Campaigner throws spotlight on Hong Kong's housing horrors

An ad-man has used his flair for getting attention to highlight the wretched state of many Hongkongers’ living conditions

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 October, 2013, 4:44pm
UPDATED : Friday, 04 October, 2013, 12:49pm

A cage sits on a corner in busy Central. People rush past on their way home, not noticing an old man sleeping in the cage, which is just twice his size, with all his belongings hanging on the wire netting.

The cage was part of a housing campaign initiated by Kwong Chi-kit, creative director of a local advertising agency.

Inspired by a reality show inviting local tycoons to experience life in cage homes, Kwong came up with the idea of highlighting the problem using his advertising experience.

Video: Cage Home Art Campaign

Three cage-home models designed by Kwong and crafted by colleagues were placed on busy streets in Central and Happy Valley, a district known for its high rents. With the help of local charity the Society for Community Organisation (SoCO), they photographed the reactions of passers-by and uploaded the pictures to social networks.

The project attracted media attention at home and abroad. "Hong Kong people were not as interested in the models as tourists and foreigners, which was what I expected," Kwong said.

He said he initiated the campaign to give a closer look at the cage dwellers so that people could have a better understanding of the "invisible group".

"I heard people say 'they end up in cage homes because they have not worked hard enough'," he said. "It's such a misunderstanding. These people could not afford education to move up the social ladder because they spend most of their income on rent."

While the models themselves were largely ignored, the pictures of the pedestrians' reactions were widely circulated on social networks.

The project recently won ADSA's Best Integrated Campaign, an international non-profit and social advertising award. The project is now being showcased at an exhibition in Beijing.

But while the cage-home model gets more and more "likes" on the internet, hundreds of cage-home dwellers are still poverty-bound and enduring their hellish accommodation.

SoCO says the average size of cages has dropped from 18 to 15 square feet in the past four years.

"A 15-square-foot 'cage' could cost HK$1,600, meaning the rent per square foot is as high as for a luxury mansion," a report by the group says.

Many cage dwellers are elderly and living on welfare, says Angela Liu, a social worker with SoCO.

"They have been waiting for a public rental flat for years," she says.

Kwong hopes his campaign will inspire people to reflect more on housing policies, which he believes deny the needy the chance of social mobility.

"My family lived in a public rental apartment when I was young, and that's why my parents were able to pay for my education and support me to study abroad," he says.

Kwong says the only solution is to build more public housing.

He says pedestrians' lack of interest in the cage models does not mean they do not care.

"We have been stuck with the housing problem for generations," Kwong says.

"Every Hongkonger has complaints about housing, but prices keep rising and housing conditions get worse and worse. So people feel helpless, that there's nothing they can do to make a difference."

But Kwong believes the effort of every individual counts.

"Take moral and national education for an example," he says. "At the end of the day it was still up to the government to amend the policy. But if we had not protested at the government headquarters and made our voices heard, we would never have been able to have the scheme postponed or changed."

To encourage people to take action, Kwong attached a QR code to each of the cage models left on the street. Once scanned with a smartphone, the code automatically generated an e-mail asking the government to supply more public housing.

"I don't know if our campaign will affect the chief executive's decisions, but at least I've used my knowledge as a creative director to call for action."