It goes without saying, the great divide exists in many countries, but Hong Kong is a place like no other when it comes to being a ‘city of contradictions.’
Never-ending rows of tall, sleek buildings jut sharply from the side of lush green mountains; tropical islands bask in azure blue seas while giant steel-clad container ships chug noisily by.
All-you-can-eat Dim Sum bars and street food stalls snuggle up next to Starbucks and McDonalds. Markets selling cheap wares stand cheerfully amongst shiny designer stores; and ancient medicinal shops displaying traditional Chinese herbs reside next to modern day drug-filled pharmacies.
Everywhere you turn in Hong Kong, you’re faced with a torrent of juxtaposing images. For the most part it’s a pretty impressive sight!
For such a tiny spot on China’s south coast, nowhere more does the old collide with the new, the real verse the fake and the east meet west.
But possibly the greatest divide on show in this city – is the blaring gap between the rich and the poor.
As one of the world’s leading international financial hubs, it’s no surprise, Hong Kong is ranked fourth when it comes to having the highest percentage of millionaire households. (Sadly we’re not one of them!)
In fact, when it comes to millionaire wealth, Hong Kong has edged ahead of its Southeast Asian rival, Singapore, for the very first time! There’s nothing like a bit of sibling rivalry to produce results – for decades these two have been fierce opponents when it comes to competing for the title of Asia’s business capital.
Part of Hong Kong’s rise in the millionaire club is down to the territory’s property market, which has officially become the most expensive on the planet. Those classed as the ‘super rich’ spent $43-billion on real estate in 2012 and just last month, a home on The Peak (an exclusive part of Hong Kong) sold for US $103 million — a record!
8.5 per cent of households own at least one million US dollars and Hong Kong also has one of the highest per capital rates of billionaires in the world!
Streets here may as well be paved in gold, the city lays claim to the highest concentration of luxury brands in the world.
With a population of seven million, space on this 1100-square kilometre land mass might be scarce but for many of the city’s elite, life in Hong Kong is by no means lacking.
Expansive residential dwellings exist in all their glory with sprawling, uninterrupted harbour views and only the best mod-cons money can buy.
Is it any wonder that with the highest number of Rolls Royce cars per capita, Hong Kong has been labeled a ‘status-obsessed’ city?
Along with these toys, social, cultural, business, recreation and sports clubs have played a big role in the lives of the city’s elite, as far back as colonial-era Hong Kong.
Membership to one (or more) of the city’s 30 exclusive clubs – whether it’s the world famous Jockey Club (where no amount of money can buy your way in), the popular American Club or the city’s oldest club, the Hong Kong Club (founded in 1846 and only allowing white British citizens in until 1970, even then, women were banned from certain areas until 1996) – is a given.
With their lavish facilities including pools, gyms, saunas and tennis courts – all perched on prime real estate – today many have 20 year-long waiting lists, cost millions of dollars in membership fees – and for some, inheritance is the only way to gain entry into this exclusive society.
Today, apart from offering an enviable lifestyle, club membership is increasingly being seen as an investment. Some will go so far as to say club membership is an important draw-card in attracting top executive talent to Hong Kong.
There’s no denying, when looking at the world’s richest economies, the income gap between the wealthy and poor in Hong Kong is by far the largest.
It’s been proven of late with the ‘Gini Co-efficient’ (a measure of the rich-poor gap) reaching its highest reading in a decade rendering Hong Kong the least equal city in the developed world.
In the first half of 2012 – 1.19 million people were living in poverty.
Just up the road from extravagant residences, locals are forced to live in tiny dwellings, barely able to make ends meet.
To be fair, in Hong Kong, it’s not unusual for generations of families to live together under the one roof. One tiny apartment (often no bigger than 50 square feet) can be home to half a dozen family members.
Mum, toddler and baby sleep in one bed, Dad’s on a mattress on the floor, Grandma and Grandad are on the pull-out sofa and brother in law’s on the couch. As well as being financially viable, it’s also part of the Chinese culture. Family is a close knit affair and it’s rare for elderly members to live in nursing homes.
But in many cases, these already ‘minuscule’ apartments are being subdivided even further into several units and the poorest of the poor are forced to live in what are dubbed cage or ‘coffin’ homes.
Around $120US a month will buy you something akin to a ‘rabbit hutch’ – a 1.5 square metre wire-mesh cage in a rundown, dilapidated apartment.
Bathrooms are communal, often little more than a couple of squat toilets and a bucket. The kitchen (at best) can comprise of a miniature stove perched at the end of the bed. Bedbugs are rampant and residents use thin pads, bamboo mats, even old linoleum on their cages’ wooden planks instead of mattresses in a bid to keep them away.
It’s not just an unlucky few either, tens of thousands of Hong Kongese are in these squalor conditions with the waiting list for public housing standing at around 210,000.
While cage homes (which sprang up in the 1950s to cater mostly to single men coming in from mainland China) are becoming rarer, other types of substandard housing such as cubicle apartments are growing as more families are pushed into poverty.
With the longest life expectancy of any region in the world, Hong Kong’s population is ageing rapidly. Nearly 44 per cent of the “economically inactive households” have family members aged 65 and above and one in every three elderly people live in poverty.
With the ever-increasing housing prices bearing a large portion of the blame, anger is threatening to erupt and has become a common theme in increasingly frequent anti-government protests. Current Chief Executive and President of Hong Kong, C.Y. Leung has pledged to tackle the shortage by building 92,000 affordable homes over the next five years.
Let’s hope he’s on the money… Hong Kong, it looks like it’s time to even up the playing field.