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positions: east asia cultures critique 8.1 (2000) 235-262

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Speaking Out:
Days in the Lives of Three Hong Kong Cage Dwellers

Siu-keung Cheung

Figures *


From its humble origin as a fishing village on a bit of barren granite, Hong Kong has been developed into a celebrated international metropolis of more than six million people, with an established market economy and financial systems, advanced communication networks, developed commercial institutions, and vibrant industrial and service sectors. From the very beginning, scholars have hailed the city's rapid development as an unmediated "miracle"; 1 toward this end, a series of exotically appealing aliases, such as Pearl of the Orient, the Paradise of Capital, and the Little Asian Dragon, have been deployed to romanticize and validate further Hong Kong's capitalist society.

Incessantly and unreflectively, the Hong Kong miracle reproduces itself, to construct the former treaty port as an exemplar of the pragmatic path of advanced capitalism. Intellectuals have created an academic enterprise (the so-called Hongkongology) in order to sell the famous "Hong Kong experience" of their fixation. 2 The popular counterpart of this hegemonic discourse [End Page 235] is the Hong Kong fantasy embodied in postcards and coffee-table books that fetishistically, even vulgarly, builds on the glittering prosperity of the city; this fantasy is invariably taken as the totem representing Hong Kong and contextualizing the meanings of this long-colonial urban site. As a consequence of these perceptions, the hardships of poverty have been, so to speak, petrified, distanced as a faraway historical period--archaeologically termed the Age of Poverty--and thus, in effect, removed from the present-day social memory of Hong Kong. 3 In this way, poverty and the impoverished are suppressed by this glittering totem and are effectively removed from the social agenda.

Yet however powerful, the establishment of Hong Kong has not been miraculous enough to make its bit of barren granite grow. From the very beginning the British colonial government used its monopoly land control to turn a handsome profit through the practice of "fair" public auctions. In the meantime, the speculations of capitalist profiteers siphoned off much of the most desirable property. The end result of this laissez-faire political-economic structure is that land in Hong Kong is a highly speculative commodity and among the most expensive real estate in the world.

In this context of the lack of physical space and the exploitative political economy of land, the laboring masses struggle to secure a livelihood and to organize their existences under the constant threat of dislocation and homelessness. 4 Within the fantasy and the realities of skyscraper penthouses and land deals, perhaps the most ironic phenomenon in Hong Kong is the destititute and solitary human being who lives in a cube measuring six by three by four feet surrounded by a metal grill, the so-called Hong Kong cage apartment. Under the regime of hegemonic fetishism, "spatial entitlement" has become the signifier of social status, defining class and implying the worth of persons who possess and control space. According to this principle, the cage apartment, synedochic emblem of the slum or ghetto, is identified as the least desirable residential setting, and its dwellers are invariably stereotyped as exotic Others, indigent subalterns of the lowest social and cultural standing. Economically disadvantaged, they are also ideologically exploited. They function as the (negative) example that reinforces the hegemonic project of "possessions or perish." [End Page 236]

Moreover, these living spaces are routinely appropriated by politicians and other public figures as a stage for dramatizing their social passion and moral concern with Hong Kong's lowest social stratum. 5 When not encoded in the alienating form of statistical data, the cage apartment is sensationally zoomed in on and presented awash in sentimentalism. Thus the cage dwellers are reified as a class of helpless and hopeless wretches and are rendered into material for the articulation of Hong Kong's social pathology. Furthermore, this social problem is constructed as the client who must await the services of the professional social worker...


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