The former British territory may still have the world's highest ratio of Rolls Royces to people, but the boom-town days of the 1980s are long gone.
It's easy to miss the dark, narrow entrance to 12-year-old Wong Hung-kai's home in Hong Kong's bustling Cheung Sha Wan district, once a maze of small factories and workshops.
The stench of urine and the pitch black of the grimy stairway leading to his family's tiny cubicle greet the boy daily on his way to and from school.
Amid the plenty of one of Asia's richest cities, Wong is among a rising number of immigrants from mainland China whose dreams have faded into poverty.
Wong shares the cramped space with his widowed mother and 17-year-old brother. At 3.7m2, it is smaller than an average Mercedes Benz car.
Their living space, which by UN standards is inadequate for settlement, is one of eight on the same floor, which is mostly occupied by immigrants from mainland China.
The families share one soot-blackened kitchen, a toilet and a hose for a shower.
"I was not well off on the mainland, but at least I had a house with two bedrooms, a dining room and a kitchen of my own," said Wong's mother, Leung Wai-han.
"This place is not suitable for the children but if I go back, I would have no work," says Leung, who earns HK,500 (US7) a month from cleaning the streets of Cheung Sha Wan and welfare support.
Government statistics show that nearly 196,000 households earned less than HK,000 a month in the second quarter of this year, up 11 percent from the same period last year.
The number of people living in extreme poverty has doubled since the 1997 handover of the former British colony to Chinese rule.
Poverty in Hong Kong is nothing new, but as the city seeks closer economic links with Beijing, more mainland Chinese are finding their way here looking for higher pay, worsening an already record high jobless rate.
The growing poverty and a widening gap between the haves and have nots comes at a time of increasing discontent with the government's handling of the economy.
When half a million people took to the streets on July 1 to protest against a controversial national security bill, an underlying issue was dissatisfaction with the economy.
Many analysts say the answer to poverty lies not in trying to stem the flow of mainlanders, but in law changes to help poor people and those laid off from their jobs start small businesses.
Without some way to build a future, families are losing hope.
"A lot of kids like Wong are developing personality problems. Many of them refuse to do school work," said Sze Lai-shan, community organizer at the Society for Community Organization, which has been highlighting the plight of so-called "cubicle kids."
The group says 91,000 families in Hong Kong are seeking government-subsidized accommodation.
Nevertheless, Hong Kong remains a wealthy city.
Despite nearly five years of deflation and weak business and consumer confidence, Hong Kong's average annual per capita income stood at US,500 last year, more than double that in 1981 and placing it among the 20 richest places in the world.
But an increasingly large portion of Hong Kong's wealth is concentrated in the hands of a smaller number of people.
The gap between Hong Kong's rich and poor is one of the largest among developed economies, and the number claiming welfare assistance breaks records each month.
Helping the poor go into business is one way the poverty could be addressed, analysts say.
"Small enterprises are facing a lot of competition from big companies and the government's existing policies do not provide a level playing field for the small firms," said Wong Hung, assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong's Social Work Department.
These disturbing factors are rarely highlighted by Hong Kong's politicians or its economists who tend to focus on output of goods and services, or gross domestic product, as the key measure of economic progress.
But Michael DeGolyer, associate professor of government and international studies at the Hong Kong Baptist University, says that the growing numbers of poor people could affect GDP growth.
Hong Kong's economy is now expected to grow two percent this year, a far cry from the eight to 10 percent growth rates of the 1980s and 1990s, but still positive.
Times may be tough, but wealth abounds.
Smell of luxury
Rolls Royce recently launched its ultra-luxurious, HK.6 million (US8,000) Phantom car in Hong Kong. The territory has the highest proportion of Rolls Royces to people anywhere.
The smell of "the softest leather in the automobile industry" and a choice of wood veneers from West African mahogany to European elm is about as far removed from the entrance to Wong's Cheung Sha Wan cubicle as one can get.
"We think the Phantom will meet our sales targets here," said Colin Kelly, regional director for Asia Pacific at the launch.
An old television is the only luxury Wong's mother has.
Because the electric wiring is frail, it has to be switched off when she cooks rice. [Source: Taipei Times]
Posted on 2003-09-17