Sub-divided house (SDHs) are the crude compartmentalisation of flats which house citizens in rooms as small as 1.5 metres. Due to the DIY nature of the SDHs, where rooms are divided by temporary boards, electrical wires pulled out and fire escapes blocked, deaths from fires are common. Health issues are also a threat. Bathrooms are shared and often utilised as kitchens. Due to the compact living and limited ventilation, diseases spread rapidly.
So why, when a city has fiscal reserves of HK$1.1 trillion (Oxfam, 2018), are there still people living in extreme poverty? One explanation is due to the stringent spending nature of the Hong Kong government who stick loyally to their conservative budgeting principles (ibid). This low public expenditure is particularly resonant in welfare and public health, as one of the lowest compared to any OECD country (ibid). This means low levels of investment spent in public housing. As it stands there is a 5.3 year waiting period for public housing (Hong Kong Housing Authority, 2018).
Another explanation requires understanding that one of Hong Kong’s largest sources of income is land profits. As a land scarce city Hong Kong’s government retains strict control over the use of land. Only a small amount of land is bought and sold every year, creating a superficial scarcity and limiting the number of properties available, hiking the prices of those available.
The combined factors of an almost non-existent welfare support system and expensive and scarcely available property, means that even those earning an annual salary can only afford to rent SDHs.
Reclaiming the Narrative
If you have ever looked up ‘Hong Kong’s SDHs’ on a search engine, you will likely come across words like ‘victim’, ‘grim’ and ‘helpless’. The media and much of the academic literature which explores SDHs in Hong Kong have created a collective narrative, curating the residents as victims.
However, there is a growing grassroots movement taking place. Rather than perceiving themselves as fatalistic victims of a vacant state, these residents have created a collective identity to take a stand against their living conditions. By curating an online presence as well as forms of public action, which involve reclaiming the streets and telling their stories in their own words, the citizens are actively altering the narrative to encourage reform of governmental land policies. These citizens are urban activists aiming to claim their ‘right to the city’, defined as exercising their collective right to have “shaping power” over how their city is “made and re-made” (Harvey, 2012, 5).
In a land scarce city with almost no room of their own, these residents take to occupying online spaces as a means to assemble. One grassroots collective, whom call themselves the ‘Platform Concerning Subdivided Flats and Issues in Hong Kong’ (PCSFIHK), have 3000 followers on Facebook. They host a number of art events, protests and also document the voices of resident, one event held was entitled ‘Civil Land Reform – Dialogue with Grassroot’ (ibid, 2014). Protests in public places aim to symbolise an attempt to reclaim space, a particularly poignant move for a collective group who have little space to claim as their own.
Their most recent event is an art installation entitled “Stuck and Squeezed” (Image 2) which provides a multi-sensory ‘experience’ of what living in an SDH is like. The event also includes tours to Kwun Tong, an area with some of the highest collections of SDHs to talk to residents.
There are a number of other grassroots groups, such as Society for Community Organization (SoCO) (SoCO, 2016) who utilise photography to amplify the voices of residents.
These groups of activists are able to share their experiences in their own voices, collectivising both online and in public space, as they move to claim their right to the city.
Limits to their Resistance?
Collective resistance to the government is an integral part of Hong Kong’s history, most notably in the 2014 Umbrella Movement. However, whilst mass mobilisation of civilians seems to be a common form of resistance, the pursuit often falls on deaf ears. Hong Kong is neither an autocracy nor democracy and therefore lacks absolute power or the “representative mechanisms” to absorb political movements (Yuen and Cheng, 2017a). Therefore, in order to retain their liberal appearance, Hong Kong must respond to protesters in a unique form of ‘tolerance’, defined as ignoring protestors through inaction or contempt (Yuen and Cheng, 2017b).
This criticism of ‘inaction’ seems valid when looking at the government’s response to SDHs. Up until 2016 the government failed to acknowledge the existence of SDHs, ensuring their existence went wholly undocumented. As of 2016, a report did document the demographics of those living in SDHs but there were still no legislative changes regarding housing safety or landlord responsibility (Census and Statistics Department, 2016).
This leads us to question whether small groups of disparate grassroots activists can disrupt a historically sedimented system of inequality in a state which refuses to acknowledge protest.
The answer is unlikely.
However, whilst they may not be able disrupt the government policies regarding land reform, they are recreating their narrative as they try to claim their right to the city. Rather than passive victims of state policies they are collectivising online, through the medium of art and protests. Voices previously inhabited by the media and residents interpreted as victims are now connected and amplified by others in their position.
They do not identify themselves as submissive and fatalistic victims. They are activists fighting for more humane living conditions and it is time the media reflected and aided this pursuit.
Census and Statistics Department (2016). Housing conditions of sub-divided units in Hong Kong. Thematic Household Survey Report No. 60.
Harvey, D. (2012). Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. Verso: London.
Hong Kong Housing Authority (2018). Memorandum for the Subsidised Housing Committee of the Hong Kong Housing Authority Special Analysis of the Housing Situation of General Applicants for Public Rental Housing as at end-June 2018. Hong Kong Housing Authority.
Oxfam (2018). Hong Kong Inequality Report, Oxfam, Online. Available at: https://www.oxfam.org.hk/content/98/content_38422en.pdf. Accessed: 22nd March 2019.
Society for Community Organization (SoCO) (2016). Trapped, Society for Community Organization (SoCO), Available at: http://www.soco.org.hk/trapped/index.htm. Date Accessed: 22nd March 2019.
Yuen, S, and Cheng, E.W., (2017a). How Hong Kong Umbrella movement was crushed and pro-democracy activists gradually silenced. The Conversation, 15th November 2017.
Yuen, S. and Cheng, E. W., (2017b). Neither Repression Nor Concession? A Regime’s Attrition against Mass Protests. Political Studies 65(3): 611–630.
- This article was originally written as coursework for GY438 Cities and Social Change at LSE in spring 2019.
About the author
Georgia Newman is currently studying for her MSc Development Studies at LSE. She also has a background in Anthropology from the University of Bristol.