Hidden Hong Kong

Text and photographs by Kai Löffelbein, interview by Habitat Project

In Hong Kong, one of the world’s wealthiest metropolises, there are around 130,000 people living in cages. While ever more luxury shops open just a few streets away, many inhabitants can no longer afford the increasing rents. To avoid living on the streets, they move into wire cages – their entire world reduced to a few square metres, a life shared with strangers.

Landlords can charge as much as they like. About one fifth of the cages are occupied by new arrivals from mainland China, dreaming of an escape from their poverty and trying their luck in the prosperous mega city. One hundred and fifty people are permitted to immigrate every day. For many however, the cages have become more than just a temporary shelter: elderly people, drug addicts, former convicts, the mentally disturbed and day labourers often live here for decades.

Hong Kong’s poor people are struggling day in and day out to keep their heads above water. It is most scornful to see economic development bringing social inequality. These deprived people cannot enjoy their economic success. These people have been snubbed and have fallen into oblivion.

H: How and why did you start working in HK? How did you know about “Cage City”?

KL: Early 2012, I first heard about the living conditions in Hong Kong and was curious from the beginning. The article didn’t answer my question at all. I wanted to know more about the so called cage people. How do they live and why do they live like this. I rely like the idea to team up with local aid organisation. They know the people well and can introduce me best. On the other side I can give something back with my pictures and promote their issue in media. Thats why I asked SoCo who employes a few social workers. They helped me get access.
Even though the number people living in that kind of situation is tremendous it seems very difficult to find those flats on your own. They are everywhere and nowhere hidden behind the apartment blocks.

H:Who lives in these cages? Do people live by themself or with their families?

KL: Its very different. The number of habitants who live under such circumstances varies from 100 000 to 130,000 people, with around 20,000 children. The number is more an estimation made by officials and NGOs. The habitants live in cages, cubicles or wooden crates. Many of them are singles. I also visited a lot of families too who live in wooden crates on a few square meters. The children don’t have a table to do their homework. They sit on their beds and work. Many pupils visit Fast-food-Restaurants to do their homework their (without eating).

H: How would you describe the sensation that you felt inside and the atmosphere you perceived?

KL: When I visited the ‘cage people’ for the first time I was really shocked by their living circumstances. Especially because of the huge social gap between rich and poor people in HK. You should know, Hongkong is a really modern and rich city. When you walk around in this modern prosperous city you will never get to know what is going on behind this apartment blocks. 130 000 people living in this condition. This is an incredible number. Its like an invisible slum. In many rooms the atmosphere is a bit claustrophobic. You have to take off your backpack before you enter the room. Otherwise you could not turn or move without damaging something. The flats with the wired cages have a bit more space but the cages itself are tiny. The wired cage home people have to store all of their belongings into their cages.

H: Have you ever spent one night in?

KL: No never. It’s not possible. There is not enough space for more people. Every place is used by someone or something. Objects in the room are in competition with each other for space. Its not possible to stay over night. I never asked.

H: Describe your ideal place

KL: I really like big cities, but I also enjoy nature. My ideal place would be an old farm house close to a city together shared with good friends and family.