“There’s nothing you can do about it. I’ve got to live here. I’ve got to survive.”
Recently, there was a strange juxtaposition of stories in two newspapers on the same day. In one, The AP reported the case of Leung Cho-yin. Leung is a 67 year old retired butcher who lives in a 16 square foot wire cage. His isn’t the story of some happy eccentric or that of a minimalist seeking to shed the clutter of modern life. He lives in a cage out of necessity in one of the richest cities in the world—Hong Kong. And he isn’t alone. It’s estimated that over 100,000 people occupy “inadequate” housing. The quality of the housing ranges from the stacked cages that Leung calls home, to roof-top shacks, to apartments filled with coffin-sized sleeping units to cubicle apartments. Lee Tat-fong shares one such cubicle with her two grandchildren. Their space measures 50 square feet and is one of six in the subdivided apartment. The family’s space is filled with a bunk bed and a cabinet. Their few possessions are stacked in plastic bags. There is barely room to stand. They share a kitchen and two toilets with the other residents. The children are often hungry. Lee says, “I cry, but no one sees because I hide away.”
On the same day, another paper ran a feature story in its Mansion section headlined, The $100,000 Closet. In contrast with other closets featured in the article, the $100,000 model was modest. It was only 400 square feet but included a flat-screen television, a refrigerator, cabinetry with silver-leaf etchings and a crystal chandelier. A $300,000 closet bought 600 square feet, hand-oiled wood finishes, a vaulted ceiling and an entertainment center. Grander still was the $500,000, 1,300 square foot his-and-hers closet. It has lacquered exotic wood, slab glass display doors, iPad controlled lighting, a vault and a wet bar. The closet is so big that the owners had to add an entire new wing to their house to accommodate it. Perhaps most extravagant of all, is a three story closet in Mississippi with escalators and a whopping $2.5 million price tag! While many owners view their closet as a private retreat, others can’t help showing them off. Closets have been venues for everything from hanging out with pals to formal affairs. While extreme closets are the province of very well off, there are signs that the middle class is taking note. California Closets, a franchise specializing in organizing existing closets, says business is up 10% and they are beginning to receive requests to add flat panel TVs and wine bars.
Two papers. Two stories. Two very different reflections on life in 2013. You can draw many lessons from these stories and different folks will see things differently. But on reflection we can see that it’s about more than Leung, Lee or the folks with the extravagant closets—it’s more personal. It’s about you and the choices you make. At heart we are a moral people. Everyday we’re called upon to make moral choices. Often these are easy. We chose to pay for our groceries rather than steal them. We chose not to harm others to advance our self-interests. But our choices about consumption are moral choices as well. We have limited resources and how we allocate them deserves some thought. It’s really pretty easy to do and not at all grim. It’s simply a matter of making sure that how we spend our resources reflects who we are and what we believe. So tonight as you go to bed, look around at all you have and think about the man who sleeps in a cage. And as you fall asleep, think about the choices you made today and the choices you’ll make tomorrow. —Ebert