Today is a special day though not many people probably know. It’s the UN International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. While it’s not too well-known (I wouldn’t have if the pastor hadn’t talked about it at church), it marks a very important cause worldwide and in Hong Kong. Hong Kong might be a financial hub with a flashy skyline, the most expensive homes in the world, and GDP per capita of over $36,000, but poverty is a serious problem here.
So much so, that the poverty rate has increased and is almost near 20%, which the government admitted in a report released on the weekend. This is a shameful figure as it means almost one out of five Hong Kongers live below the poverty line. Hong Kong is often thought of as a rich city, and indeed the government is awash in cash, but the reality is more stark. Having lived here for more than half a year, I’ve seen so many old people on the streets sifting through garbage and collecting paper for recycling, as well as homeless and rundown buildings. It’s worse than Taipei, Taiwan’s capital city, which though its GDP per capita is not as high as Hong Kong’s, does not have as much homelessness, rundown buildings and old people going through garbage. On a side note, it is common to see old people working, such as security guards of residential apartments including my own, in Hong Kong and while some of they may want to, others are probably forced to continue working in order to live.
It’s kind of hard to get a visual representation of how bad poverty is in Hong Kong because there are no outdoor slums in Hong Kong like the ones you see in cities like Manila or Bombay. Instead, the slums are hidden and all indoors, made up of cage homes and subdivided flats and rooftop dwellings. Cage homes aren’t homes, nor rooms, but instead are bunk beds in rooms covered by wire mesh because each bed is a person’s home. A little less bleak, but also just as tragic, are subdivided flats in which families may live in rooms. A while ago I blogged about my apartment search and I complained about toilets next to kitchens. But for some people, the toilet is a kitchen as well. There is an ongoing photo exhibit of subdivided and cage homes which I viewed on the weekend that vividly illustrates the sad reality of these places. This isn’t even a recent problem because it has existed for many years with international media often carrying stories about this.
Of course, not all poor Hong Kongers live like this, as many do have actual apartments, but even then people are still struggling by. Obviously poverty exists everywhere, but there is no reason for a “rich” city state like Hong Kong to have a poverty rate of almost 20%. There are several reasons with the crazy price of property being a main culprit. High home prices also mean high rents, both in absolute and proportional terms. Public housing is inadequate, so much so that the waiting time on the public housing application list exists for years.
Meanwhile salaries haven’t kept up with rising home prices, and the paucity of state benefits like pensions and low minimum wage means a lot of working class people are struggling. Anytime there are attempts by social workers, unions and activists to try to get the government to raise social benefits, they face strong resistance from businesses and corporate interests. According to some Hong Kongers, you get what you work for and if you’re poor, that’s because you’re lazy and not working hard enough. Obviously, this is hogwash but this misplaced pride is what many here believe.
Anyways, it’s 2016 and Hong Kong’s poverty continues to be terrible while the abominable cage homes persist and increase.