A Bird in a Cage
‘Why would you want to live in a cage home? It’s not like it’s the first time for you have experienced poverty. I don’t understand why a person like you coming from a grass-roots family would wish to live in a place even worse than your own public housing estate.’ This was the reaction of Chan Siu-Ming’s mother when she knew about his plan to experience life in a cage home. Ming is a 25-year-old community organizer for the Society for Community Organization (SoCo), which is a non-profit organization aiming to address social inequality and empower the poor in their fight for basic rights.
A Peep into Another World
Coming from a humble background, Ming has lived in a public housing estate for more or less his whole life. It is understandable that most teenagers with such a family background may wish to break away from the prison of poverty, and wish to do anything to earn money and escape life at the grass-roots level. Yet Ming took the opposite route to what was expected from him. In secondary school, he had already developed a passion for social work when participating in voluntary work. It was such experiences that exposed him to the reality of the world, in which there is injustice and inequality, and money determines your life’s journey. He recalled one particularly memorable moment when he witnessed poor people the same age as his parents having to crouch and stoop when eating their meals in confined cubicle beds that were also their living space. ‘This is when I felt a need to speak out on the abject poverty,’ said Ming when he recalled his calling to work for the poor. ‘It was not enough to just study and be aware of the problem; I had to be connected to society and do something to try and solve it.’ And this passion became his life-long goal, leading him to do a major in social work at university and later to work for SoCo.
The Real Game
About five months ago, Ming decided to take a step further in his aspiration to care for the needy, which was to live in a 30-squarefeet cubicle located in Sham Shui Po with monthly rent of $1100. When being asked about the reasons for such choice, Ming explained, ‘Instead of just identifying the problem, I hope that I could experience poverty in depth so that I could know the influences of such problems. This is the only way I could truly understand why the poor have no hope, how they live their difficult lives and meet the neighbors who come home late.’ These objectives which engraved clearly in his mind marked off the start of his life in a cubicle, but soon many difficulties surfaced along the journey. He was woken up by his neighbor’s alarm clock at 4 a.m. and the noises from another neighbor’s radio left him wide awake at midnight. On top of that, he had to endure with the disgusting odor of smoke, stinky clothes and profuse sweat filling up his olfactory organs. Living in such a tiny cubicle, his neighbor’s hygiene problem became his hygiene problem as the smell and dirtiness often spread to his bed. ‘When you had to live in a limited space with many people, there’s no choice but to accept that your life would be greatly affected by the others, and that’s why people living in cubicles felt so frustrated and fidgety,’ he said, shrugging his shoulders in helplessness.
Pressure Builds up in the Box
Prior to this unique experience, he has also met many families living in cage home or cubicles. He recounted meeting a single parent family living in Sham Shui Po. The family with a mother, a sister aged 20 and a younger brother lived in a 40-squarefeet cubicle with the bed occupying 20-squarefeet of the space. Since there were many men living in that building, it was quite inconvenient and dangerous for the sister to go out. The mother worked in an elderly home with monthly salary of $7000, which was mostly spent to cover the rent of $1300, electricity and water bills, resulting in the ongoing financial difficulties in the family. Compared to the brother, the sister bore a much deeper resentment for the wretched living condition in the cubicle, complaining for more personal room and about the flea biting her at night.
Hope Shrinks in the Cubicle
Another story in cubicles is about a Form 3 teenager. Because of the low ceiling, he had to bend his back when walking around in the cubicle, which greatly affected his growth and health. Although SoCo provided these people with food assistance, refrigerators, laptops and mentorship program, they continued to be hopeless about possible changes in their situation. For the Form 3 boy, the miserable living environments resulted in his unwillingness to come back to home. This led to a decline in the family relationship and even a lack of motivation for him to study. With the negative emotions, the hope for education bringing improvements to the living conditions shattered, and the vicious cycle of poverty would just go on and on. ‘The lack of space not only brings about inconvenience to people, but it also contributes to the more and more negative attitude, which is detrimental and the worst impact of all,’ sighed Ming.
The Light in the Dark
The indifference and negative reactions from the target citizens may make Ming feel disappointed, yet there are many citizens who have transformed because of their work done and act as the spur for him to stand up once again and carry on with his mission. One of these encouraging figures is a fifty-year old male who receives social benefits. He used to be passive and indifferent to SoCo’s contribution. But after some time, he slowly became willing to participate, developed a sense of justice, and eventually, took the initiative to stand out as an enthusiastic leader and representative of his fellow citizens. ‘In times of desperation and lack of reaction from citizens, I couldn’t help but question myself if what I have done is useful at all or just a useless attempt to change the society. But as time goes by, I gradually realize that this is not the right question to ask. Instead, I try to ask myself if what I have been doing is worthwhile or not. The answer is always positive. Seeing the value behind everything I strive for and work for, this becomes my faith in continuing my job,’ he said.
Words to the Government
To solve the problem of poverty, Ming suggested some solutions which would require cooperation from the government. He advised the government to encourage creativity and development in culture and arts by providing subsidies. In addition, the government should also suit the teenagers’ need for housing and provide more hostel for them as there is an increase in number of teenagers living in poverty in recent years. Transportation subsidies and better allocation of public housing estates are other possible focuses of the government in tackling poverty in Hong Kong.
The Touching Point
So how can teenagers help in the issue of poverty? Ming stressed on the need for teenagers to become aware of the problem, concern about the society and develop a social mind. ‘They should be educated about another face of Hong Kong and clear the misunderstanding on poverty,’ said Ming, ‘Sometimes the discrimination again new immigrants lead to people not caring about their poverty problem.’ It is especially important for teenagers to develop the empathy for the situations of those living under the poverty line. ‘Apart from just caring about money, work and results, teenagers should find a ‘touching point’, which is when they feel attached and responsible for a particular social problem. This touching moment will then stick in their mind and act as a stimulus for them to care about inequality in society, molding them into responsible and caring citizens in the future.’
Fact file of SoCO: https://gatherine.wordpress.com/2012/02/09/fact-files-soco/
Poverty in Hong Kong: https://gatherine.wordpress.com/2012/02/09/fact-files-poverty-in-hong-kong/