Poor sweat it out in 'flesh steamers'

For most families the recent heat wave has been just an inconvenience, easily handled by ducking under an air conditioner. But for people like Deng Aixia and her two children, the high temperatures could have had deadly consequences.

They are among the 100,000 impoverished people living in dismal conditions in subdivided flats, where simple luxuries such as air conditioning are often beyond their reach.

And it is their children who are bearing the brunt, new research from the Society for Community Organisation shows.

Pointing to her two-year-old asthmatic son, Deng said: 'The doctor said he seemed to be suffering from heatstroke. But he was only staying home the whole day.'

Deng says her son, due to attend school in September, needs regular medical treatment for his asthma. 'He always seems to be having difficulty with breathing, although he's too young to tell me,' she said.

A study released yesterday by the society dubbed subdivided flats as 'human-flesh steamers', where poor tenants unable to afford hefty electricity bills struggle to survive in unventilated, windowless rooms where temperatures can be even higher inside than out.


In tests at subdivided flats on July 22 - a date marked in the Lunar Chinese calendar as the hottest day of the year - the society found that the temperature in one flat in Sham Shui Po had reached 38.5 degrees Celsius, six degrees above the roadside figure.

An experiment yesterday at an eighth-floor flat in a building on Fuk Wa Street, Cheung Sha Wan, found the temperature was 32 degrees even after the air conditioner had been running for a few minutes.

The tenant, Huang Meizhen, arrived from the mainland two years ago. She said the electricity alone cost her HK$300 a month, in addition to the HK$1,400 rent for a room with space only for a bunk bed and a desk.

The issue of subdivided flats shot to prominence last year, with the government pledging to crack down on illegal subdivisions after they were cited as a factor in two fatal fires.


Huang's neighbour, Mok Chau-sin, lives in a similar subdivided flat with his wife.

'Although I'm a new arrival [from the mainland], I do make contributions to Hong Kong society. Why am I denied access to public housing?' Mok asked.


According to the society, some 8,000 applications for public housing remained 'frozen' as of November, as the applicants had not lived in the city for at least seven years, a prerequisite for permanent residency.

'The queue for public housing rose from less than 100,000 in 2006 to over 189,500 at present,' the report said. 'But the Housing Authority announced earlier that the annual number of units to be built for the coming five years remained at 15,000. This is a continuous neglect of the grass-roots [people's] difficulties.'