I’ve spent the day on two very personal-story driven walking tours of Hong Kong island and around Kowloon.
The tours, delivered by the highly engaging SP (Super Powered talks) from Hong Kong Free Tours were fascinating insights to real life in Hong Kong.
SP was bubbling over with Hong Kong stories: betrayal and mistrust at the hands of not one but three governments; bearing witness to historic moments and wondering where your future lies; and coping with life in one of the most expensive cities on the planet.
One of the most powerful stories SP told was about watching the 1997 handover ceremonies – the final lowering of the British flag and the permanent raising of the Chinese flag – wondering what would happen and knowing that life was never going to be the same again.
His parents had fled China after the Republic was created in 1949 and settled in Hong Kong. He was raised in a British educational system and knew virtually nothing about China when suddenly his parents announced a family trip back to visit in the early 1970s.
For some reason, he had to wear ALL of his clothes and fill his back with toys. How odd.
It emerged that these were being left behind for friends and family when he returned home to Hong Kong.
His memories were of people who did not have much and were wearing only pale blue and grey clothes. The colourful Tshirts, trousers and jumpers he and his family took were a blaze of unusual colour.
SP demonstrates the flexibility and fleet of foot thinking that is probably necessary for people who are uncertain of their status with the governments that rule them.
They couldn’t be certain that the British could be trusted – guarantees had gone as far as offering the residents of Hong Kong an unlimited tourist visa to Britain while trying to extract as much money from the city before the handover. The Chinese were an unknown quantity – after all these are the children of refugees who fled China, and now there is an administration that is acting on the orders of Beijing.
SP had the skills and was able to move overseas before returning.
Not all natives of Hong Kong are as lucky and this afternoon, SP took us to see the poorer parts of Kowloon and to discuss life there.
Our first stop was at the fish market where shop rents are 100,000HKD (£10K) per year and fish are sold for 28HKD (£2.80). That’s alot of fish to be sold in order to break even.
Keeping fish to ward off bad luck and bring good luck is part of fung shui practices but, even so, the number of fish shops are closing as vendors seek to sell something more profitable.
At the flower market magnolias were on sale for 0.70HKD (£0.07) per flower. Who can earn a living from growing flowers?
These are only picked by the old ladies now who grew up in the industry and need to supplement their pension.
The poverty line in Hong Kong is officially where people are earning less than 400,000HKD (£400) per month. Minimum wage is 750,000HKD (£750). Approximately 20% of the population live below the poverty line.
And a key pressure is housing… a two bedroomed apartment costs 25,000HKD (£2,500) and the average salary is 16,000HKD (£1,600). The Hong Kong government controls the supply of housing and keeping the availability low and the value high is a key income stream (stamp duty and other taxes).
One of the ways around the high costs is subdividing the apartments so that people pay less for smaller space.
Assume you are a married couple with two children. Only one of you works. There are two options to consider: both of you take jobs and then have to pay childcare costs or you find a lodger.
What space could there even be to sublet in here?
Note the lower bunk with bars around it. This is a “cage house” and people pay to live here. They and their belongings have only this space.
Up on the roof of an apartment block, SP pointed out a “Steamer House”.
These houses are made of sheet metal. They are allegedly temporary.
Their residents have to leave them by around 7am or 8am as the temperatures from the sun hitting them become unbearable. They don’t return until 9pm after the tenants below have finished cooking and “steaming” the house.
Who lives in these places? People who can’t afford anything else.
The government is trying to address this through the redevelopment of properties but as with other urban renewal projects, the existing tenants are moved on as more affluent residents move in.
Quite often old people don’t want to leave the District they have lived in all of their lives but the compensation from the compulsory removal orders isn’t enough for them to go anywhere decent. They move to these “Cage Houses”.
In every town and city I have visited, I have made a point to see where people live. I’m not only interested in sightseeing and most of the hostels I’ve stayed in have been in residential areas, so it hasn’t been hard. However, I’m also conscious that I don’t want to invade people’s privacy, gawking at their living spaces.
The “Cage House” set up here is a mock up based on real settings.
I’ve never seen anything like the “living” conditions I’ve seen today.