In Hong Kong, bedbug infestations are a neglected nightmare for the poor

A resident sits at his small cubicle in a subdivided unit in Mong Kok sharing his suffering over a bedbug infestation in late November 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The following article is a trimmed and edited version of a post written by Irene Chan. It was first published on Hong Kong Free Press on November 20, 2023, and is republished on Global Voices under a content partnership agreement. 

A tiny brown pest, measuring no more than four millimetres, has triggered panic in Hong Kong in recent weeks, with authorities handing out warning leaflets at the airport following well-publicised bedbug outbreaks in the UK, France and South Korea.

But bedbugs are already a grim fact of life for some Hongkongers who are crammed into bedspace apartments or tiny flats.

Wong Hung, a social work professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), said the pest had been a persistent but neglected nightmare for the city’s low-income families.

During visits to “cage” homes, as the city’s enclosed bedspaces are known, and subdivided flats, Wong has come across all kinds of bedbug stories. Some had to sleep at a McDonald’s fast food joint to escape the pests. Others who found it hard to move could only suffer in their small cubicles as the bedbugs bit them.

Driven by residents’ misery, Wong founded the Anti-bedbugs Research and Action Group along with CUHK scholars specialising in life science, public health and entomology in 2019. While bedbugs can infest any home — rich or poor, clean or dirty — the group found that low-income families living in subdivided flats are more vulnerable to infestation.

Wong explained the bedbug problem to HKFP in Cantonese:

Bedbugs are a long-standing issue in Hong Kong, and have caused a lot of suffering for low-income families, but the issue has failed to capture people’s attention as much as foreign outbreaks. Perhaps there is a class difference — now people realise even if you’re a middle-class traveller, you will catch bedbugs.

“Homelessness is even better”

Chan Chi-cheung, a 72-year-old man who lives alone, has recently spent every night on a steel bench downstairs from his home in a public housing estate. Chan said:

When neighbours asked why, I said I quarrelled with my family. I did not dare say it was because of bedbugs […] I am food for the bedbugs! They bite after I fall asleep. It does not hurt while they are biting, but after only a few minutes, they start to feel itchy and painful. You just can’t sleep. Homelessness is better. You just sleep on the street, not many personal belongings for bedbugs to hide in.

Chan said he had tried various pesticides but failed to eliminate the pests. Living on government welfare, he has no money to hire professional exterminators. The pests also made him feel ashamed because many believe that infestations are caused by poor personal hygiene.

Since 1995, social worker Sze Lai-shan has frequently encountered bedbugs. She told HKFP:

Until now, most cage homes — sometimes called coffin homes — have bedbugs. Nine out of ten cage-home units have infestations.

Hong Kong is notorious for sky-high private property prices, and the average waiting time for rent-subsidised government flats is over five years. The queue for non-elderly single people is the longest with a wait of over 10 years. Many families and individuals must squeeze into tiny private living spaces.

Another option are “coffin” homes where a 500 to 600-square-foot unit is partitioned into 20–30 bunk beds, each the size of a coffin. Many families must settle for subdivided flats with little or no spare room.

Sze said the more crowded the household and the shabbier the accommodation, the higher the risk of bedbug infestation.

Health inequalities

Hong Kong authorities do not compile any data on bedbug victims, the scale of local transmission or any impact of the infestations on families.

Roger Chung, a member of the Anti-bedbugs Research and Action Group and an associate professor of public health at CUHK, told HKFP that bedbugs are a neglected public health issue in the metropolis:

Health bureaus across different countries used to pay little attention to bedbugs because the pest does not transmit vector-borne diseases like mosquitoes [do], But it is not just about pests biting. They affect people’s sleep, their mental health, their self-esteem and economic condition.

By collecting data through online self-reported questionnaires, the group reached out to 663 residents in 2019 and 2020 — 422 of whom, or about 64 percent, reported bedbug infestations over the past year.

Most live in Kowloon, where over 50 percent of subdivided flats are located, according to the Census & Statistics Department. Chung further explained:

Just like any public health issue, bedbug infestations reveal the social problem of health inequality. It’s not only an issue of personal hygiene. Many clean homes are infested. They lack the resources to deal with the pest. Even if you clean your own unit, the pest will return soon as they might have already infested neighbouring units.

Most bedbug victims reported a moderate to severe impact on their mental and emotional health and sleep quality, which affected their work, the group’s study found.

A grey area

In the US, where bedbugs have caused panic in many cities after infesting retailers, movie theatres and office buildings in 2010, the pest is now viewed as a public health issue. Some US states, including New York, passed laws that year requiring landlords to inform tenants about bedbugs.

According to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, bedbug infestations are considered violations of the law, and landlords must correct the problem within 30 days. Building owners should also file a report on bedbugs every year.

In Hong Kong, there are currently no laws mentioning bedbugs and liability for controlling the pests is a grey area.

Chan Wai-Keung, Vice President of the Pest Control Personnel Association of Hong Kong, told HKFP that bedbugs did not fall under the jurisdiction of any government departments:

The government just has not paid attention to this issue because bedbugs do not transmit diseases directly.

Following recent overseas outbreaks, Warner Cheuk, the deputy chief secretary for administration, said last month the city’s main policy against bedbugs was to “prevent foreign transmission.”

Authorities began giving arriving airport passengers leaflets warning them about bedbug transmission and met with representatives of the hospitality industry over bedbug prevention in early November.

Regarding the victims in subdivided flats, Tse Chin-wan, the Environment and Ecology Bureau Chief, told lawmakers on November 29 that local care teams would disseminate leaflets on “maintaining environmental hygiene” and means of pest control.

For people living in public housing, Tse said the Housing Department would provide assistance “depending on the situation” or refer them to social welfare organisations.

Warner Cheuk did not respond to HKFP's inquiries on whether bedbugs are considered a public health issue in the city, whether relevant laws would be established, or whether the government would provide more substantial measures to help bedbug victims.

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