To let: cage 93cm wide

For thousands of people in Hong Kong, home is a small wire box. Jojo Moyes reports on a forgotten underclass in one of the world's richest cities
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Tang Han is an 89-year-old widow. She lives in the heart of Hong Kong, one of the richest cities in the world. Her home, tucked beneath the glittering billion-dollar skyline, is a badly ventilated, bug-infested wire cage, 93cms wide and not quite long enough to stretch her legs.

You can see it, if you walk down Lime Street in Tai Kok Tsui, although few choose to look inside the decrepit building which houses cages stacked three deep and five across. The air between them hums with the smell of soiled laundry. Tang Han's mattress, with its wooden pillow, is riddled with bedbugs and "tanks" (fleas) and plagued by "bombers" (mosquitoes). At night rats gnaw her clothes, blankets and the electrical wires, which hang like washing lines between the cages.

Mrs Tang shares her kitchen and bathroom with up to 50 fellow cagepeople. They go in shifts, occasionally breaking into bad-tempered scuffles if they have to wait too long. Most suffer from respiratory problems caused by the poor ventilation. In the day, Mrs Tang sits on the staircase near the entrance to the building, returning to sleep in her cage at night.

"I have worked hard all my life," she says. "I am old now and I have to live in a place like this. I am not happy. I want to die."

Tang Han is one of up to 4,000 cagepeople living across the territory, many of whom have occupied their wire cages for 40 years. They tend to be Hong Kong's elderly, infirm or unemployed. More than half are over 60. Most are single and receive less than $2,500 (£200) in income or benefits per month to live on, in a city where the monthly rental for a one-bedroom apartment starts at $11,000.

Euphemistically known as "bed-space apartments", cage-homes were created in the 1940s for immigrant workers arriving from China. New immigrants still trickle in, but the cages are mainly inhabited by long-term Hong Kong residents. They used to comprise rows of triple bunk beds but thefts led landlords to enclose the beds with wire and provide locks, thereby creating "cages". Newer cages, typically measuring 5ft by 3ft by 3ft, were built with zinc or plywood to afford some privacy. But residents complained that they made the poor ventilation even worse. More importantly, they severed human ties.

The cagepeople have created fragile communities in many homes, with residents sharing food and fetching medicines for frailer inhabitants. Acutely aware of the stigma of living in a cagehome, most have cut themselves off from their families. Apart from social workers from the Society for Community Organisations (Soco), visitors are generally not welcome.

Simon Go Man Ching, a photographer, spent three years gaining the trust of the cagepeople, visiting them to record their lives. Last year, he and other photographers held an exhibition in Hong Kong's Cultural Centre to highlight their plight.

"Once I got to know them, I found that all the cagepeople I met lived in dignity and pride," he says. "One told me, `I feel like an animal in the zoo, observed from all sides.' But they impressed me. The women were shy when I asked to take their pictures. They said, `Why would anyone want to see a picture of me?' "

When the exhibition opened, he was taken aback by the level of public ignorance. "One man was showing his child one of the pictures and saying `Look, that's how people used to live many years ago.' I told him I had taken the picture last year. He was shocked."

As Mr Go discovered, Hong Kong does not like to acknowledge the flaws in its dream. Here, the work ethic is so deeply ingrained that beggars hide their faces in shame as people hurry past in their designer suits, shunning those who cannot claw their way to success.

Although there are thousands of them, for more than 40 years the cagepeople have been ignored by politicians and populace alike. Many feel betrayed by the government's apparent lack of concern. It was 1985 before the government allowed single people and couples, rather than families, on to the waiting list for public housing (the waiting time is between 10 and 15 years) and when, in July 1992, Governor Chris Patten made one of the few official visits to the cagehomes, the cagemen prepared protest banners and a bottle of fleas as a "gift" for him. He, perhaps wisely, changed his route.

Occasionally, they make the headlines for other reasons. In 1990, a fire broke out in a cagehome in Nam Cheong Street, killing six and injuring 50 others.

Last month, it emerged that at least three of the worst cagehomes in Hong Kong were operated by the Tung Wah hospital group, one of the territory's richest charities, whose glossy annual reports emphasise its work "enabling senior citizens to live in dignity". During the financial year 1993-94, the group's revenue came to $2bn.

The outcry made news for a week, during which the group's celebrity chairman, Deborah Kwan Siu Lai-Kwan, attempted to reverse the bad PR by visiting the cagehomes. Her verdict: "I think the place is not so bad. I did not see rats and actually there were many cats. I think I could tolerate living there."

But not for very long, apparently. She subsequently turned down a $100,000 charity challenge from the South China Sunday Morning Post to spend five nights there.

The cagepeople were equally horrified by the prospect. Leung Chin, a 79-year-old woman, said she would not loan Mrs Kwan her cage next to a toilet. "I don't have a space to sleep myself in that bed," she said. "How can I lend space to her?"

The group's vice-chairman, Frederick Lui Lai-cheung, was equally sanguine: "People have their own living style which they consider acceptable. It is purely a personal choice for a person to choose his living place, the location and the living quality."

Ho Hei-Wah, chairman of the Hong Kong branch of the UN Human Rights Commission, said he "could not believe his ears". UN officials had visited the hostels in October, he added, and described the living conditions as "inhumane". "The group's comments demonstrate that it has no respect for the basic human rights of those elderly people living in hardship," he said.

The Tung Wah group subsequently issued a statement: "The group is concerned about the conditions of that property and has sought legal opinion with a view to improving the situation. But in accordance with tenancy laws, the group is in no position to take any action since the sub-lettings have been long-established and the principal tenants [hostel operators] have not committed any illegal act."

However, the implementation of the new Bedspace Apartment Ordinance, which came into effect last November, means that after a one-year period of grace, operators must now comply with regulations to upgrade the cagehomes, or face heavy penalties or imprisonment. Ironically, this makes the cagepeople's position even more precarious.

"Many of the cagehome owners do not want to spend money to improve them, so they will sell them to developers," says Mr Go. "Many of the cagemen will have no home. When I visited them a few weeks ago, they said they were very worried as they had nowhere to go."

Soaring property prices mean that this is an increasingly attractive option for landlords. Meanwhile, lured by the burgeoning construction industry and the prospect of comparatively high wages, an influx of young men from the mainland has disrupted the delicate balance of many cagehomes.

"The mainland workers make the situation more complicated," says Mr Go. "Many are drug addicts. Because of this the police come in the middle of the night and raid the homes and try to shut them down. Also, many of the new cagemen have communication problems because they don't speak Cantonese. There are now many fights between cagemen."

And so the cagehomes, one by one, are being dismantled. The government's response so far has been to offer alternative accommodation way out of the city, in the New Territories. This resembles the notorious refugee camps of the Vietnamese boat people, with rows of camp beds stretching along anonymous white dormitories.

The cagepeople say that although their cages are unhygienic and noisy, at least they offer the semblance of a home. And many, like 91-year-old "Uncle" Lee Ching, are worried that they would not be accepted by others if they settled in a "new community".

Uncle Lee was the oldest cagehome resident, and had lived in a 160-tenant block in Fuk Tsuen Street in Tai Kok Tsui for 31 years. He shared three toilets and one kitchen in the cagehome which Soco described as having a "watertight" mutual-help system.

"We take care of each other," he told a photographer. He was crippled after being run over by a car. Other residents brought him "lunchboxes" of meat and rice or took him to the doctor. His wife had died 40 years ago and he had lost contact with his two sons. In May 1991, developers demolished his cagehome for redevelopment. Uncle Lee said he would not live long and refused to go to a home for the aged, moving instead to a nearby cagehome. He died four months later.