HONG KONG'S largest charity group, the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals, is operating at least three cage homes where 100 elderly people live in rat-infested squalor. A Sunday Morning Post investigation reveals that residents have lived in fear of rats, communal fights and accidents for years while Tung Wah's glossy annual reports highlight the group's work in 'enabling senior citizens to live in dignity'. The multi-billion-dollar charity has a network of hospitals, homes for the elderly and children's centres, and televises a glittering annual fund-raiser. During the 1993-94 financial year revenue for the Tung Wah Group was about $2 billion, mostly from fund-raising events and donations, with about $123 million spent on elderly services. Yet nowhere in Tung Wah's annual report is there any mention of its property on the third and fourth floors of a six-storey building at 56 Fuk Tsun Street and 1 Lime Street in Tai Kok Tsui, west Kowloon . . . the squalid caged homes it has been operating for at least 30 years. In what appears to be a further bid to keep its involvement secret, the Tung Wah group also encouraged one of the tenants to apply for an exemption from the new Bedspace Apartment Ordinance that came into effect on November 30. Under the ordinance, cage-home operators must comply with regulations to upgrade their facilities or face a maximum penalty of $100,000 and two years' imprisonment. However, those who applied for a special exemption certificate before the deadline have been allowed a one-year grace period. 'Tung Wah's rent collectors kept on urging me to register and they told me there was a penalty if I failed to do so,' said Mrs Lam Cheung, 79, who has two cage homes in the building registered in her and her husband's name. The Sunday Morning Post discovered the cage flats, which Land Registry records show are owned by the Secretary for Home Affairs, were given to Tung Wah for management in the post-World War II period. But the flats were registered with the City and New Territories Administration (CNTA) for licence exemption certificates late last year under Mr and Mrs Lam's names. Mrs Lam shares a room with her husband in one of the cage homes, and has been charged with collecting rent from other residents and handing it to the rent collectors from Tung Wah Group, who visit every month. In return, the couple live rent free. Tung Wah Group secretary Stella See Sau-ying admitted the cluttered and dirty dwellings were run by them, and had been operating for about 30 years, but was unable to explain why they operated as cage homes. 'It happened a long time ago and I need some time to figure it out,' she said. 'We know the cage homes are not in good condition, but we'll persuade the operators to co-operate with the Government by upgrading the flats to fit the new [Bedspace Apartment] rules.' When asked why residents were pressured to register the cage home flats in their own names, Ms See said she had no idea, but promised to investigate. There are 16 homes for the aged and seven social centres for the elderly registered to Tung Wah, but disclosure of the cage homes have never been made public. Tung Wah's annual report emphasises its elderly services aimed at 'enabling senior citizens to live in dignity and to keep in touch with the community'. 'Continuous efforts have been made in upkeeping and improving the quality of service through the arrangement of regular inspection visits to residents of care and attention homes by the Group's medical officers,' the group's annual reports advise donors and members. But the reality is very different, said residents who told the Sunday Morning Post that Tung Wah management had done nothing for them but collect the rent. 'They only appear once every month. It is on the 20th, the day for collecting rent,' said 71-year-old Poon Shi-kau. Occupants sleep in three tiers of cubicle-beds just 77 centimetres wide, which are more cramped than the usual 93 centimetre cubicles in similar homes. Passageways between the cubicles are also extremely narrow. Clusters of plywood-sided cubicles block daylight from entering the flats, so residents often cannot tell night from day. Rats roaming in the flats gnawed their blankets, clothing and electricity wires, they said. Tenants, who are largely dependent on Government welfare payments while they wait to be re-housed, said they had to climb an unlit staircase every day and cooked their dinners in shifts from 4.30 pm to 9.30 pm in the dingy, slippery kitchen because it was too small to allow several people to use the stove at the same time. Impatience when queueing to use the toilet and shower room often led to quarrels and sometimes scuffles. 'I spend a few dollars to buy flags from Tung Wah whenever they have flag days, but they have yet to help me with good accommodation,' said 85-year-old Tam Yau. 'I'm longing for the Government to rehouse me now.' Residents showed the Sunday Morning Post bills for rent, electricity and water accounts, all addressed or chopped in the name of the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals. 'I've been living here for 30 years. I have paid rent from when it was a few dollars [a month] to when it became $64 about six years ago. But Tung Wah suddenly doubled the rent to $128 two months ago. It is difficult for us to adjust to and afford,' said resident Lee Wai-kong, 50. Although residents said they complained about conditions and the lack of upkeep of the premises, Tung Wah had never responded. The Sunday Morning Post revelations brought widespread condemnation last night. Society for Community Organisations (SOCO) spokesman Tsang Ka-wai condemned Tung Wah for misleading the public. 'I couldn't have imagined a large charitable organisation such as Tung Wah would run cage homes. They are among the worst I've ever seen,' said Ms Tsang. A CNTA spokesman was unable to explain who should make application for registration of the cage homes. 'It's a very complicated and historical issue and we need to talk to the Tung Wah Group to figure out the details,' said assistant Secretary for Home Affairs, Vincent Tang Chi-leung. Chairman of the Legislative Council's housing panel, Lee Wing-tat, said he would demand explanations from both the Government and Tung Wah. 'The group is such a reputable charity body for elderly services. I believe they have enough resources to improve conditions in the cage homes, and I don't believe the group has to depend on the revenue which comes from the 100 senior citizens. They should do more,' Mr Lee said. 'If the flats were owned by the Government and given to the group in trust, I think the Government should bear the responsibility too. And I will ask for an official reply for that.'