Society & Culture

The cruel reality of Hong Kong's cubicle apartments

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This article was originally published on Neocha and is republished with permission.

A loud soccer match on television transforms into an actual game happening right inside the apartment. Noisy snoring ratchets up to a high-decibel typhoon. A yellow flood submerges the room after someone takes a trip to the bathroom. The ability to express how something actually feels by drawing it into proportion is where animation can really excel. And when you can’t sleep, everything seems just that dramatic. That’s what the Gobelins animation team is depicting with their recent short film, Coffin, which visualizes a night in the life of one of Hong Kong’s notorious coffin homes.

“We wanted to tell a story about one guy’s struggle with insomnia,” the team says. “But by placing it in a realistic setting, we’re also able to educate people about the coffin apartment situation. Why do they still exist? How do they affect people’s lives?”

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Hong Kong’s coffin homes have long been a source of fascination for those on the outside and a well of frustration for those stuck within them. The tiny units are the size of a bed, and they’re stacked on top of each other within subdivided apartments sharing a single bathroom. These spaces are the only alternative to homelessness for some 200,000 people in the world’s most expensive city.

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The five-minute film took ten months to complete. Since no one from Gobelins is from Hong Kong itself (although one is from nearby Guangzhou), they took inspiration from news articles and photo essays, as well as local television shows and movies that depict the struggle of those living within these coffin homes. “It’s really more about surviving than living in these spaces,” they explain.

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In the comments for the video, Hong Kong citizens have talked about how it made them feel: “Some said it’s super funny and really made them laugh. But the others felt very bad because through the film they said they saw themselves.” Other people commented that they doubted the quality of life in these spaces could really be that bad. “To be honest, the reality is way more brutal.”

In so many ways, the pandemic exposed and exacerbated inequality around the world, with those already suffering facing even more hardship. Residents of coffin homes are no exception and the spaces proved to be hotspots for the virus. Lockdowns and unemployment also keep them cooped up in their holes even longer. Hopefully, as more projects like this crop up, they can help raise awareness and become a catalyst for change.


Contributor: Mike Steyels

Chinese Translation: Olivia Li