Once the glittering jewel in Britain's colonial crown, Hong Kong still dazzles after 12 years of Chinese rule. Asia's world city - as it brands itself - boasts 19 billionaires and more Louis Vuitton shops than London or Paris. High in its towers are some of the most glamorous apartments in the world. But there's another side to this city.

SZE LAI SHAN:    Actually in Hong Kong there are two worlds in one city. I think you just think you've gone to another world. It's not Hong Kong.

Sze Lai-Shan is a local rights activist and she's taking me on a tour of the Hong Kong that tourists don't see. She's worried because the tenants here are as camera-shy as they are poor. Eventually we are ushered in. What you're looking at are cages, not for animals, but people - old people mostly. And this is their entire world, with room for only a few prized possessions. 79-year-old Dai Yuen Po has lived this way for 30 years.

REPORTER:    Does he consider this home?

SZE LAI SHAN:    I don't know. Yes, yes.

REPORTER:   Home for 30 years?


Dai Yuen Po has no family to care for him. He's applied for public housing, but the likelihood is that he will remain here, sharing with 10 other men in the only real home he has ever known.

REPORTER:    So from here - just where my finger is - to here is six foot? And the width of the bed is just 2.5 feet.

To add insult to injury, the rent isn't even cheap for such tiny spaces. Dai Yuen Po is paying $12 per month per square foot - that's more than the rate per square foot for some luxury apartments here. Most of these men are on welfare. Rent eats up more than a third of that, leaving just $13 a day for everything else.

SZE LAI SHAN:    Many of the cage people cannot afford three meals a day because they need to save money to buy toilet paper - even to buy water sometimes because some of them don't have kitchen or do not have facility to afford water.

It's a sweltering night. Even at 8pm, the temperature remains above 30 degrees. The walls tell you the age of the building. In this case 60 years - ancient by Hong Kong standards - and approved as housing by the government. The United Nations says cage homes are unacceptable, calling them an "insult to human dignity". So in 2009 this is the way that hundreds of people still live in Hong Kong and those who are campaigning to eradicate these sorts of dwellings say they could be around for decades to come.

Sze Lai Shan works for the Society for Community Organisation. She's spent 13 years helping Hong Kong's poor and downtrodden. And this notoriously rough Kowloon neighbourhood is her beat.

SZE LAI SHAN:    So they live in this room, the mother and daughter.

The area is home to thousands of urban slum dwellers. The bulk are the working poor. Others include the mentally ill, drug addicts.

SZE LAI SHAN:    I think you can not stand because you are too tall.

As well as a mother and young child, living not in a cage, but what the government euphemistically calls a "cubicle home" - a space not much bigger than a king-size bed.

REPORTER:    Does she go to school?

JESSICA LAM:   What did he say?

SZE LAI SHAN:    He asked if you go to school.


REPORTER:    Ah, you speak English. 

8-year-old Jessica Lam is a bright, cheerful child, despite her surroundings, where the TV competes with the rice cooker for pride of place.

REPORTER (TRANSLATION):    How does it feel to live here?

MRS LAM:   I'm sick of it. When I come home I get angry. I feel like this place is burying me.

Beyond the dwelling's suffocatingly small size, there is the fire threat posed by the maze of exposed electrical wires. Hygiene is another worry - the bathroom also serves as the kitchen. Just about everything has to be shared with the other cubicle dwellers on their floor.
SZE LAI SHAN:    20 people use the same toilet...

REPORTER:    How many?

SZE LAI SHAN:    20 people

REPORTER:    20 people use this toilet every day?

SZE LAI SHAN:    Yeah. Yeah.

JESSICA LAM:   I don't like it. I hate it. Last time, people above threw dead rats down here. It was terrible.

REPORTER (TRANSLATION):   Will you be OK if you stay here?

MRS LAM:   No, I will go insane. I hope I can apply for public housing. I hope to be allocated public housing quickly. I'm tired of this place. The bathroom of my old house is bigger than this room.

Mrs Lam came here from mainland China, looking for an improved life for her family and a better school for her daughter. Her husband and son are still on the mainland and she hasn't seen them for months. I asked Mrs Lam how life in China compared with this.

REPORTER (TRANSLATION):   Is it hard to think about it?

MRS LAM:   Yes.

REPORTER (TRANSLATION):   Do you miss home?

JESSICA LAM:   Mummy, don't cry.

What she misses most is her son. What the charity worries about most is Jessica's welfare.

SZE LAI SHAN:   I think I need to help to rehouse as soon as possible. They cannot live - grow up - in this kind of condition.

The next day we return to Jessica's home. Her mother is just leaving for her afternoon job at a local 7-Eleven where she earns less than $4 an hour. For the next six hours Jessica will be alone. During school holidays most afternoons are spent watching television. The corridor is her playground, but there's no-one here to play with.

JESSICA LAM (IN CANTONESE):    It's weird. Weird? Because I've never lived here before. The ladders are dangerous. I'll get used to it after a while. It's a bit small here. You can't even stand there. But in here, you can.

Dwarfing Jessica's apartment block is a glittering new addition to the Hong Kong skyline. It's a shopping mall that's about as far removed from Jessica's world as it's possible to get, even if it's right next door. 

SZE LAI SHAN:    Why in Hong Kong, such a rich society, we still have people living in cage homes is because actually the poverty issue is getting worse. The gap between rich and poor is getting big.

Hong Kong's per-capita income is now higher than Switzerland's. But despite the city's wealth, social workers estimate that at least 100,000 people now live in cubicles, cages and partitioned dwellings. Many have been forced into such conditions by the current economic slowdown, but the government is doing little to help. Sze Lai Shan's organization is trying to pressure Hong Kong's rulers into action. Today at this press conference it's highlighting the plight of those living below the poverty line and Jessica is playing a starring role.

JESSICA LAM:   There are cockroaches that come out every night. Sometimes the cockroaches crawl on my hands. They really scare me.

Later the cameramen are invited to see for themselves the way Jessica and her mother now live. It suddenly feels very crowded. Despite repeated approaches, the Hong Kong Government refused our request for an interview about cage homes. But in a statement it insisted it had no plans to phase out such accommodation, telling 'Dateline':

"People choose to live in bed space apartments and cubicles because these apartments, apart from commanding a low rental level, are mostly conveniently located in the urban areas. Hence, there is still a demand for this type of private accommodation."

To its credit, the government is building new public housing - 15,000 apartments a year - but it's not enough. 

FREDERICK FUNG KIN-KEE, HONG KONG LEGISLATIVE COUNSELLOR:   You know, the waiting list for public housing is over 100,000. And I don't see that 15,000 units per year can solve the problem.

Frederick Fung Kin-Kee is 1 of 30 directly elected legislators to Hong Kong's 60-member mini-parliament. He says the government should do what it did 20 years ago when it removed the last of the notorious squatter camps.

FREDERICK FUNG KIN-KEE:   And actually we did solve it. You see there are no squatter areas in Hong Kong now. We should have that sort of mind-set.

But despite his good intentions, Frederick Fung doesn't have the power to change government policy. Sze Lai-Shan says that with only half of the parliament directly elected, Hong Kong's rulers have little fear of public accountability.

SZE LAI SHAN:   One of the problems is that our government - the chief executive or the lawmakers, the legislative councillors - they are not elected by universal suffrage. So the poor have no right to vote. And so the privileged and the government don't need to listen to the voice of the poor.

Jessica is getting ready for her first day back at school afterthe long summer holiday. Her mother has already left for work. Breakfast is a few digestive biscuits and a small bottle of milk. Unless she and her mother are given public housing, the choices facing them are bleak. Jessica has already spent a year of her childhood living in a cage. The length of Hong Kong's waiting list for public housing means she could still be in one when she's a teenager.






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