Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Hong Kong's poorest living in 'coffin homes'

Hidden amid the multi-million dollar high-rise apartments and chic shopping malls of Hong Kong's urban centers are scores of tiny, unseen tenements -- some no bigger than coffins -- that many people call home.

Mak, 72, has lived in his four-walled "coffin home" overlooking the city's Wan Chai neighborhood for the past decade. His entire living space is no bigger than a twin-sized bed, and has just enough room for him to sit up.

"No one wants to live here, but we need to survive," said Mak, who works as a janitor at the nearby Times Square. "It's a step up from being on the streets."

Nicknamed coffin homes for their physical similarities, the 15-square-foot enclosure is just one incarnation of the city's distinctive low-income housing alternatives. Others include the city's cage homes, which resemble livestock coops.

Twenty tenants in Mak's building share a communal bathroom that doubles as a shower. Hallways are clad with slapdash wiring and bad ventilation -- and bedspaces are stacked atop one another like kitchen cupboards.

"There's a stigma about those living in these places. People think that it's because they are lazy, but that couldn't be further from the truth," said Sze Lai San, a social worker based in Hong Kong. "Sometimes their jobs just pay very little despite their long hours and hard work, or they just fall on hard times." (more)