To pay for their substandard living environment, these underprivileged families – with average household income of less than HK$8,000 – must spend more than half their earnings on rent. Not only does this restrict their budget for food and toys for their children, these families also have to live with serious safety hazards such as potential fire threats cause by overloaded electricity wiring amongst subdivided units, blockage of rear fire escape staircases and poor hygienic conditions.
Over the years, Ko Chung Ming has received a number of photojournalism awards, including 1st prize Hong Kong Press Photographers Association – Focus at the Frontline 2007, People category and 1st prize in the Focus at the Frontline 2002, Features category. He participated in ‘Art Chat on Harbour’, a exhibition featuring Hong Kong and China artists at the Cattle Depot in 2004.
The roof is a maze of corridors, narrow passageways between huts built of sheet metal, wood, brick and plastics. There are steps and ladders leading up to a second level of huts. We get lost. Our leaflets in hand, Rufina knocks on a door. There is an exchange in Cantonese. Stefan stands in the background, the foreigner, smiling, not understanding a word. They hear us out, smile back and invite us into their homes.
Later, we look down at the building from a higher one across the street. The roof is huge, like a village. There must be thirty or forty households on it. From the outside there is no way of knowing what is inside. Whether they have Internet or not. Whether they have a toilet. And there is no way of knowing their stories.
Who makes a picture of this? Who keeps a record? Sometimes a newspaper will print an article, or an NGO will launch a campaign. Various government departments keep files on so-called “unauthorized building works”, coding the huts with permanent markers and photographing them. The files are not on public record, but residents may look at them to learn why their homes are to be demolished. Very rarely do rooftop residents document their own spaces: the family pictures we saw were taken standing in a field of sunflowers, or in a village in the mainland, or down on the street beside someone else’s car, smiling.
We walk up the stairs again. We no longer get lost in the corridors. We learn how residents modify and maintain their homes. There are people who have been living on the roof for twenty or thirty years who have helped to build the city. The new immigrants from Mainland China, from Southeast Asia, from Pakistan, continue to do so. In the seventies, they built the underground, and now they are working on the new tower blocks. Hong Kong’s older districts are being redeveloped. Some buildings are crumbling because they were built with salt water concrete. Others have to make way for taller ones that yield higher profits. Few rooftop residents would mind living in the new towers, but they cannot afford it. All are afraid of being resettled to the remote satellite towns, where there may be few opportunities and limited social networks.
We walk up the stairs again. The rooftop settlements are an urban legacy, telling the story of Hong Kong, of political upheavals in Mainland China, of urban redevelopment, of people’s hopes and their needs in the city.
It is not an emotional statement. It is an examination of the choices one faces living at the poverty line. I work with an economist, Lin Hui-Yi, to ensure factual and statistical consistency. We have documented this project in 16 countries – including Hong Kong – across six continents. We are not trying to compare different countries’ poverty, but rather to have a starting point to understand poverty within a country’s context. For developed countries, where there is relatively updated household consumption data, we focus on the average daily amount that a person at the poverty line would spend on food.
One frame. One person. One day.
Everything else is left up to interpretation.
HKD $44.96 (USD $5.77, EUR£4.01) for food. This is based on a per capita per-day basis of a poverty indicator for Hong Kong (half of the median average household income), and low-income household food expenditure. Hong Kong currently does not have an official poverty line, but this is expected to come into place under the Commission on Poverty which was newly re-established in December 2012. There is presently, however, an official poverty analysis framework uses a multi-dimensional approach to monitor 24 poverty indicators, which includes educational and child social support rates in addition to income indicators. Poverty indicator statistics are mainly collected by the Census and Statistics Department through the General Household Survey and the Social Welfare Department. Poverty and social welfare issues are monitored and championed by the Hong Kong Council of Social Service, which is the overall coordinating body for social service NGOs in Hong Kong. Note: Latest available standards and exchange rates were taken as of July 2011, when the photography was undertaken.
The Poverty Line project, done in conjunction with economist Lin Hui-Yi, won the grand prize at the Arles Photography Open Salon, and was awarded an artist residency during the Les Rencontres d’Arles. The photographic project has since been exhibited at the Three Shadows Photography Art Center in Beijing, and various galleries in Penang, Singapore and Cologne. It has been featured in numerous media transcending conventional photography-based media, including NPR, Foreign Policy, Xinhua and Singapore Business Times. The project was also presented at [email protected], a global talent search by TED in 2012.
Stefen’s work has been recognized with awards by PDN, Billboard, International Photo Awards, Photographie de la Paris. He, himself, is one of the judges for the Tokyo-based Nikon Photo Contest. His clients include The Smithsonian, Time Magazine, Geo Germany, The Guardian, and various commercial companies.
At the age of 25, Stefen climbed to the summit of Mount Everest; he is a member of the Explorers Club,
Stefen currently lives between Beijing and Singapore.
The Gini index in Hong Kong is amongst the top five in the world, which means there is a serious gap between the rich and the poor. All shades of unfair social phenomena – such as educational favouritism, monopolies, real estate hegemony, difficulties facing the elderly and new immigrants, etc. – all contribute to the growth of poverty.
‘Poverty’ as a social phenomenon, and as an issue, is difficult to summarize in a few photos. In this age of ‘knowledge economy’, good education is the key to helping our next generation ‘move upward’ and escape poverty. To fundamentally address and solve the problem of poverty in Hong Kong, the government must focus on reforming the existing educational system. Hence, in this series I consider, reflect and focus on the problems in the educational system.
Hong Kong has been promoting ‘elitism’, turning quality education into talent education. The government’s main focus is on the high- reputation schools and the graduating elite. The emergence of private schools has created an atmosphere of discrimination and segregation amongst schools and students. The government has forgotten that education is fundamentally democratic – for every student. Each student, whether elite or ordinary, rich or poor, should be treated equally.
Government authorities have launched, numerous times, large scale poverty relief measures, but have never addressed poverty alleviation through education. For children of poor families, education is a way to help them get out of the poverty cycle. The government should conduct a comprehensive review of the current outdated educational system, break away from elitism and a single directional teaching model, so that all children can receive quality education.
This work is ongoing as I consider other contributory social problems in order to create a more complete series of photographs that explore poverty in Hong Kong.
“The things I want to express are so beautiful and pure.” — Maurits Cornelis Escher.
Based on this belief, I started my life in photography. My works are a reflection of my opinions and my feelings towards this society.