Welcome to my cubicle

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 September, 2009, 12:00am

Take the flight of dark, smelly and litter-strewn stairs in this old Sham Shui Po walk-up and you will find the cubicle that eight-year-old Ching Chui-yee calls home. Chui-yee and her family of five live in a 40 sq ft box - in conditions most of us could not even imagine.

According to government figures, some 100,000 Hongkongers live in inadequate housing such as cubicles, bedrooms and cage homes.

Chui-yee lives in a 700 sq ft flat. It is divided into seven cubicles with 10 tenants and has only one bathroom and one kitchen. It is stuffy and has no windows. The only fresh air is what wafts in by way of a tiny balcony that is lined with clothes hung out to dry by tenants.

Rats, cockroaches and fleas thrive because of the poor hygiene conditions.

'I'm often woken by fleas during the night. I get so itchy when they bite and I have to get up and kill them before going back to sleep,' says Chui-yee.

Chui-yee's father works as a cleaner and is the breadwinner of the family. During the hot summer months the family relies on two electric fans to keep cool because air conditioning is too expensive. Chui-yee's mother says the heat makes it almost impossible to sleep and she has to wake up several times a night to change Chui-yee's little brother's clothes as he gets soaked in sweat.

Cubicle homes are unsafe - chiefly because every family owns a gas stove with a barrel of liquified petroleum gas (LPG). In this flat's tiny kitchen - perhaps 20 sq ft - there are four barrels of LPG, increasing the risk of fire.

But Chui-yee has never given up on her future. She sits at an old wooden table close to the door, where there is a light, to do her homework and study. She wishes her family could move into a public housing estate.

He Chunyan lives with her husband and two children in another cubicle. She says the poor hygiene conditions make disease spread quickly.

'Twelve people share one toilet. When one of us catches flu all the others get it. It's just terrible. The place is so crowded and dirty.'

She says it is almost impossible to get her daughter to school on time because there is always a long queue for the bathroom in the morning. 'She has to go to the toilet in our room in a basin while she waits to wash her face in the bathroom. It's just unbearable. I've lived here for three years and every day I'm looking forward to move to a public housing estate.'

The Society for Community Organisation, a body that cares for the rights of the underprivileged, conducted a survey on 260 cubicle dwellers from April to June this year. Results showed that 70 per cent of the tenants are not satisfied with their living conditions.

Chan Siu-ming, the society's community organiser, says: 'Most of the people living in cubicles are eager to move to public housing estates. Living conditions are not acceptable.'

He adds the survey also showed that rents for cubicles have risen by as much as 14 per cent year on year. Cubicle tenants have little bargaining power, as demand for cubicles remains high due to a public housing shortage.

'Cubicle dwellers have to wait at least three years for a public housing flat,' he says. 'I hope the government can do more to provide public housing for them.'

Chan says many landlords are greedy.

'Some owners divide a flat of about 1,000 sq ft into 40 bed spaces. They charge more than HK$1,000 dollars for each space, making HK$40,000 to HK$50,000 ...That's outrageous!'