She wakes up at 5am every morning, she tells me. Everyday is the same: she makes a simple Chinese rice-based meal that will suffice as breakfast and lunch for her and her family, and is out of the door within an hour.
Her shift as a security guard at an apartment building in Sai Ying Pun starts daily at 630am and lasts for 12 hours. After, she goes to the market to buy ingredients for that night’s dinner. She cooks, eats, sleeps. And it starts all over again.
Cao Yue Ming, or Cao Po Po, as she asks me to call her, is 60 this year (Po Po means grandmother in Cantonese). She laughs as she asks me not to take any photos too close-up.
“I’m so old, I don’t look good!” She says gently in Mandarin but continues to let me snap away.
Having worked in Shen Zhen for more than six years, Cao Po Po is effectively bilingual. So it came as a surprise when she told me that after being retrenched from the clothing manufacturing industry, she found that the only jobs available for someone her age were in cleaning and security.
“I’m not very intelligent or well-read, I only studied till I was in Form 6,” she says, “My husband studied even less than me!”
At 55 and 67, both jobless and with minimal savings, the couple decided to take a month-long course, which included background checks on their criminal history, and became security guards.
“I’ll do this for as long as they will have me,” she says “It’s a little boring, and the hours are long, and I don’t have time for anything else so can’t look after my children. But what can I do? There is no other option.”
Despite working for more than 60 years in total, the couple has not saved enough to purchase an apartment as they poured their money into education for their children – a 20-year-old daughter still in college, and a 30-year-old son who has already started his own family.
“Well, I’m poor!” She says with a hearty laugh, “It’s the simplest explanation! It’s just not easy to raise children – their education is so expensive, university especially.”
“The cost of living in Hong Kong is just too high, and working salaries just cannot catch up fast enough, so an average person just can’t afford to buy an apartment.”
I ask her about where she stays, how big is the place she’s renting? Her face falls but she tells me with a warm voice, “Don’t ask me that, I’m so embarrassed of it.”
It’s no secret that Hong Kong is home to one of the most expensive housing markets in the world. While it has begun to show signs of slowing down, it is still the least affordable major city in the world, according to Demographia, a US think tank. It’s 2015 survey showed that on average, housing prices are 17 times household income.
This has given rise to a trend of super tiny apartments, also known as “mosquito-sized units”. Developers such as Henderson Land Development have rolled out studio apartments as small as 191 sq ft, that cost almost HK$3.5 million at The Zutten in Kowloon City.
“Most of the older people I know have apartments, but they also encounter another problem.” Cao Po Po adds, “Now that their children have grown up and want to start their own families, the apartments they have are too small to accommodate more people. It’s just way too small, too crammed!”
Public housing in Hong Kong is provided through a lottery system. While it accounts for 46 percent of the population, the waiting list is extensive and highly competitive. As of September this year, there are about 280,000 applicants on the waiting list, a record of high. The average waiting time for general applicants is almost four years.
Cao Po Po tells me she no longer harbours a hope of buying a house for herself as she is already in the second half of her life.
“I have some savings, but I wouldn’t say it’s very much. Unless it’s very necessary, I try not to spend money. I just need enough to live everyday and I am content, I don’t want very much.”
Instead, her biggest dream now is to see her daughter graduate with a good job. “I hope my daughter studies well, I hope she takes her lessons very seriously and doesn’t take any shortcuts. And when she starts working, I hope she finds a way to give back to Hong Kong,” she tells me.
“Because really, despite everything, Hong Kong has treated us well. They have given my daughter scholarships to go to school because of our financial situation. So I hope if my daughter manages to do well, she will help others in need.”