My fifty years as a cubicle dweller

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 April, 2012, 12:00am


Subdivided flats are nothing new in Hong Kong. Ask Tam Kin-wai, who lived in them for half a century.

Life for the tenants was never easy, but while Tam, 78, has some fond memories of the communal living in the early years, he says things are much tougher for today's cubicle dwellers.

'Back then, people had heart - they had compassion for one another,' he says.

For Tam, the lifestyle used to be bearable, because the members of the community who shared the crowded space looked out for one another.

But Tam, who moved into a newly built public flat in Yau Tong six months ago, said that in recent years the subdivided spaces got smaller, people became warier and more distant, and landlords became meaner.

It was different when Tam rented a space in To Kwa Wan in the 1960s. He lived there for nearly two decades.

'There was a time when for two full years, I couldn't pay rent, because I was out of a job,' he recalls. 'Instead of kicking me out, my landlord invited me to dinner with his family.'

That landlord was a tailor.

'He made beautiful handmade Western suits and coats,' Tam says.

The tailor leased the flat from its owner and occupied the biggest room with his wife and children. He sublet the rest of the space, mostly to single people like Tam.

Tam lost his factory job and, unable to find another one, struggled for money. But the landlord never put him under pressure for the rent. Instead, his wife kept stuffing the young tenant with food.

'He was prepared to pay my share for me because he didn't want to see me on the streets,' Tam said.

'He could have easily found another tenant, but he kept me. I felt so guilty that when they asked me to dine with them, I'd refuse and say I'd eaten, even though I was starving.

'I felt bad for taking their food while I couldn't even pay the rent.'

When he finally found a job and got his first pay cheque, Tam tracked down the landlord - who had moved away - to return two full years of rent.

'Places are made by people,' Tam says. 'And it is people who change those places.'

He recalls how his fellow tenants would share food, help one another out financially and become friends.

'Most guys worked - taxi drivers, builders, office workers. People were poor; everyone would do whatever work they could find but also share whatever they could, too,' Tam says.

There was a communal living space, where tenants would have little kerosene stoves lined up in a row and would often cook extra for somebody who was struggling.

'There was always room for another pair of chopsticks,' he says.

Tam's memories of the time include having Lunar New Year meals together with other tenants who had no family in Hong Kong, someone saving him a bowl of home-made soup and being able to leave his door wide open and cupboards unlocked when he went out, knowing no one would steal from him.

By the 1980s, Tam had moved to Tai Kok Tsui, and in the mid-'90s, he married a mainland woman and had a son. They shared his home for several months at a time and moved in permanently in the early 2000s.

'I don't know why, but in the early '90s, people started to change. People became more complicated, and landlords were not as they were before,' Tam says.

Landlords moved out of the flats and refitted the rooms to accommodate more people, he says. The communal spaces and kitchens disappeared. Interaction between neighbours diminished. The places became even more crowded and dirty.

'The fleas came in the '90s. Before that, there were none,' Tam says. A growing number of immigrants from the mainland occupied cubicles, and instead of mainly single people, more families moved in. The turnover rate was much higher, some tenants staying only a few months.

The Tam family moved from small rooms to smaller rooms, then to tiny cubicles. Rents shot up drastically in the past three decades.

Landlords were more interested in making profits, and since they no longer lived in the flats, they had less compassion for their tenants, Tam says. Some flats were even owned by companies, not individuals.

'There's less trust between the landlords and tenants. I don't blame [the landlords], as more people try to cheat them out of paying the rent,' Tam says. 'It's just a different world. Harder and meaner.'

He recalls: 'When my son asked if we could go somewhere with fewer bedbugs and fleas and somewhere slightly bigger, I said to him, 'I'd like to do that, too, but unfortunately your father is old and poor.'

'In the past, everyone was a tenant, and living in cubicles only meant there was a community and people to call family. But after the '90s and after my wife and son joined me, I just couldn't wait to move out.'

The safety of subdivided flats has come under the spotlight in recent years. In November, a fire spread through market stalls to buildings on Fa Yuen Street in Mong Kok, killing nine tenants of subdivided flats.

Another fire, in To Kwa Wan in June, killed four people. Checks on subdivided flats have since been stepped up.

Development Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said it would be impractical to outlaw subdivided flats - whether it is one flat with a different household in each room or a labyrinth of cage homes and cubicles in an abandoned factory - as doing so would mean the loss of many homes for the poor. But while local concern groups say the government must increase the regulation of subdivided flats, tenants hope and yearn for better housing.

A recent photo exhibition by Artwalk 2012 and the Society for Community Organisation opened some Hongkongers' eyes to the living conditions of modern-day cubicle dwellers. Tam was one of those photographed, sitting in his old home.

'It's not easy being photographed when your home is so small, so cluttered and so unlike a home,' Tam says. 'But there comes a point when you have nothing to lose, and you hope that your photo can somehow bring change to your life.'

He says moving to public housing is the single best thing that has ever happened to him.