14 November 2018
In order to capture exactly how it feels to live in a coffin cubicle, I went inside those units and took shots from a first-person point of view. Photo: Benny Lam
In order to capture exactly how it feels to live in a coffin cubicle, I went inside those units and took shots from a first-person point of view. Photo: Benny Lam

Looking through the eyes of subdivided flat dwellers

“Your coffin cubicle is surprisingly roomy,” I told the tenant, referring to his subdivided flat, and immediately realized I made a slip of the tongue.

I was doing a photo shoot of his residence for my next project, which is also about the cramped conditions of the living environment in Hong Kong.

Before visiting his place, I had gone to so many other subdivided flats around the city, and so when I saw his, I thought it was large – comparatively speaking.

But then I was taken aback by my own emotional numbness. How could I speak so casually, jokingly about such an irrational, inhuman and degrading living environment?

For this year, my photo exhibition on grassroots housing in Hong Kong is titled “Trapped”.

Four years ago, my first project with the Society for Community Organization (SoCO) took me on a harrowing tour of the city’s subdivided flats.

I took bird’s-eye-view photos of the rooms. My audience was shocked. I myself felt outraged.

Over the course of two years I did door-to-door visits of these squalid places which are known by so many names: subdivided flats, coffin cubicles, caged homes, rooftop slums, squatter structures, cupboards under the stairs.

For low-income families living in these places, they are called homes. 

This year I used a different tack to try to awaken people’s numb hearts and senses.

For my series, I made use of special effects so that the pictures appear glittering and glossy to heighten the surreal effect.

Some of the viewers remarked that my pictures are stunningly beautiful, but being so, they seem to dilute the impact of reality, the misery.

But that’s exactly the kind of absurdity I was aiming for.

Through my pictures I wanted to ask: How could there be so many people surviving in such nasty conditions in a glamorous and prosperous city like Hong Kong?

In order to capture exactly how it feels to live in a coffin cubicle, I went inside those units and took shots from a first-person point of view.

But the units were quite messy, and I felt itchy all over. I ended up in the emergency ward of a hospital to get a jab for allergic reactions.

Another difficulty I encountered was dealing with the callous landlords.

A bedspace under the staircase or at the attic is obviously illegal, so when I visited one and started taking pictures, the landlady promptly shooed me away.

What I admired were the courage and quiet dignity displayed by the tenants.

They showed no inhibitions in showing me their dwellings; they wanted me to learn as much as I could about the dark side of the city.

Unfortunately, my pictures made a different impression on some viewers, who were quick to blame the influx of immigrants from the mainland for the city’s housing woes.

While it is undeniable that the dwellers of these coffin cubicles are new immigrants, many of them are also elderly Hongkongers as well as some foreigners from Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia.

One thing for sure is that they are all trapped in an inhuman environment due to misfortunes.

Many of these grassroots people are struggling to survive as low-skilled workers. Their condition deserves our attention and action.

In 2015-2016, the combined number of non-elderly one-person applicants and general applicants for public housing topped 284,800, while only 14,264 public rental flats were produced by the government.

The gap is 19 times the current supply.

Since it would be wishful thinking for the government to build a sufficient number of public rental units to meet the huge demand, shouldn’t it consider rolling out some controls on immigration?

The government should start drafting solutions to address the city’s housing problems in the short, medium and long term.

First and foremost, the authority should put an end to these degrading dwelling spaces and provide affected people with temporary settlements.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov. 4.

Translation by Darlie Yiu

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Lying-down room only: One can still have dinner and watch a video in this tiny space. Photo: Benny Lam

Despite the cramped space and squalor, one tries to relax and enjoy watching the telly. Photo: Benny Lam

a member of the Hong Kong Institute of Professional Photographers (HKIPP)

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