Disconnection in a Highly Connected City

From the moment you set foot in Hong Kong’s international airport, you are greeted by sleek and modern design and a streamlined customs experience. Of course, nothing less should be expected from an airport that has been recognised as the ‘World’s Best Airport’ eight times since 2000. Arrivals are welcomed with a myriad of transportation options and a subway system that will take you to the heart of the city in just 20 minutes.

Hong Kong’s world-class transportation system is no doubt one of the best there is. The city’s Mass Transit Railway (MTR) carries an average of four million passengers every working day and is the primary mode of transportation for many of the city’s inhabitants. Despite being one of one of the world’s most densely populated cities, Hong Kong’s sophisticated transportation grid makes it extremely well-connected.

Only half an hour’s drive from the airport is a shopping paradise in Tsim Sha Tsui, where the only thing longer than the endless list of shopping choices is the line of tourists waiting to enter each store. Just across the harbour is Central, where money is made as quickly as it is spent. Due to a highly efficient transportation network, most places in Hong Kong are readily accessible within an hour. This high connectivity, paired with incredible displays of wealth, is a stark contrast, however, to the districts that stand between tourists and their top shopping destinations.

In the shadow of this wealth is another side to Hong Kong. Despite the 40 per cent GDP per capita growth over the last decade, which now stands at approximately US$32,000 (HK$249,000) per year, about 30 per cent of those on the lowest incomes actually make less money than they did a decade ago, while 10 per cent of the working population still earn less than US$10,000 (HK$78,000) per year. In the north and northwestern districts of Hong Kong, a short distance from the airport and the Chinese-Hong Kong border respectively, one will find communities that are isolated, vulnerable and characterised by poor financial conditions. They are often made up by ‘broken’ families and will experience higher suicide rates than communities in other districts within the city.

Furthermore, some 150 migrants a day enter Hong Kong from the mainland, resulting in an increase in population of 54,000 each year. Many are the spouses and/or children of the city’s male migrants. Unlike their visiting counterparts (tourists from the mainland) these individuals are not that well off. They face challenges and difficulties in integrating into the local community and in finding work, a result of differences in language and of having qualifications that are not recognised within Hong Kong. Since newcomers face restrictions in receiving welfare, they have to work to meet their needs, usually taking on low-paid work and often finding themselves stuck at home during bouts of unemployment. Before the implementation of the minimum wage policy, some were being paid as little as US$500 (HK$3,400) a month.

This year, however, sees a law being passed that will now protect these low-income groups from being further exploited. The minimum hourly wage has been set at the level of US$3.60 (HK$28), which is still very low in view of the rising inflation rate (now standing at 7 per cent) and the high living costs in Hong Kong. Many businesses, however, have objected to the law, claiming that it will lead to potential closure. However, since the law was introduced (in August 2011) the city’s unemployment rate has reached an all-time low, at just 3.2 per cent. The fear that the older working population might lose their jobs has not been come to fruition. Indeed the most substantial expense for a business in Hong Kong is not its employees’ wages but, in fact, ground rent, which can comprise up to 50 per cent of the total operating cost.

The city enjoys a spectacularly high GDP growth of about 4–5 per cent each year. It not only has the most expensive housing in the region but also a very high income disparity. Hong Kong’s Gini coefficient (a statistical measure of income disparity) is ranked as one of the highest in world – at 0.535 in 2010 – while social mobility, especially among the younger generation, is reaching stagnation. Those between the ages of 15–19 and 20–29 are more likely to face unemployment than any other group, with those in the 20–29 range experiencing rising unemployment (since 1991), irrespective of educational background. With no space, such expensive housing, less promising job prospects and the population squeeze, young people feel trapped and the opportunities are not as plentiful as before.

Hong Kong is notorious for its small living spaces, an infamous example being the Kowloon Walled City, a densely populated settlement that was demolished in 1994. People still live in ‘cage homes’ or cubicle flats in such areas as Sham Shui Po, Mongkok and Kwun Tong, where temperatures within these habitats can reach upwards of 35°C (95°F) in the summer. To accommodate the rising population, satellite towns were developed in the 1970s, many of which were separated from the city centre by the mountains. Despite the high connectivity of Hong Kong’s transportation system the distance of these new towns from the city centre, and consequently the greater travel costs of travelling between them, means that low-income groups living in these areas (such as Tung Chung and Tuen Mun, for example) are more isolated. Furthermore, these communities have been plagued with problems of inadequate job opportunities and public facilities, resulting in ‘bedroom’ communities within a high density of public housing estates. The relatively younger residents in these areas are generally less well educated and come from lower socioeconomical backgrounds than the general population of Hong Kong. These vulnerable groups face a host of problems, such as low wages, insecure or unstable jobs, domestic violence and suicide (the rates of which are 16–25 per cent higher than the population average). Even access to services provided by NGOs and other such organisations is characterised by a certain disconnection, possibly due to the distant branch’s lack of communication with its headquarters.

Especially at risk seem to be teenagers, many of whom have low self-esteem, lack problem-solving skills and consequently have poor mental health. They are also less likely to seek the help or support they need in order to address these problems.

The well-being of older people living in these areas is also greatly affected. Due to their lack of mobility, a factor that relates more to the high cost of public transport than to how far they have to travel, they lack a firm social and family support network. As a result they become isolated and cut off from the community. Some were relocated from the older districts in Kowloon and Central to the newly developed districts in the north and western parts of Hong Kong. With property prices being sky-high and continuing to soar, relocating is not an option and so these populations are not only isolated but also trapped in these areas. Social networks have broken down due to such relocations and a new system has yet to be established. These older people feel disconnected. With Hong Kong’s increasingly greying population and a dependency ratio standing at 334, and expected to increase rapidly in the next decade, the suicide risk for the elderly is a growing problem.

Social deprivation and fragmentation unquestionably plays a role in the general mental health of the inhabitants of any given area. Steps need to be taken to ensure that these isolated and vulnerable districts are integrated into the rest of Hong Kong and that they receive the resources and attention they need in order to truly become a community. The success of a city cannot be measured only by its financial prowess; the mental health and the well-being of its residents must also be considered. What good will it do if property prices are skyrocketing on Hong Kong Island, at an average cost of more than US$21,500 per square metre, when half of all households have a living space of less than 46 square metres (500 square feet)? What good will it do to the local population if they cannot share the benefits of economic development? What sort of quality of life will Hong Kong’s inhabitants have if they can’t possess their own living space? We need to ask ourselves some very deep and hard questions. If this imbalance continues to grow and the income gap continues to widen as expected, is the whole development sustainable? Will it not cause social disharmony and unrest? Hong Kong will soon be connected to the mainland by a very fast train, with a speed of 300 kilometres per hour. However, there is still a substantial proportion of our community being left behind that have not been able to connect even to their own rapidly changing city. Once again, does Hong Kong move in a direction where the overall well-being of the city’s inhabitants is at stake?

Even with outstanding economic achievements and world-class infrastructure, a city is only as strong as its weakest link.

Paul S. F. Yip is the Founding Director of the Hong Kong Jockey Club Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention and a Professor of Social Work and Social Administration at the University of Hong Kong.