Hong Kong housing

‘Being a rich man’s dog is better than living in a subdivided flat’: play depicts what happens when four high-flyers collide in 50 sq ft

My Luxurious 50 sq ft Life, a satirical comedy-drama about living in Hong Kong’s tiny subdivided flats, is back by popular demand

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 November, 2017, 1:00pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 November, 2017, 1:00pm

What happens when an owner of a subdivided flat, a government official, a property developer and an interior designer get stuck together in a 50 sq ft cubicle for a week?

The answer is that rats, faulty electricity and mouldy walls drive them to despair before one of them declares: “Being a rich man’s dog is better than living in a subdivided flat.”

The grim scenario is part of a theatre show titled My Luxurious 50 sq ft Life – a satirical comedy and drama about how and why some Hong Kong people have to live in the notoriously tiny homes.

The production, which debuted in 2014 has been featured in Taiwan and Shenzhen in mainland China, as well as the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland.

It is now set for a Hong Kong re-run in December due to popular demand.

In September its production company launched a new version of the play called a “mobile community show” with a 5.5-tonne truck revamped into a life-sized subdivided flat. The company went around the city putting on more than 40 street shows for schools and public housing estates.

One of the highlights of the play is its novel “immersive” theatre setting, which means there are no seats for the audience, and members of the public are free to roam around the set and interact with the actors during the show.

Carmen Lo Ching-man, artistic director of the production company, Cinematic Theatre, said she hoped it would break down the traditional barrier between the stage and the audience.

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“I don’t want the audience to think this problem is not related to them. Subdivided flats aren’t just a problem for the working poor. Today they have become such a widespread phenomenon that even some professionals in the middle class have no choice but to live in such conditions,” Lo said.

The three-part show begins with property agents offering a sales pitch about living in “cosy” subdivided flats, while the second part is a survival competition among the four characters. The last part is a more sombre, realistic portrayal of how living in a subdivided flat affects a family’s relationships.

Lo, who wrote the script in 2013, said she had initially hoped the show would raise awareness of the problem but found it ironic that it had now worsened with no signs of abating.

“If there’s one takeaway message for the audience it would be this: don’t you think the government is just turning a blind eye? It’s been three years already and what has the government done to improve the situation?” she said.

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Almost 200,000 people lived in some 88,000 subdivided units in 2015, according to a Census and Statistics Department report. About 57,100 households – 65.2 per cent of all subdivided flat residents – lived in units of between 75 and 140 sq ft. Earlier census estimates in 2012 put the total number as low as 64,900 people living in subdivided flats.

Partitioned cubicles fall into a legal grey area and are tolerated as long as they comply with fire safety and building standards. But alterations to divide flats into smaller units rarely adhere to proper standards.

Social worker Sze Lai-shan, who has worked closely with many subdivided flat residents and human rights advocacy group the Society for Community Organisation for more than two decades, said the problem started to worsen in 2008.

“There were a number of factors – there was inflation, rent started getting expensive, public housing production slowed down and there were more and more people getting poorer,” Sze said.

Applications for public rental housing more than doubled from some 100,000 in 2008 to more than 280,000 this year, according to Housing Authority figures.

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“It’s gotten to a point where you have to compete with other people just to rent subdivided flats because they’re in such high demand,” Sze said.

Sze added that the government should take a more active role in providing transitional housing for residents of subdivided flats while they waited to get into public housing.

The Hong Kong Council of Social Service in September launched a government-backed initiative to provide 500 flats to needy families waiting for public housing over the next three years. The flats are being leased to charities by philanthropists and property developers at a nominal price.

Lo said she couldn’t see that the play would bring about real policy change, but it was important to shed light on issues that needed to be addressed.

“We want to tell the government, look, this isn’t a joke,” Lo said. “It’s not only a problem with housing, it’s about basic human rights and living with dignity.”