SCMP goes inside tiny flats of Hong Kong to uncover cramped living conditions

By Marcelo Duhalde

South China Morning Post (SCMP)

Hong Kong


Hong Kong is considered by many to be the least affordable city in the world, with the most expensive property internationally. The housing crisis in Hong Kong is one of the most pressing problems facing the city.

The median home price is nearly US$3,200 per square foot, and the average home costs about US$1.28 million. The monthly rent for almost half of the apartments in the city is US$2,550, which is more than the median monthly salary.

People living below the poverty line — roughly one in five Hong Kongers or 1.65 million people — have serious difficulties finding decent housing. At least 220,000 Hong Kong residents live in subdivided apartments, where a standard dwelling is divided up to accommodate multiple living spaces. Residents, sometimes up to 20 people, must share one or two bathrooms and a single kitchen.

SCMP investigated the tiny living spaces inhabited by poverty-stricken people in Hong Kong.
SCMP investigated the tiny living spaces inhabited by poverty-stricken people in Hong Kong.

These tiny living spaces, often no larger than 20 square feet, are stacked on top of one another in narrow buildings. There is barely room for one person in each unit, and there is no space to fully stretch out since the same space is also used for storage.

Many of these spaces do not meet safety regulations and construction standards. They also often have poor acoustic or thermal insulation and are given little maintenance. In addition, other problems can negatively impact the physical and psychological well-being of the tenants, particularly the many elderly who live there alone.

The alternative for these low-income people is to apply for public housing units. However, the supply cannot meet the demand.

This problem has been a recurring topic in local and international media, regularly covered with interviews, photo galleries, personal stories, and videos — all resources that seek to put the reader in front of a severe and urgent problem for many city inhabitants. But for our team, the goal was to show a different dimension to the problem by using data visualisation tools, illustrations, and graphics to make the spatial references relatable to our audience.

Creating a blueprint

In planning the coverage, we set the goal of showing detailed interiors of the small rooms and the suffocating conditions that the inhabitants of this shared housing system endure.

To accomplish this, five visual journalists began an in-depth investigation into various sources. It was important to explain the main reasons for the problem, and we used several datasets, government reports, university studies of land use in the territory, interviews with experts, and the evolution of the demographic figures of Hong Kong to build compelling data visualisation pieces. We also created detailed floor plans to show the large amount of money necessary to rent a reduced and limited space in most of the subdivided flats.

Visualisations based on in-person visits to the flats show just how cramped it is inside.
Visualisations based on in-person visits to the flats show just how cramped it is inside.

The other part was the field research to gather all the visual references, record dimensions and surfaces, and compile other information to develop illustrations that revealed the problem and provided tangible references for the reader.

For this purpose, we used pencil illustrations — a decision discussed in the planning stage. We ruled out the use of photographs or videos in our piece because we did not want to expose real homes, and the intention was to respect people’s privacy. In addition, the richness of an illustration based on analysis using videos, images, quick sketches, and 3D modelling tools made it easier to break down the elements and to show these overloaded spaces more accurately.

By combining digital and traditional drawing techniques, the final product enriched the user experience and delivered a more immersive result. Animations were included in the beginning to accurately contextualise the location of these houses, and various illustrative styles were combined to accurately depict the critical living situations of these people as witnessed by each artist.

After producing the assets and writing the story, it took us several weeks to make the online piece fully operational for all platforms. We had several rounds of revisions, corrections, and polishing the visual details. The published piece gives readers an updated and realistic portrayal of the living conditions faced by many people in Hong Kong. 

Taking it to print

In addition to the online project, we wanted to share this project with our print readers. We knew that we had to find a way to convey the reality of the situation to our audience, despite the limited space we had to work with.

Given the space constraint for the printed project, which was one full newspaper page, we created a 3D model showcasing the entire flat without all the walls. This would allow readers to see what it was like inside the flat, including the bed space. Additionally, we included smaller graphics on the side of the page to provide readers with a more vivid idea of what it was like to live in such cramped quarters. We hoped that the readers would be able to empathise with the people living inside.

We encountered certain difficulties in getting the information, such as measuring the size of the flat without staying too long and minimising the inconvenience we caused to the people living inside. During our visits, the tenants were very nice to us, and we felt that it was inappropriate to point cameras at them or take photos at every single corner of the flat. Instead, we took a few short videos to reference our heights compared to the space and used old-school methods like step-counting to calculate the size of the space.

It was important to us that the visualisation was not limited to any specific flat because it was only a representation of the many other apartments in similar conditions. The 3D model references an actual building we visited, but we altered its facade a bit, combining it with multiple buildings around the area.

The Chinese characters on the neon sign have a generic meaning of “Hong City” and “famous big big bowl of noodles” — which is a classic Hong Kong street dish familiar to those who live in the city. For those who are not familiar with Hong Kong streets, it accurately depicts what some parts of the city are like.

Rather than making it a cold, structural and lifeless 3D model, we made an artistic decision to create a feeling of real people living inside. We achieved this by setting the scene at midnight, with subtle moonlight casting a shade on the top, creating a moody scene that was exactly like it was when we visited the flats. The darker street also contrasted the lit-up flat, which helped create a focal point on the page.

A detail of the cubicle's interior reveals the poor ventilation and space limitations.
A detail of the cubicle's interior reveals the poor ventilation and space limitations.

The living conditions in these subdivided flats are a stark reminder of the inequality in Hong Kong. While the city is known for its glitzy skyscrapers and luxury shopping malls, there is a hidden world of poverty and hardship that is often overlooked.

Many people living in these flats are low-income earners, often working multiple jobs to make ends meet. The lack of affordable housing in Hong Kong has forced many people to live in these cramped conditions, with little privacy and no space to call their own.

Improving the lives of others

We believe that our project can contribute to a larger movement toward improving the living conditions and opportunities for all individuals in Hong Kong, regardless of their socio-economic status.

By shedding light on the challenges faced by those living in these flats, we hope to inspire change and spark conversations about the need for affordable housing and social support systems that can help those most in need.

About Marcelo Duhalde

By continuing to browse or by clicking “ACCEPT,” you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance your site experience. To learn more about how we use cookies, please see our privacy policy.