Hong Kong has two fundamental obsessions: food and real estate. They come together like bread and butter in the term “sandwich class,” which translates into gaap3 sam1 gaai1 cang4 in Cantonese (夾心階層 – literally “sandwich or biscuit filling level”). After all, how better to explain a social phenomenon in this city than with a food analogy?
Being a part of Hong Kong’s sandwich class is like being squashed between a humble slice of white Life Bread from Garden Bakery (gaa1 deon6 嘉頓) and a chunk of freshly-baked baguette from CitySuper. Some say it is an informal way of referring to the middle class, but the definition of middle class changes from society to society and from sandwich to sandwich.
Hong Kong’s bread wars mainly involve real estate. While in some countries the middle class is defined by income, cultural norms, social relationships or upbringing, in Hong Kong, its unique interpretation revolves around the property market. The sandwich class was baked from the leftovers of those eligible for public housing and those who can afford to buy their own home. If you’re too rich for public housing but too poor to buy a liveable flat, you’re in the sandwich class.
Although the Oxford English Dictionary decided to include “sandwich class” in this year’s edition as a recognised Hong Kong English word, the term came into official use during the city’s colonial period, being the only “class” ever given a specific income bracket. In the 1990s, it included families with a monthly income of HK$20,000 to $40,000. Today, the definition has expanded to families with a monthly income of HK$15,000 to $60,000.
To help this specific group become home owners, the government set up the Sandwich Class Housing Scheme to sell flats at subsidised prices with its first development, Tivoli Garden in Tsing Yi, completed in 1995. Despite trying to increase the number of flats on offer under the scheme, the government has not been able to provide more than 15,000 flats a year, leaving few crumbs for the sandwich class to pick up.
With allotted public housing already gobbled up like cucumber sandwiches and extravagantly priced housing snapped up faster than you can say “caviar blini,” there just aren’t enough affordable ham and cheese toasties to go around. In a city where status is defined by property, the race to the top is all in the sandwich filling.
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.