can encounter in the city. These unsanitary residences saw the light in the late 50s and have only been increasing in number ever since that time.

Apart from their ‘personal space’, which roughly consists of a bed and maybe a few furnitures for those who managed to squeeze them in, people must share communal areas such as a kitchen or toilets, and put up with situations like bug infestations on a daily basis. Recently, researchers from the University of Hong Kong noticed that some of the buildings sheltering the cubicles housed up to six times the number of people they were designed for, thus increasing the potential risk of fire or disease outbreaks.

How did Hong Kong get caught up in this ever-growing crisis?

Considering the number of residents occupying cubicles, and looking at the state of such habitations, one would obviously call Hong Kong’s coffin homes a humanitarian and health crisis. The UN even qualified it as ‘an insult to human dignity’. Only 30 years ago, Mr Ho Hei-wah, director of the Society for Community Organisation (or SoCO, a non-governmental advocacy group in Hong Kong fighting for equal rights), discovered 200 inhabitants living inside caged homes, and tried to alert on the situation. Because this issue has not been dealt correctly, this number has multiplied by a thousand. So, how could such a situation happen in the dazzling city that is Hong Kong?

It is important to remember the fact that Hong Kong is a very small territory to begin with, for it is only 1,106 square meter feet wide. Only 7% of its island is zoned for housing, thus leading Hongkongers to live in very condensed urban areas. As we mentioned previously, the skyrocketing of housing costs is considered to be the first explanation for the increase of people renting cubicle houses. Another factor could be the rapidely ageing population, and the fact that elderly people struggle to make ends meet.

Seeking viable measures

Faced with the rapid progress of the numbers of coffin homes, Hong Kong’s officials have tried to come up with social measures that would hopefully solve the situation, in vain.

In 2012, when taking office, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying stated that his main focus would be to make housing more affordable across the whole territory. In order to do so, his policy aimed at expanding towns on the vacant parts of the land.

‘If the government and the community do not resolve to expedite the identification of land for housing production, the housing problem will remain a tough nut to crack’, he said.

This project has been widely unwelcomed by Hongkongers, who have heavily been criticizing it for not taking into account the social costs it would imply. In the end, Leung Chun-ying’s housing agenda has indeed been a failure and has only contributed to a bigger rise in coffin house occupants.

Another measure that has for main goal to unclog this crisis is the Public Rental Housing scheme, which is supposed to allow people to rent a flat for a lower price than private apartments. However, even this social project does not seem to work for the Housing Authority is beyond overwhelmed by the number of applications. Today, we count 268,500 applicants on the waiting list, meaning that, for some, it could take at least five years to rent a public housing. It is actually even harder for coffin homes residents to see through their applications, for they rarely meet the criteria of the households that are taken care of in priority. Knowing this, the plague of coffin home residents does not seem like it will subside anytime soon. On the contrary, one could believe that it may still increase in the following years, considering that most inhabitants already living inside the cubicles fail to have access to the Public Rental Housing scheme, and that many new Hongkongers continuously end up turning to these dwellings while waiting for their applications to get processed.

In the end, the government’s assistance has not reduced the number of people living in poverty in Hong Kong: overall, they represent 14,7 percent of the city’s population despite the welfare provided by officials.

However, in the 15th Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey released in 2019, experts have shared some hope for the future of coffin homes dwellers and all inhabitants below the official poverty line. They recalled that, at the end of 2018, the Task Force on Land Supply ‘proposed designation or reclamation of significant new areas for housing development, in the hope of improving both housing supply and housing affordability’, and that ‘some real estate experts are projecting price drops of from 15 percent to 25 percent in 2019’.

Apart from the government’s actions, some organizations decided to step in to help fixing the injustice that stagnates in Hong Kong. That is the case of the SoCO, which we briefly introduced previously. This non-profit-making and non-governmental organization created in 1972 is driven by the following motto: ‘Let us work hand in hand and shoulder to shoulder to build a caring, equal and just society’, and is determined to actively help marginalized groups of the city by providing the services they need. Their stance is clear on their official website, and they do not hide their resentment against the unfairness of Hong Kong’s system.

‘These deprived cannot enjoy our economic success and they are socially discriminated. They have been snubbed and fallen into oblivion. Standing in the line of underprivileged are caged lodgers, tenants with financial difficulties and living in appalling conditions, aged singletons, street-sleepers, ex-offenders, mentally ill patients, ethnic minorities, non-documented mothers of split families, families made up of new immigrants, patients and their families, Hong Kong residents being detained at the Mainland, etc. They are our serving targets.’

Despite offering services to lighten coffin home tenants’ daily lives, their action alone fails to bring a real perceptible improvement to this social issue.

Raising awareness on coffin home residents

While actions are taken by Hong Kong’s government in order to tame the crisis of coffin homes and, on a wider scale, poverty as a whole, the renters of the insalubrious cubicles seem to be hidden from the rest of the population. ‘We never hear about them on the news’, confide Kaixuan Zhou and Xinyi Chen, two Chinese students respectively learning Tourism and Hospitality Management and Tourism Management at Bournemouth University. ‘We mostly hear about them on social media posts. But sometimes we even ask ourselves if it is truly real or not’, adds Xinyi Chen.

Sadly, while 200,000 cubicle inhabitants is a large number in itself, those cases are still a minority within the 7.39 million population of Hong Kong. Just like their homes piling up in nooks of the city, the tenants of such inhospitable housings are left aside and outcasted by many, swallowed by the effervescence of the gleaming side of Hong Kong.

Over the past few years, many attempts have been made in order to bring awareness on this crisis on a worldwide scale. Along with emergent services, the SoCO often organizes campaigns in order to sensibilize the citizens as well as the governement on the emergency and critical state of the housing system. In 2016, for instance, the organization collaborated with BBDO Hong Kong (a notorious advertising agency) to create a photography exhibition, titled ‘Trapped’, which aimed at enhancing the darker parts of the city. The exhibit, which took place at Tsim Sha Tsui Hong Kong Cultural Centre from October 3rd to 9th, 2016, successfully attracted thousands of attendees, including international media such as CNN or even the ex-Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Mr Chee-hwa Tung.

We can also mention the increase of documentaries or filmed reports done on the topic, which are actively helping in casting light upon the marginalized people of the territory. Just by going on YouTube, we can come across dozens of videos dealing with the case of coffin homes, with reporters going in immersion inside these narrow spaces to get a better understanding of the gravity of the situation. The views often reach over 1 million, meaning that more people get sensibilized over this matter thanks to social media.

In a report done for The Guardian, Benjamin Haas stayed in one of Yau Tsim Mong district’s cubicle houses for a week. By filming and sharing this experience, he helped imaging the reality of Hong Kong’s flawed housing system, and contributed to make the dwellers’ voices be heard at the same time. ‘It’s hot, it’s stuffy, it’s loud, it’s uncomfortable, it’s musty, and for some of Hong Kong’s least fortunate, this is their only option’, he states while filming the inside of the space he has rented, which is only ‘2 feet wide and. 170cm long’. In a written article, he also shared some 360 degree view pictures to give us a better understanding of the tenants’ daily reality by plunging us directly into their living spaces.

Finally, artists also get involved in highlighting the necessity to bring help to the disadvantaged people of the city. For instance, professional Hong Kong-based photographer Benny Lam brought his skills to use as a warning call. Between 2012 and 2015, he shot bird’s eye view pictures of cubicle houses as part of his Subdivided Flats series, specially made for one of SoCO’s awareness campaigns.

By continuously speaking up for the most deprived people, by sharing their stories, by denouncing the disastruous living conditions they experience on a daily basis, we can only hope that a real change will eventually be made in Hong Kong’s housing system in the upcoming years. Unfortunately, this crisis appears to be solidly rooted within the society, and real effective measures seem hard to find. The coffin homes issue grows fast while decision making to fix it is a slow process. One can wonder if there will be an end to what seems to be a never-ending circle.

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