Even the once-rich are reduced to living in squalor

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 January, 2014, 2:58am
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 January, 2014, 2:58am

Huddled in a caged cubicle just big enough to squeeze in a bed and a television set, Frankie Pong, 66, recalled the days when he was a multi-millionaire.

His fortune, amassed on the stock market, vanished overnight in the crash of 1973, leaving the former policeman penniless.

"I was rich. I had more than HK$30 million back in the 1970s," said Pong, who has just been discharged from hospital after surgery for a blood clot on his brain caused by a fall.

"I could not have imagined that I would end up like this."

Pong, who pays HK$1,500 a month for his 20 square foot space, is one of 17 "cage people" living in a stuffy, subdivided Sham Shui Po flat.

With no children to rely on he has to go out to buy meal boxes for himself even though his head is still bandaged.

He told his story while being visited by arbitrator Gavin Denton, who raised HK$600,000 by running the Arbitration Charity Ball in late October. Denton visited the cage dwellers on a tour organised by the Society for Community Organisation (Soco), one of the ball's beneficiaries.

"Hong Kong is known to be Asia's world city," he said, trying to squeeze onto Pong's tiny bed. "In a city as wealthy as this, situations like the cage people can be prevented."

Pong said it was hard to live in such a small space, but he had no choice. "At least I have a home and my freedom here," he said of the place where he has lived for the past four years.

Pong, who completed his secondary school education and speaks fluent English, tried several different jobs after he went broke, but could not get back on his feet. "I was an English tutor, a translator and a tour guide, but I just couldn't make a success again," he said.

The second leg of the tour was to rooftop flats in Mong Kok built from metal sheets and concrete. Denton used his smartphone as a torch to light his way through the darkened illegal structure.

The floor was covered with cables and rubble from several flats just torn down by the building's incorporated owners.

Despite the conditions, remaining residents are seeking legal aid to claim adverse possession of the roof while they wait for public flats.

"We have been on the waiting list for public housing for six years," said one man, who lives on the rooftop with his wife and 20-year-old son.

Soco organiser Sze Lai-shan said the conditions could be very dangerous during heavy rain or typhoons.

Denton was also struck by the fire risk when he stepped into the "coffin rooms", where as many as three levels of bunk beds were stacked together. The floor was divided into several rooms with no windows. When the door of one room was opened, it jammed the door of the other room.

"If there was a fire, people would be trapped. They could not get out," Soco director Ho Hei-wah said.

The danger of cubicle life was illustrated in 2011 when nine people died and 34 were injured in a fire that ripped through a subdivided building in Fa Yuen Street, Mong Kok. It was the deadliest blaze in the city in 15 years. Those living in the cramped flats had no way to escape the fire.

Ho said that while his group still had no firm plan on how to use the donation it often used such funds to provide education for children from disadvantaged families, as the society believed education could help the underprivileged to work their way out of poverty.