Cage Men

by Alex Thomas

In a city of escalating urban housing prices, $160 USD can buy a 6ft by 3ft iron cage in one of Hong Kong’s disused tenant building. Originally created to accommodate migrant workers, “cage homes” are now home to around 1000 Hongkongese.

Cage homes first arose following the 1949 Chinese Civil War, when waves of refugees descended on island in search of low-cost housing. Looking to maximize profit, landlords gutted apartment floors and packed in iron cages, stacked in threes and fours.

There were once up to 600 of these cage homes, one may of thought they would have disappeared over time, however an estimated 100 exist today, only 15 of which are government licensed.

Today’s cages homes are no longer occupied not by able bodied migrant workers, but the elderly, the mentally ill and the ‘working poor’.
Chen, 57, lives in such a cage home with nine other men between 57-84, each suffering from varying health complaints, from Arthritis to Schizophrenia.
He currently pays $160 USD a month for his cage, communal TV, overhead fan, toilet and a wall phone. The 20m2 space is damp, cramped, with no basic amenities such as kitchens and bathrooms.

“Life here is very difficult and at times very depressing, we just exist here”, explains Chen.

Chen first arrived in Hong Kong from Dongaun, China in 1972, commanding the top salary of the time of $20 USD a week as a scaffold worker, allowing him to support his wife and young family in Mainland China.

However, this success was short-lived, as work came in short supply following the “opening up of China” in the 80’s which saw many industries migrate across the border to the mainland. To add salt in the wound Chen was forced into early retirement after his leg was crushed in a construction accident in 1989.

Chen currently receives $340 USD month in welfare support and medical care for the injuries sustained in the construction industry.   Daily life varies very little for Chen; “I wake up at around 9 read the papers, go for lunch at the restaurant next door, sleep, order take away from the restaurant play board games and watch TV.”  

“Many of these people are at an age where they are too scared to move away from an environment they are so familiar with”, explains Mr. Chan of SoCO, an agency that helps low-income workers secure public housing.

Chen, who last saw his family at last year Spring Festival, dreams of reuniting with his family back in Donguan.

 “I will not live out my last years in this cage.”

 Disused building that hosts various sub standard accomodation, including 2 cage apartment.
Main entrance to the Cage Home apartment.Home to 9 men aged between 57-84.
Chen (57) talks to fellow cage dwellers from his caged bed.
Gong Siu – Gau (62) takes his daily cocktail of drugs to treat various ailments.
Sun (70) gazes out on the streets of Hong Kong from his cage bed.
Cage home residents take part in afternoon activities of card games and TV.