Recent outrage surrounding the redecoration of the Wontonmeen hostel in Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong, into a caged aesthetic, has sparked increased conversations surrounding coffin homes in Hong Kong. Here, coffin homes have been commodified and sold as an experience. For many tourists who stay at the Wontonmeen hostel for the rate of £27 per night, they may leave with the belief that they have experienced what it is like to live in one of Hong Kong’s many coffin homes. But with the clear demarcations of space as illustrated by Figure 1 below, the separation of the bathroom and kitchen facilities, and not having to live amongst all of your belongings in a highly confined space, this is not true. 

Figure 1. Interior of the Wontonmeen Hostel. Photography by Jessie Yip in James (2017)

“No-one cares about us, we are just forgotten.”

Coffin Home Resident

For many citizens of Hong Kong, coffin homes are more than the trivialisations and romanticisms that the Wontonmeen hostel portrays to the world. The conditions within these homes are a reality of life for many people who cannot afford the private sector, and are on the waiting list for public housing in Hong Kong. The shortage of public housing has left people across socio-economic boundaries to live within coffin homes. There are estimates which indicate that upwards of 280,000 people are living within these conditions. This figure includes young people, migrants, the elderly, and families who may often have to split up within these units. With such large numbers of people living within subdivided units, it is shocking to note that Hong Kong does not have a legal threshold for the minimum amount of space allowed within private living quarters, like other ‘world cities’ such as New York and London. This has led to an erosion of the quality of living conditions within subdivided units, and contributes to the overall housing crisis. 

Figure 2. A cage home. Photograph by Benny Lam (2017)
Figure 3. “A kitchen-toilet complex in a cage home”. Photograph by Benny Lam (2017)

For people living within coffin homes, the conditions that they must endure are a direct reflection of how the state of Hong Kong views social welfare. Within these shared subdivided units, or ‘coffin homes’ the circumstances are horrifying. People must live amongst all of their belongings crammed into a 24 inch wide and 67 inch length box, as illustrated in Figure 2, while surrounded by filth and dirt. Many coffin home dwellers must also cook and use the bathroom in the same room, as shown in Figure 3, with up to 24 people sharing the facility. These coffin home units cost an average of £380 per month according to the 2016 thematic housing survey in Hong Kong. However from other reports they can cost much lower, at around £230 per month. Many people feel ‘forgotten’ by the state due to the daily struggles they must endure in one of the world’s most affluent places, while they wait for up to 5.7 years for public housing to become available. The state’s disregard for the social welfare of these coffin home dwellers stems from their pursuit of economic gain and the perpetuation of an ‘imagined’ version of Hong Kong (Shin, 2019: 2). 

The state of Hong Kong’s purposeful restrictions on the supply of land has meant that it is the most expensive property market on the globe, costing on average four times that of New York. In Hong Kong where the state are land-lords over almost all property, 27% of government revenue is derived from the sale of property. This means that many people in coffin homes get left behind by the state in their pursuit of profit in collaboration with a handful of conglomerate property owners, as public housing is not a priority due to the lack of revenue that it brings. With homes costing over twenty times the median salary for people in Hong Kong, the pursuit of property ownership has become a distant and unattainable dream for many, but particularly for those who live in coffin homes at the bottom of the wealth ladder. Coffin homes therefore directly contest the idealistic images of Asian urbanism which are projected to the rest of the world, thus exposing the ‘real’ Hong Kong (Shin, 2019: 2).

To many people, the scale and conditions of coffin homes may seem alarming and extraordinary, given that Hong Kong is a world class city. But for people living within the ‘developmental state’ of Hong Kong (Woo, 2018: 77), where economic rationales are prized over welfare, this way of living is not rare, and is often visible from the windows of many of the most wealthy apartment complexes in the state. This has become a way of life for many people. With around 80% of coffin home dwellers experiencing mental health issues including anxiety and depressive episodes  due to the confined and stressful living conditions they endure, it is clear that the state of Hong Kong values economic outcomes over their social counterparts. 

An example of OPod. Photograph by Xiaomei Chen in Reinfrank (2018)

Private responses to the Hong Kong housing crisis have seen innovative solutions being proposed to the public. One such solution has been invented by architect James Law in 2017, with the concept of the OPod, as shown in Figure 4 above. This is a micro home of 9.29 square metres constructed within a concrete pipe, designed to slot between buildings within the city, with the cost aiming to be around £300 per month. Although this OPod housing is still a concept, it illustrates the extent of the housing crisis and the extremity of the proposed solutions. However, this concept does not wholly solve the issue of coffin homes, as it would only be suitable for middle class citizens or couples with enough income to cover the cost per month.

With the sentiments etched onto the urban fabric of Hong Kong’s Kowloon’s Wong Tai Sin residential district via the means of graffiti (see the tweet above), and shared via social media, it is clear that alternative responses to the lack of social welfare were forged by other citizens living in Hong Kong, with the onset of protests in June of 2019 which spanned four months. These protests began with a focus on the Extradition Bill, but by the end concerned many issues, with welfare and housing remaining a central grievance. Protestors across social and economic classes banded together and were in part fighting for a more equal society in Hong Kong with increased welfare and a greater availability of affordable housing. One 26 year old protester, named Tse Lai-nam, who lives in Sham Shui Po, one of the most deprived districts in Hong Kong, stated ‘The government has never done anything to promote social mobility, instead it has increased wealth disparity and made it more difficult for young people to buy an apartment’. Citizens of many socio-economic backgrounds participated within the protests, fostering a shared meaning and purpose, ranging from elderly coffin home dwellers to middle class city workers unable to find affordable and adequate housing. This collective agency and the power it generated, garnered a response from the state.

The state responded to citizens in Carrie Lam’s policy address to the nation in October of 2019 as a result of the protests. Many things were promised under the umbrella of housing, including ‘subsidised sale flats’ for public rental housing tenants, starter homes for young professionals, and 10,000 new public rental housing units. However, are these solutions simply to pacify the situation in the short to medium term, in order to economically recover from the protests? The long term impact of these measures on the housing crisis and issue of coffin homes, remains to be seen. 

Looking to the future of coffin homes, it is clear that Lam’s speech did not address improving conditions within coffin homes, but rather increasing public housing so that the people living within them wouldn’t have to wait as long. But with 280,000 people estimated to be living in coffin homes and an increase of 10,000 public rental housing units, this solves only a fraction of the issue. Thus, the problem of coffin homes does not seem to be going away, but rather swept under the rug by the state and property elites. But how much longer will Hong Kong portray the imagined version of itself to the rest of the world, and ignore the realities of daily life for many, in the pursuit of economic gain?

References

James, L. (2017). Hong Kong cage homes for hire: ‘poverty tourism’, or a way to show visitors unique side of city? South China Morning Post, 30 August. Available at: https://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/travel-leisure/article/2108982/hong-kong-cage-homes-hipster-tourists-poverty-tourism-or

Lam, B. (2017). Boxed in: life inside the ‘coffin cubicles’ of Hong Kong – in pictures. The Guardian, 7 June. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/gallery/2017/jun/07/boxed-life-inside-hong-kong-coffin-cubicles-cage-homes-in-pictures

Reinfrank, A. (2018). My night in a tube home, low-cost housing concept for Hong Kong – cosy, but noisy and, in midwinter, chilly. South China Morning Post, 14 March. Available at: https://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/article/2136993/my-night-tube-home-low-cost-housing-concept-hong-kong-cosy-noisy-and

Shin, H.B.  (2019). ‘Asian urbanism’, in Orum, A. M., (ed.) The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Urban and Regional Studies. Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedias in Social Sciences. Wiley.

Woo, J. J. (2018). The Evolution of the Asian Developmental State: Hong Kong and Singapore. Routledge.

About the author

With a keen interest in geographical and economic matters, Anysia Palmer recently completed her MSc in Local Economic Development at the London School of Economics and Political Science. This blog post was formed as part of a wider module concerning matters within the urban sphere, titled ‘Cities and Social Change in East Asia’, and investigates poverty tourism and housing conditions within Hong Kong. Thus, furthering her interest in urban housing and governmental responses.