Hong Kong hasn’t exactly embraced the tiny home movement. More accurately, the island’s incredibly high real estate prices have forced millions of its residents to take refuge in rooms so small that they are deemed “coffin cubicles.”

Unlike the minimalist tiny homes that many Americans have built on their patch of property, these cubicles are crammed into as dense an area as possible to fit the island’s growing population within its boundaries.

Some Similarities

Hong Kong is similar to Manhattan in many ways. It’s an incredibly rich financial center that draws people from all over the world to live and work; rent is sky high and buying real estate is unthinkable except for the super rich.

Yet there are also many extremely poor people who live there. Income inequality in Hong Kong is more extreme than almost anywhere else on the planet. This leads to a large amount of public housing, where residents are allotted extremely small living spaces.

Many of these coffin cubicles do not even allow the residents to stand up. The room often consists entirely of a mattress with various shelving used to store what little possessions the occupant keeps.

Those who can afford it deck their cubicles out with small televisions as a way to escape the confines of the suffocating room. Many simply sleep in a box with no windows and little ventilation.

There is one big difference between Manhattan and Hong Kong. When rent rises too high for residents in New York City, they can move across the river to the outer boroughs or New Jersey. Public transportation makes getting into the city easy, which allows the population to spread out.

Hong Kong does have cities adjacent to it, and there are commuters who enter the city every day. But for the most part, residents of Hong Kong don’t want to leave the confines of their city because of the unique political situation. Those living in Hong Kong have much greater freedoms than those living in mainland China.

The British government ruled Hong Kong for nearly 100 years.

As Mainland China embraced communism, Hong Kong flourished as a center for trade and finance. When the U.K. handed Hong Kong over to the Chinese in 1997, the city maintained a degree of sovereignty under the “one country, two systems” principle. Mainland China provides military defense for the island, but Hong Kong retains its own political system. Longtime residents are hesitant to leave the island since they would be giving up many freedoms enjoyed under the more permissive Hong Kong government.

Staying on the island means making great sacrifices for the poorest residents. Bathrooms combined with kitchens and laundry rooms make for cramped and unbelievably crowded spaces.

These cubicles certainly share the tiny home principle of utilizing every square inch; however, the resulting spaces are cramped and claustrophobic. Most of the spaces seem unlivable to affluent Westerners, but they are a testament to the endurance and ingenuity of people forced to make do with a situation.

Approximately 100,000 people live in inadequate housing in Hong Kong. Thankfully, non-profit organizations are fighting to move the city’s poorest residents into more livable spaces. Until these organizations succeed, Hong Kong’s impoverished community will continue to do what they must to live in these crowded cubicles.