August 13, 2011

HONG KONG: The Pain of Cage Home Tenants

HONG KONG / Asia Sentinel / Hong Kong Current Events / August 13, 2011

Written by Alice Poon (潘慧嫻)

This is the story of people who used to live in cage homes in Kwun Tong. This is my translation of an Inmediahk article written by Yuen Yan [原人] entitled "The Last Days of a Cage Home."
"The picture was taken three weeks ago. The writer went with a group of university students to visit three elderly occupants of a cage home. After climbing eight flights of steps, we discovered that the door to that home was locked. The home and the elderly men were gone.

Over a month ago, the writer had been to visit the three elderly occupants who had still remained. Their landlord and his wife were nowhere to be seen - they probably had moved out. The landlord was hard of hearing while his wife was partially disabled, according to their son who lives in Australia. The wife had never left the rooftop home in the last ten years. The piece of open sky and the rooftop garden were her only place of refuge. Everyday, she would start her day with the cleansing ritual, then she would ride around the garden in her wheelchair to water her plants and admire her flowers; in the evening she would have her dinner, with TV watching as her condiment. This was her everyday life, with her husband by her side, taking care of her. Together, they had been guarding this remaining cage home in Kwun Tong for over a decade.

Shortly before the close-down of the cage home for redevelopment purpose, they had been relying on rents collected from seven remaining tenants, at HK$700 each per month. This landlord couple had been gone for several months. During the writer's visit over a month ago, what I had witnessed was a deserted and filthy place with clutter of personal belongings everywhere. Only three elderly men had remained in the home that stank terribly. Unable to stay for more than fifteen minutes, the writer had had to say goodbye after offering them some oranges and had left in a hurry. On leaving the place, I couldn't but wonder: against the backdrop of redevelopment, could one shred of human dignity be allowed to remain?

For most people, cage homes never impress them as bright, comfortable and airy. In fact, cage homes from older times were never so. But for people like Wah Tse and two other elderly folks who used to live in a cage home, they've never cared for things like elevators, air-conditioners, etc. What have clung to their hearts are still the small bunk beds in the cage home.

Wah Tse already moved to a public housing unit. But she comes back everyday to the cage home to have lunch with her two elderly friends, chat with them and help them fill out lottery tickets. Perhaps her greater concern is for Siu Fa the Cat and her babies. Though financially strapped, she still tries to fork out a little cash to buy food for the cats. Each day she comes to watch the cats eat and play. She's emotionally tied to her old friends, even more so to the cats. In the redevelopment process, people can wait to be resettled, but what about the cats?

Each cage home tenant has his/her own reason to stay. But for cage home tenants to leave, there is only one reason - redevelopment.

Some elderly people say that they were once resettled into senior homes within a public housing estate under government policy. But they were required to share living space with other elderly people. When they found they could not get along, they chose to return to their cage homes. Some Chiu Chow elderly people have a habit of going to nearby night-snack shops [打冷店] and do not want to move to public housing estates in remote areas. Some have a passion for reading and are averse to moving to public housing estates that are a long distance from city centers where libraries are situated.

These people used to be factory workers in the old days. In their youth, they had to find work in the Kwun Tong factory area and cage homes were their answer for having a minimal shelter where they could sleep through the night in order to rise up in the morning to find work again. Those were the good old days. Factories could move north. But people couldn?t. They lost their jobs. They lost their future. Only their living space remained. Some took pleasure in their cats; some buried themselves in reading; some reminisced their old days. In the end though, even the cage homes are denied them. Industries heading north meant the loss of their jobs. Urban redevelopment is taking away their lives. Between finding a piece of ceiling above their heads in the public housing estates and continuing to live a gratifying life, is there really a choice for these cage home tenants?"

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