Hong Kong is known for its shopping, seafood, and financial institutions. It’s an island metropolis soaked in colour and light, but it’s also a classic dichotomy of rich and poor; a ground zero for some of the world’s worst living conditions.
In 2016, the number of Hong Kong residents living in poverty rose to 1.36 million, accounting for nearly 20 percent of its total population. While the government has introduced a relatively generous social welfare system, it's thought to have pulled only some 356,000 above the official poverty line, leaving the majority to live in minutely subdivided flats.
These tiny apartments within apartments are known as “coffin cubicles.” Originally single apartment spaces, they've been divided into units, and then again into wood-partitioned cubicles. A 400-square foot flat of these apartments can accommodate nearly 20 double-decker sealed bed spaces, each measuring 6 x 2.5 feet.
These spaces were captured by photographer Benny Lam, who grew up in Hong Kong, and has been long interested in the country’s housing problems. “I wanted to do something about the social issue,” he explained to us.
Working with the non-government organisation Society for Community Organization (SoCO), Lam contacted some of Hong Kong’s sub-divided flat residents and requested an invitation to visit. Most weren’t interested, but a few did welcome him into their “suffocating” homes, as he described them.
“There are no windows for ventilation and the beds are too short for residents to lay their bodies down flat,” he told us.
In one case, a lady whose house Lam photographed, prepared and cooked a meal for him and a few of the SoCO members. Her place was one of the more upscale cubicles, with both a sink and lavatory, but all jammed uncomfortably together in the same room.
“Did the food’s flavour come from the food or the toilet? It was difficult to know,” quipped Benny.
He says there are tens of thousands of low-income families packed into these boxes, but the photos don’t properly do their scale justice. If you haven’t been inside the confined space, Lam says: “you’re yet to understand the matter.”
This series is called “Home Ownership,” and comes from Benny Lam’s book and exhibition, Trapped
Interview by Harriet Renn