The shanty towns of Hong Kong

Post Date: May 26th, 2011 | Categories: Advocacy | COMMENT

Chris Ip writes in SCMP on May 22, 2011

Popular belief has it that to find the dispossessed who have come to Hong Kong to flee political or religious persecution, the best place to look is the crowded streets of Kowloon. A word in the right ear in Yau Ma Tei, Jordan, or the infamous Chungking Mansions can gain you access to a thousand stories of political turmoil and brutality spanning the globe. However, of the city’s roughly 7,000 asylum seekers, torture claimants and refugees, at most 1,000 live in Kowloon or Hong Kong Island. According to Cosmo Beatson, co-ordinator of NGO Vision First which works with those seeking refuge, the majority live a meagre existence in shanty towns dotted across the New Territories. Around Yuen Long, Tuen Mun, Fanling and Sheung Shui, pockets of Somalis, Sri Lankans and Pakistanis can be found living in makeshift shacks.

The reasons are simple: the rent is lower and landlords are less rigorous about ID checks and down payments, normally a necessity in Hong Kong, where torture claimants cannot work. They are given a bag of food every 10 days and HK$1,000 monthly rent allowance from International Social Services. NGOs like Vision First help to provide medicine, clothing and bus fares to over 300 claimants. Still, the problem of how to pay for electricity, gas and basic goods weighs on them constantly. A prime example is the community of around 50 young Bangledeshi men living in the village of Ping Che, near Fanling. The men, who are all claiming they were victims of torture in their home country, pay around HK$1,000 for rent a month each for roughly built, legally questionable shacks. “He has air-con but cannot [turn it] on,” says one of them, Samim, gesturing to Uzzal, a fellow torture claimant, as the temperature hits 32 degrees Celsius. “Because of electricity, if the air-con is on he has to count 300, 400 dollars more a month.”

Out of the dozen torture claimants encountered, all but two have girlfriends who are Indonesian domestic helpers. The women support them financially, while the men’s humble shacks give their companions a place to relax on a Sunday. Their only other source of income is getting a few days’ work a month doing cheap manual labour. One said he could get up to HK$250 a day for dismantling computers. “Chinese people see our faces and they know we need money,” he said. A friend of his was jailed for 15 months when police caught him doing a similar job. Samim, 28, has been in Hong Kong for five years, waiting for his request for refugee status to be processed. He heard about the Ping Che hamlet from his family back home, who put him in touch with another Bangladeshi in Hong Kong. When he arrived in the village, he slept on the floor, shoulder to shoulder with 12 other claimants. Now he and one roommate share a house furnished with castaways: a pink sofa and a TV with a severed wire that he fixed. Samim also has a small fridge he got second hand for HK$350 to stop his rationed food going bad.

Samim’s landlord, a 73-year-old man, has lived in the village for 50 years. A carpenter, he built the two homes he rents to torture claimants on his own land. Uzzal is one of eight claimants living in a string of rooms that extend out of the back of another village house. In the backyard there is a kitchen and bathroom, and a pile of refuse they burn every few days. Down narrow paths and past stagnant streams is a shack with a corrugated iron roof bearing the Bengali words “place for prayer”. Inside, six Muslim teachers are eating chickpeas and rice. The faithful cannot afford an imam for their “mosque” so roaming teachers like Irfan Minhas – who spends 40 days a year on the road – come to teach them about the Koran and the Prophet Mohammed. The Bangledeshis each chip in about HK$10 a month for rent. “It’s up to you,” Samim explained. “If somebody cannot, that’s OK.” On Fridays – the holy day – Muslims from surrounding villages pack out all five prayer sessions.

Shohel, another Bangladeshi, said: “We live together, all the Bangladeshi people, and this environment we like. This looks like a village, like how we live in our country.” But days merge into one when you have no right to work, next to no money and could be sent home at a moment’s notice. “Most of the time is very slow, very boring,” Samim said. He might leave the village once a week to pick up food or check in with the Immigration Department, but he can barely afford the bus fare. Between December 2009 and the end of March 2011, 1,045 claims of torture were processed by the department. All were rejected. Beatson said: “Like the 1.5 million of Hong Kong’s poor, asylum seekers and refugees are vulnerable and marginalised, with a complete lack of support networks. Unlike Hong Kong’s poor, asylum seekers and refugees experience severe social alienation. A rich country has to live up to a higher standard.”

CIA World Factbook: Bangladesh

Ping Che shanty town 1

Ping Che shanty town 2