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Hong Kong high-speed rail

West Kowloon, where the homeless live in the shadow of luxury flats and Hong Kong’s new express rail link

Upmarket district’s juxtaposition of swanky offices and struggling drug addicts tells the story of city’s growing wealth gap

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 September, 2018, 8:25am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 September, 2018, 2:51pm

In a haphazardly built hut tucked away under a busy flyover in Hong Kong’s upmarket West Kowloon district, a Swede is hanging around with two Nepali men on a sweltering afternoon.

The 43-year-old man, who calls himself John, does not go into detail about what he is doing in this dusty corner of the city, saying only that he is waiting for his girlfriend, who was recently discharged from a drug rehabilitation centre.

Standing next to a pile of rubbish while three ferocious guard dogs watch attentively, John recalls how he became homeless a few months ago after his “economy crashed a bit” while he was funding his girlfriend’s pricey heroin habit.

“She was sent to Hei Ling Chau [addiction treatment centre] for eight months and got out about a week ago,” John says, his hands shaking as he speaks. “It’s much easier to find her here, where she has been living for a year or so.”

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This reporter came across the trio in the hut while interviewing Reverend Jordan Hon Shee-wah, deputy senior pastor with Fuk Lam Church in Yau Ma Tei. Hon has served the community in the district and in Jordan for more than 20 years.

“Drug addicts are active in this area, which is an open secret,” the pastor says as he watches the Nepali pair sneak out of the hut and dash across a highway. “The hut appears to be a drug abuse hotbed.”

Addicts, homeless people, the 118-storey International Commerce Centre office tower, luxury homes and a state-of-the-art rail terminus are small pieces of a bigger jigsaw at West Kowloon, a district regarded as an emerging gateway to mainland China and an economic “propeller” for the city thanks to the high-speed trains set to begin running on September 23.

About 300 metres away from the hut sits the West Kowloon terminus for the 26km local section of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link, which cost HK$84.4 billion (US$10.8 billion) to build over the past eight years.

The government has been trumpeting the economic benefits arising from the project, saying it will bring the city closer to Macau and nine cities in Guangdong into what is collectively known as the Greater Bay Area, under Beijing’s plan to create an IT-led economic powerhouse to rival Silicon Valley in the United States.

In reality, however, West Kowloon is a miniature showcase of the city’s growing wealth gap, which reached its widest in Hong Kong’s history last year, with the richest household earning about 44 times what the poorest family scrapes together, despite government efforts to alleviate poverty.

Kenneth Woo, senior chief sales director for property agent Ricacop Properties, says apartments in the five luxury housing estates above Kowloon Station – located next to the West Kowloon terminus – can cost anywhere between HK$30,000 and HK$80,000 per square foot and are popular with mainland investors.

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“These are homes in the top range of the market, and there are not many first-hand apartments available for sale,” he says.

On the other side of the West Kowloon terminus is King George V Memorial Park on Canton Road, where retiree Pauline Lau makes her “home” in a narrow back lane.

Lau, 75, who has “lived” there for the past decade, has witnessed the construction of the high-speed rail project and watched home prices in the area shoot up.

She says that she has never crossed to the other side of Canton Road and has no desire to see the mega infrastructure development in person.

“There is no point to go and see it – I will never afford any apartment over there,” says Lau, who knows what the West Kowloon terminus looks like only through images in newspapers and on television.

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She says she prefers to remain in the park even though she spends two-thirds of her roughly HK$4,000 monthly government welfare aid renting a bed in a subdivided flat in Jordan.

“I stay here most of the time because of my friends here. If I stay at the subdivided flat and pass out, I may die without anyone realising,” she says. “If it rains, I can sleep in the park washroom.”

Lau’s friend and neighbour, who calls herself Wong Mama, says she turned down a government offer for a one-person apartment in a public housing estate in Lok Fu for the same reason.

“Here is better, I like my friends,” says Wong, who is in her 60s.

On this reporter’s second visit to the area, Reverend Hon and some Christian volunteers are singing songs with several homeless people in the back lane.

Lau appears to be enjoying herself, while Wong Mama sits dozing off on a folded bed. A syringe and some bloodstained tissues lie next to her, and she is too drowsy to respond to the worship or any greetings.

Ng Wai-tung, who works with the Society for Community Organisation (SOCO) to help street sleepers, says they need not only hardware – a home – but also software – a social network.

Priced out and living above a rubbish dump

“The government should take reference to a model in New York, which provides temporary housing for about six years with common living areas and nursing services so that they can build their social network and receive medical care,” Ng says.

According to SOCO surveys, the average street sleeper returned to being homeless 4.4 times in 2017, up from 2.8 in 2013. There are 1,192 registered homeless people in the city, but Ng says the actual number could be greater.

The Social Welfare Department says it offers subvention to three non-governmental organisations to provide relevant social welfare support services to help homeless people re-integrate into the community.

The three are the Salvation Army, St. James’ Settlement and the Christian Concern for the Homeless Association, with each operating an integrated services team for street sleepers.

The teams provide street sleepers with services including day and late-night outreach visits, emergency shelter and short-term accommodation, counselling, employment support and guidance, personal care, emergency relief funds to cover various expenses, and service referrals.