Pic: Michele Penna.

The city of Hong Kong is like the mythical Janus, the god who supposedly guarded ancient Roman doors: it has two faces. On the one hand, you have the rich, cosmopolitan city which never sleeps, and on the other hand the metropolis of the poor, with its old, lousy  buildings. The two worlds live side by side, hugging each other in a maze of skyscrapers and crappy edifices.

Despite being one of the world’s most coveted destinations for millionaires, poverty is a serious issue in the former British colony. On September 28, Chief Executive CY Leung announced that about 1.3 million people – roughly 19.6 per cent of the city’s population – are officially poor. The number recedes to 15.2 per cent if welfare payments are included, but even then it remains stubbornly high. The elderly are particularly vulnerable: one in three falls below the poverty line.

Among this  social group are those who live in the so-called “caged homes”, essentially beds crammed one next to the other, divided by wooden or metal bars. A room can be segmented into various cubicles, each as small as 1.5 square meters, to be rented out individually to people who cannot afford proper housing. Reportedly, caged homes are often infested by bugs, lack heating and have poor wiring, which means they are also potentially dangerous for their inhabitants.

77-year-old Yeung Ying Biu sits inside his 1.5 square meter (16 square feet) cage, which he calls home, in Hong Kong. Pic: AP.

The Gini Coefficient (GC), the indicator most commonly used to gauge differences in a society, shows an increasingly wide rich-poor gap among locals. The index – a number between 0 and 1, with 0 being perfect equality and 1 maximal  inequality – has been creeping up for decades. According to a 2012 official report, “in the 1970s, the GC stood at around 0.430, and began to go up quite visibly since 1980s. Such rise further accelerated between 1986 and 1996, in which the GC increased from 0.453 to 0.518, sharply by 0.065.” The document says that the Coefficient grew moderately after the end of the nineties, “and its latest pick up in 2011 (up 0.004) was actually the smallest as compared to the previous 25 years”. The 2011 final reading, however, stood at 0.537, making Hong Kong the 11th most unequal place among those included in the CIA World Factbook.

“As only the privileged have the right to vote, the government works for the rich, not for the poor,” said Sze Lai Shan, a Community Organizer at the Society for Community Organization (SoCO), an NGO supporting the have-nots living in the city. “We advocate for the rights of the underprivileged and lobby the government. At the same time, we mobilize resources for the poor and provide them with food, blankets and other things.” SoCO has established community learning centers for disadvantaged children and claims they help more than 1,000 families living in caged homes.

The problem is not confined to policymaking. “It is also the society. On November 17, the Court of Final Appeal ruled that immigrants will not need to wait seven year before being allowed to apply for Comprehensive Social Security Assistance. But people on the web are 90 per cent against the decision. They are self-interested,” argued Ms Sze. “They just want to keep the money for themselves.”

Migrants are among the most disadvantaged, together with children, single women and elderly people. Yet they keep on coming to Hong Kong, attracted by higher wages and by the city’s security. “It is so safe around here, you can go around at night and nobody will even touch you,” said a Pakistani national we met in Yau Ma Tei district.

Jane, an immigrant we met in Kowloon, confirmed that the city is totally safe. “You know, in Hong Kong the government controls everything, nobody will do anything to you,” she said mimicking a fist with her hand. “It’s good.”

Jane arrived three years ago from Nigeria, leaving behind her two children, and has since been dividing her time between Hong Kong and southern China. In both places she does the same job: prostitution. “But here it is better than in southern China, it is not so good there,” she said.

Life has been hard on this woman who, at 4am, was still looking for customers in the empty streets. “Of course I want to go back to Nigeria, everyone wants to go to his own country, no?” she asked rhetorically.

“Sometimes I sleep in the morning, sometimes I don’t sleep at all. And I have been in prison three times, every time for three months,” added Jane. Whatever the outcome of her encounters with the law, things had not changed much for her: she was still out there sipping Heineken and looking for customers. “What can you do? It is all in God’s plan. Sometimes you want to do one thing, but God wants another.”