Hostel opens eyes to scourge of poverty
As visitors are given a chance to experience the misery of caged homes, government efforts may achieve only so much and it’s up to society to decide when enough is enough
Hong Kong’s glamorous side is what visitors best know. But a hostel for tourists in Sham Shui Po, our poorest district, goes out of its way to reveal how the not so well-off in society live. Its wire mesh bunk beds and tours of run-down areas would seem to be capitalising on the misfortune of others and giving our city a bad name. There is another way of looking at it, though; the location and manner in which it does business opens eyes to a problem that would have otherwise gone unseen.
High rents and long waiting lists for public housing mean that Hong Kong’s poorest people live in appalling conditions. The worst are surely the so-called caged homes, cubicles of about 16 sq ft stacked on top of each other in dilapidated flats. Renting for about HK$1,500 a month, they, and other low-cost accommodation such as tiny rooms in subdivided flats, are all that some elderly, jobless and those unable to find full-time work can afford. The Census and Statistics Department estimates that about 200,000 of Hong Kong’s 7.3 million people live in such places.
Caged homes are a mystery to most of us; we have seen images of them in exhibitions and during media coverage, but are unlikely to experience their cramped and impersonal spaces for ourselves. Those who have no choice other than to live in them tell of the suffocating air, bedbugs and habits of their always close fellow occupants. Given the challenges of providing affordable housing and the large number of people involved, such lamentable living conditions are not going to disappear any time soon. That they are located in downtrodden districts and hidden inside buildings we would never venture into, means that for most of us, they are out of sight and therefore, out of mind.
A hostel for budget-minded travellers that promotes itself on providing an insight into caged homes is not going to change much. At best, it will increase awareness and may stir the charitable. There should be fewer coffin-like homes when government policies take hold, but they will exist in one form or another until society determines that such living conditions are no longer acceptable.