Hong Kong chief executive hopefuls get a taste of life in Sham Shui Po ‘coffin cubicles’

Regina Ip and Woo Kwok-hing visit exhibition put on by welfare group Society for Community Organisation; they say something must be done to help needy

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 January, 2017, 7:46pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 January, 2017, 10:28pm

Chief executive hopefuls Woo Kwok-hing and Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee have taken their electioneering to the grass-roots level as both descended on Sham Shui Po on Sunday to see notorious “coffin homes” for themselves.

Ip, in a suit and turtleneck shirt, tried to squeeze into a mock 18-square-foot “coffin cubicle” during a visit to an exhibition on the city’s housing problems.

She did not miss the opportunity to mock her rival for “being too big” to fit into the cubicle for the benefit of the accompanying press.

Coffin cubicles, caged homes and subdivisions … life inside Hong Kong’s grim low income housing

The mock “coffin cubicle” is an exhibit in an exhibition titled “Trapped”, which is being put on by the welfare group Society for Community Organisation.

“You can just imagine. If it is the real thing, there will be fleas all over and it will be very hot in summer,” Ip said as she lay down in the type of bed that some 200,000 needy people call home.

“It is difficult even to get in or out,” Woo commented.

The duo were invited to Sham Shui Po by the welfare group to meet grass-roots residents as well as to see for themselves how they live. Both have announced their intention to run in the March chief executive election, for which the formal nomination period starts on February 14.

Woo said: “I feel more deeply about how overcrowded Hong Kong’s living conditions are.”

Society director Ho Hei-wah told the pair: “A friend from an international relief agency said he could only recall seeing such living conditions in pictures of the prison cells under the Khmer Rouge regime [in Cambodia from 1975-79].

“Leung Chun-ying’s best may not be good enough. But I would give him credit for what his administration has done in identifying sites for building flats to ease the housing problem.”

Ip said to Woo: “If [either of us] win in the election, we should really look into ways to address this.” Woo nodded in agreement.

There is no legal definition of a subdivided flat in Hong Kong. The term is commonly used to describe an already small flat that has been partitioned into several self-contained cubicles. Some are sub-divided using wooden boxes which look like coffins.

The lack of privacy is just the start of the struggle for their occupants. Many, who are already struggling to make ends meet, have to dig deep into their pockets to pay the rent that can reach nearly HK$3,000 for a cubicle.

Most are illegally converted. But they are often the only option for needy families, especially those who are not eligible for public housing.

In a session with residents, the two chief executive rivals heard of the long wait for public housing, increasing rents for subdivided flats and “coffin cubicles”.

Woo proposed a rent control scheme for subdivided flats so needy people could have affordable housing while waiting for a public flat.

Ip opposed the idea, saying this could discourage landlords from renting out their units.

She said the root of the problem was a lack of land for housing. The government, she said, should identify more land to build public housing for the needy.