The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

Cage dwellers

Some stories should be told again and again. The media usually does a good job covering a sudden calamity, but a slow moving tragedy or the static plight of a downtrodden group gets short shrift. Before I went home for the holidays last year, a friend and I started to look into a story on cage homes in Hong Kong. It’s a story that’s been done multiple times over the last three decades (watch a particularly moving version of the story here). The gist of the story is that Hong Kong has some of the highest real estate prices in the world. With long waiting lists for public housing, some people can only afford to live in cages and are stuck there for years at a time. In many places, the actual cages have been removed, making the densely packed residences (still called “cage homes”) the world’s most dilapidated hostels. Scores of people share smelly, filthy squat toilets that are often located two steps from the kitchen sink.

In Hong Kong where I today watched a Lotus, Rolls Royce and Ferrari stuck in traffic together, this is appalling, but it’s been this way for decades. Hong Kong has a gini coefficient—a measure of wealth inequality—that’s higher than Zimbabwe’s. TV, print and radio journalists have all done the story. Over the years, different photographers have won awards taking shots of the cage homes, and the winning shots all kind of look the same: morose old men staring off into space (my version above). Nonetheless, this story and others on Hong Kong poverty aren’t done enough.

My story is on indefinite hold as my partner in the project is busy starting up a media campaign in China to disseminate information to women so they can avoid sexual exploitation. I hope to go back and find some new, timely angle on the story soon (how badly has inflation affected their lives? are there any new technologies or govt programs helping them? etc.), but I need a translator or a Cantonese-speaking partner, which drives up the costs of the story. And to do it well, one also needs to time. Lots of it. No matter what happens to this story, I’ll lose money on it. Doing these stories is tough for freelancers—it doesn’t pay to do investigative stories unless you have a fellowship. I fear as publications rely more and more on freelancers like me, the time intensive stories on the unchanging injustices in society will be even more rare than they are today.

Right now, there are hundreds of people living in cages and thousands more living in aptly named “cubicle homes” in Hong Kong. As they’ve done for years, the Society for Community Organization is quietly and courageously helping them. Meanwhile the Hong Kong government has a US$9.15 billion surplus—a nine point one five billion dollar surplus (it bore repeating). With property prices and inflation rising, Hong Kong’s poorest are in a tough spot. The problem is it’s the same tough spot they’ve been in for years. With the ever faster news cycle placing an emphasis on a news peg and publications shedding staff reporters, it’s these stories that will be ignored—even more so than before. This is the type of thing that should pop up over and over again, reminding the world that Hong Kong isn’t just Jackie Chan and skyscrapers and maybe even embarrassing Hong Kong to do something about its poorest citizens.

Category: Behind the Scenes, Blog Entries

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One Response

  1. chezshay says:

    Cool entry and shot! Hope they let you write the article someday.


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