慈濟傳播人文志業基金會
Hong Kong, My Home. But Where Is My Home?
Hordes of tourists flock to see the light show at Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong. But the lights, however bright, do not point out a path for people who have no place to call home.

Hong Kong is for shopping.

 

A homeless man dozes off in front of advertisements of properties for rent and for sale.

 

Mr. Wong, 73, lives in a subdivided flat about 70 square feet in area. Many low-income people in Hong Kong live in such miniature flats.

Housing Scarcity

Up Close

For seven years in a row, Hong Kong has reigned as the least affordable city in the world. Housing prices soared 33 percent in 2016 alone. Renters typically spend 40 percent of their income on rent, which has priced some people right out onto the street. These are Hong Kong’s homeless.

Sky-high housing prices make it very difficult to live in Hong Kong, where, according to a 2015 report, one fifth of the population—about 1,340,000 people—live in poverty. Without any other viable options, some people have chosen to live in subdivided flats, miniature rental properties not quite 70 square feet in size. Sometimes more than one person may be squeezed into a single unit. About 190,000 people in Hong Kong live in this kind of rental space.

To be fair, the Hong Kong government has built public housing for residents of modest means to rent at substantial discounts, sometimes as much as 89 percent off prevailing market rates. However, statistics as of March 2017 show that 270,000 families are still waiting to rent from the government. The typical wait time before an apartment becomes available is about five years.

In more ways than one, it is really quite a challenge for people to afford a place to live in the Pearl of the Orient.

A wall in the Kwun Tong Industrial Area is blanketed by slips of paper announcing properties for rent. Many old factories in the area no longer in operation have been partitioned into subdivided flats for rent.

Mr. Wong

The sun peeks through the window. With a slight hunch, Mr. Wong, 73, sits on the edge of his bed. The bed itself seems to contribute to the clutter of his miniscule home, which measures smaller than six by twelve feet. The room is so small because the apartments in this building have been divided into smaller rental units.

Outside the room is a long, dark, narrow hallway that ends in a kitchen and bathroom, which all the tenants in this apartment must share. Besides Mr. Wong, five other families live there.

When he was young, Wong made a modest living as a school janitor, and he was never able to buy a home. Now that he has retired, he lives on a government stipend for seniors. He had originally rented a small room on the top of the building in which he now lives. The room, which was constructed largely with galvanized metal sheets, was an addition to the rooftop of the building.

Sheet metal provides hardly any insulation, so his room was cold in the winter and hot in the summer. He tried to stay out during the day, collecting recyclable garbage to supplement his income, and he only went back to his room at night to sleep. It was not the most comfortable place to live, but he had no other choice.

He applied for public housing, and after some waiting he was finally permitted to move into one of the units. But then he married a Chinese woman, and she and her children moved from China to live with him. His new place was not big enough for the expanded family, and he was forced to move out alone. He went back to rent a room in his old building for 1,050 Hong Kong dollars (US$135) a month. This time his room was on the ninth floor. That was where my photographer and I met him.

A look from the top of his building showed one building after another, packed closely together. All of them had rooftop additions similar to the one in which he used to live.

Down below, countless freestanding umbrellas provided shade for street vendors, customers, and pedestrians. Umbrellas, stalls, pedestrians, merchandise, peddlers, and customers made the roads and alleyways—not all that wide to begin with—extremely crowded.

As new buildings become available elsewhere, people with the financial resources move away, leaving this area, Sham Shui Po, to the less affluent.

Why so pricy?

A place of little land and many people, Hong Kong has always been crowded. Housing demand has always outstripped supply, but the shortage has been exacerbated by the infusion of money from China since it took Hong Kong back from Great Britain in 1997. Housing costs have gone up to levels that have priced even middle-class residents out of the market. As a result, many people seek public housing to rent as their second choice.

According to the Hong Kong Housing Authority, at the end of March 2017, more than 270,000 applications for public housing were still awaiting approval. “About 30,000 new applications are submitted each year. On average, they’ll wait four to six years before approval,” said Ng Man Li (吳萬里), who once worked at the authority and is now a Tzu Chi volunteer.

The strength of demand has spurred enterprising landlords to contrive ways to maximize their revenue. Many have partitioned or altered the layout of their properties into smaller units to rent out. With more units to collect rents on, they come out ahead. This practice is conducted without government approval.

These small rental units—subdivided flats—are illegal and a public hazard. They invariably pack more residents and their belongings into buildings, potentially to the point of going beyond the safe weight capacity for which the structures were originally designed. Sometimes such subdivisions alter the very structure of the buildings, for example by removing a load-bearing wall. Such encroachments compromise the structural integrity of the buildings, making them more susceptible to structural instability.

There is another dark cloud that hangs over buildings in which space has been thus subdivided. Public space is often converted into living quarters, thus leaving less room for public passage. In case of a fire, residents may not be able to evacuate the buildings quickly enough to escape danger.

The Hong Kong news media has surveyed and pegged the size of these small rental units at about 46 square feet each. Though that is not much space for living quarters, such units are not even the smallest available. Still tinier units have popped up in recent years. These miniature accommodations are like pods in a capsule hotel, but not nearly as neat or as comfortable. They resemble coffins, which has earned them the nickname “coffin rooms.” These tiny places to sleep command a rent of about a thousand Hong Kong dollars (US$130) a month.

Nobody wants to live in such uncomfortable and unsafe places, but they have no choice. According to a census report, 84,000 families in Hong Kong live in subdivided flats. This statistic clearly illustrates the severity of the problem, but as dark as that picture may seem, it is not even the worst of the problem. Some people can’t even afford to rent subdivided flats or coffin rooms. For them, the only choice is to live on the streets.

Construction laborers work high above an up-scale neighborhood. The labor market in Hong Kong is highly competitive. People who have little formal education can only settle for lower paying and sometimes risky physical labor.

Too costly to rent

Ah Yun (not his real name) dressed neatly and acted appropriately. If he had not told us, we would never have known that he actually spent his nights in a park in Kowloon.

With very few belongings, he needs only a little space to sleep. By day, he works at a restaurant doing miscellaneous tasks and making deliveries. Occasionally, he hands out flyers before he starts his day at the restaurant. Assuming he makes the minimum hourly wage, he earns about 8,000 Hong Kong dollars (US$1,026) a month. A subdivided flat goes for at least 3,500 dollars, about 40 percent of his income.

“I’ve worked hard for my money,” Ah Yun observed. “If I rented, the rent and the utilities would eat up a large chunk of what I’ve earned and leave me with little to use. That’s too high a price to pay for just a place to sleep at night.” Therefore, he decided against renting. He would rather keep the money so he can afford food and clothing, and still put some money away for the future.

Ah Yun’s situation is better than that of many other homeless people. Some of the men who sleep in the same park cannot find even temporary work because they are sick or physically disabled. They live on a monthly welfare allowance of 1,000 (US$130) to 3,000 HK dollars.

They stroll the streets during the day when street people cannot stay in the park, and they depend on charity organizations for their meals. When they cannot get a meal, they just do without it. Such is their life.

Five universities and four NGOs in Hong Kong conducted a study in October 2015. They estimated that 1,600 street people lived in Hong Kong. That was four times as many as ten years before.

These people can be found at parks, underpasses, overpasses, or just about anywhere they can find a reasonable place to sleep. Some of them even venture into 24-hour McDonald’s restaurants. With bathrooms and tap water, these are convenient and safe places for the homeless to spend the night—if restaurant workers let them stay. Hong Kongers refer to this cohort as McDonald’s refugees.

But homeless people are homeless regardless of whether they spend the night under a bridge or inside a McDonald’s. Public shelters, sometimes available during heat waves or cold snaps, are temporary. It is hard for them to have any sense of belonging, and they must always endure the looks from passersby.

Ng Man Li, center, and a fellow volunteer check on a man sleeping near the Mong Kok subway station. “If you’re scared, you can’t really care for them,” Wu said of the fear that some people may have towards homeless strangers.

Where they live

Near the end of 2011, in the cold of winter, Tzu Chi volunteers delivered blankets to the residents of some cage homes in Sham Shui Po District. Large enough for only one bunk bed, each unit was surrounded by a metal cage, from which these “homes” derived their name. They once housed the destitute but have now been largely abolished.

Even though these people lived indoors and were sheltered from the elements, the volunteers knew that they still badly needed the blankets to keep warm. But after the volunteers had left the building, it dawned on them that street people, living outdoors, were in even more need of blankets to stay warm or stay alive.

The volunteers walked to an overpass nearby, and sure enough they saw people who had wrapped themselves in paper to keep warm. But paper is a poor insulator, and they were shivering in the damp, cold air. The volunteers promptly gave them blankets to help them have warmer, more comfortable nights.

On another night, a light drizzle was falling and the temperature was below freezing. They went back to the same overpass and passed out some more blankets. Then they visited Yau Ma Tei and the cultural center at Tsim Sha Tsui, places where street people were often found camping out at night, and distributed blankets there.

The homeless people who received the blankets all seemed to share one trait: Their living conditions were poor, and many seemed to be in poor health. They needed far more help than a couple of blanket distributions. That realization planted the seed for a long-term care project for the homeless.

In 2013, Tzu Chi volunteer Wong Chong Kin (王長堅) took part in an activity sponsored by another organization to care for the less fortunate. During the activity, he saw many dark corners that he had not realized existed in Sheung Wan and Central District, known for their prosperous financial districts. In response, he organized a group of his fellow volunteers on Hong Kong Island, in the southern part of Hong Kong, where Sheung Wan and Central District are located. Together, they set out to provide on-going care to homeless people.

The homeless in Hong Kong often do not show up or become noticeable until after nine o’clock at night. Out of a concern for safety, only male volunteers participated in the project at first. After a while, when volunteers and the homeless had become more comfortable with each other, female volunteers began to join the care effort. They have added a sense of family and warmth to the visits.

Tongsui (“sugar water”)—any sweet, warm soup or custard served as a dessert in Cantonese cuisine—is a welcome treat among Hong Kongers. It requires some work to make, so without the use of a kitchen it is impossible for homeless people to make it for themselves. Therefore, volunteers make tongsui at home ahead of time. Then they visit the homeless, distribute needed supplies, provide meals, and serve tongsui as dessert. Because of these caring actions, they have gotten to know the homeless, have listened to their stories, and have learned how some of them ended up on the streets. Knowing their backstories has helped the volunteers learn how to help them better.

The project has since been expanded from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon and the New Territories. Now volunteers serve the homeless at 20 locations throughout Hong Kong. Though volunteers at each location may work differently to accommodate the specific needs of the people they care for, they all do it with a sincere desire to help these disadvantaged people get through their low points in life.

Riverside Dens

The water’s edge in Sha Tin District, Hong Kong, offers a front-row seat to the spectacular sight across the Shing Mun River. When visitors leave for the night, some people remain behind, hidden among inconspicuous nooks under a bridge. This is where they spend their nights.

Hong Kong consists of, in order of development, Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and the New Territories. When the first two regions became overcrowded, development and population overflowed into the New Territories, which is much bigger than the first two combined but also much farther from the city center. According to the 2011 census, more than half of Hong Kongers live in the New Territories.

The Shing Mun River, wide and smooth, adds an open space and a sense of serenity to Sha Tin District, in the New Territories. It reflects the high-rises that tower on either side. People can relax or unwind along the riverside paths or open spaces. One stretch has even been used to hold rowing competitions during the Dragon Boat Festival. But the river hides a darker aspect of society that often goes unnoticed.

A corner under a bridge

On Gok, in his 50s, sat on the bank of the river. He looked at the river and at the buildings and the skyline on the far side, just as many people often do during an after-dinner walk. But he is different from those who take in the sights as they stroll: He will remain here long after the others have gone home. He does not “go home,” because he is already there—he lives on the riverside, in a corner by a pillar under a bridge. All of his belongings are in that little corner, not quite the size of a single bed. He has lived in that very spot for ten years.

He once rented a flat in public housing. When his younger sister divorced, she and her two small children moved in with him. The place became quite a bit more crowded, but it wasn’t anything that they couldn’t handle.

The good times did not last long, though. Soon after his sister moved in, whispers began to spread among his neighbors about him, a single man, suddenly taking in a woman with two young kids. He ignored all the gossip at first, but as time went by, his sense of guilt grew for putting his sister through the shame from the innuendo. “It’s all because of me,” he thought.

One night he packed a few things and quietly left the flat. He went to the bank of the Shing Mun River to find a place to settle down. He stayed away from the footpaths so as not to get in pedestrians’ way. He kept looking until he finally found a place beside a pillar under a bridge. The space was quite tiny, about half as big as a single bed, and there was a light that remained on throughout the night. Though the space was small, the light made him feel a bit safer. He decided the spot would work, and he put down his things.

From his tiny nook, he looked out at the high-rises nearby and imagined families having dinners together. That first night in what would become his new home, On Gok could not sleep a wink.

Volunteers visit On Gok, Ah Poon, and Ah Choi. They chat while eating tongsui and fruit. Ah Poon had returned from the hospital the day before. The doctor advised him to use a walking stick to prevent falls, but he was worried about the cost of the stick. The volunteers promised to take care of that for him.

Living outdoors

Tzu Chi volunteers in the New Territories started caring for the homeless in 2014. They sought them out at overpasses, underpasses, parks, and other public places where the homeless were more likely to stay. One day they found On Gok in his small corner. That was in the seventh year that he had lived outdoors. By that time, Ah Poon and Ah Choi had “moved in” with him, each with his own little space half the size of a single bed.

Their living quarters were hardly comfortable. They slept on an uneven surface of the concrete structure that was part of the bridge. They could not turn much in bed without falling down to the pedestrian passage below. The surface of the bridge above them thundered with traffic. In summer, the river smelled bad, and mosquitoes and other insects would run rampant. On rainy days, their bedcovers would always get wet. To make matters even worse, the streetlights for the pedestrian passage shone throughout the night.

It pained the volunteers to see the trio’s living quarters. They gave them food and asked if they needed any daily necessities. The three men responded politely but minimally, keeping the volunteers at arm’s length. Having been homeless for a long time, they had met their share of bad people and had even lost their belongings to thieves. Therefore, it was understandable that they had their guard up when the volunteers visited. Ah Choi predicted that the volunteers would probably be gone soon, never to be seen again. He knew from experience that charitable groups came and went, and he had no reason to think the volunteers in front of them would be any different.

Therefore, the three men were surprised to see the volunteers in their uniforms of blue shirts and white trousers show up at their place again the following month, again with food for them. The volunteers invited the men to a place nearby where they could all sit down and eat together. The three of them obliged.

But they did not eat much. “Not to your liking?” the volunteers asked. They told the volunteers that they had worked during the day and had eaten after work before coming home. They were laborers, working whatever jobs that they could find, no matter whether it was hard labor or menial tasks. To save money, they usually skipped breakfast and ate only lunch and dinner. Sometimes their employers provided dinner. It was not easy to get water to drink where they lived, so they usually drank extra fluids with their meals.

These conversations helped the volunteers visualize their days and helped them chart a way to give them the help that they might need the most. On their next visit, the volunteers brought bread for breakfast. They also gave the men bottled water, fruit, and tongsui, a popular dessert in Hong Kong.

Volunteer Leung Lai Kun (梁麗君) is an expert in making this treat. It was she who made the tongsui for their visits. Iced or warm, her treats were always very well received by On Gok, Ah Poon, and Ah Choi.

Perhaps it was the sweets that loosened the men up. Gradually, they dropped their guard and opened themselves up to the volunteers and began to talk about what was troubling them.

Illness

Living under a bridge was hardly conducive to getting a good night’s sleep. To help themselves sleep better, they would have a few beers to numb themselves. Though the volunteers understood why they drank and though it was hard to argue with the three of them about it, the volunteers could not help urging them to go easy on the booze.

Ah Poon was thin and appeared to be the most infirm of the three. Every time the volunteers visited, he complained to them about his aches and pains. His legs were weak, his joints hurt, and he often had loose bowels. “Even hospitals can’t solve my problems,” he moaned.

One time he had a fall. A doctor treated his wounds and diagnosed him with osteoporosis. The doctor recommended that he walk with a stick to stave off future falls.

One September night in 2016, volunteer Leung Wing Kam (梁榮錦) received a phone call from another volunteer who told him, “Ah Poon says he’s going to kill himself!” Leung was at work at the time but he promptly called Ah Poon. As soon as the call went through, Ah Poon said, “Brother Leung, it’s very hard for me to live. I want to jump into the river and end my misery. But before I do, can I see you and Sister Lee Yu Ying [李月英] one last time?”

“Don’t be silly. Let us take you to the doctor [so that you can have your illnesses treated],” Leung said.

“Don’t bother,” Ah Poon replied. “I don’t want to bother people anymore. I give others nothing but trouble. All these troubles will vanish when I die.”

As Leung listened, he could almost see the homeless man shaking his head on the other end of the line as he declined his offer to take him to the doctor. Leung said gently, “Stop talking like that. We’ve known each other for a long while. If you die, we’ll all be very sad.” He told Ah Poon to go to the doctor and not to worry about the cost. “Though I don’t know for sure whether this doctor we’re taking you to can relieve your pains, please give us a chance,” Leung pleaded.

Finally, Ah Poon agreed to see the doctor. Leung made an appointment for him to see a Chinese medicine doctor that other volunteers had recommended. He then asked Lee Yu Ying and Wong Kun Wing (黃君榮) to pick Ah Poon up and take him to his appointment on that day. But when the two of them went to get him, he was nowhere to be found. Calls to him only went to his voice mail.

When informed of Ah Poon’s disappearance, Leung was dumbfounded. “But he promised me he would see the doctor!” Leung exclaimed. He could not believe that Ah Poon had just disappeared, but he could not reach him on the phone either. He called On Gok, but he too was clueless about his friend’s whereabouts.

Leung worried that Ah Poon might have done the unimaginable, so he kept calling him well into the night. Still, no sign of him.

One time on a visit, volunteers heard On Gok (holding cake) say, “Next month is my birthday.” In response, they brought him a cake on their next visit and celebrated with him and the other homeless people. Surprised and happy, On Gok said, “This is the first time in my life that people have celebrated my birthday.” Courtesy of Tzu Chi Hong Kong

Seeing the doctor

Two days later, Lee Yu Ying finally found Ah Poon. He had been in hiding. She gave him a good scolding as a mother would a naughty child: “Why did you go into hiding? Didn’t you know that we were worried sick about you?”

Feeling guilty, Ah Poon sheepishly said to Lee, “I promise that I’ll wait for you next time.” He had disappeared because he had not believed that the volunteers would really take him to the doctor and he was concerned they were just going to use him for publicity. He also didn’t expect that they would look for him high and low when they couldn’t find him.

Now he knew better. He called Leung that night to apologize. “I’m sorry, Brother Leung,” he said on the phone.

Leung first pretended to be mad, but he sensed Ah Poon’s regret, so he said, “I’ve made another appointment for you. Please give us a chance to help you, and give yourself a chance to help yourself.”

When Lee Yu Ying went to pick Ah Poon up for the new appointment, he was already waiting by the road for her.

The Chinese medicine doctor felt Ah Poon’s pulse. Then he looked at his face and said to him: “You need to quit drinking and smoking. If you don’t, whatever I do can’t help you.”

Ah Poon lived outdoors and could not cook herbs to make Chinese medicine, so the doctor prescribed him medicine that came in powder form. Ah Poon just needed to mix the powder in warm water and drink it. Leung gave him a bottle to hold hot water.

Lee reminded Ah Poon several times to follow the doctor’s instructions, and the homeless man did his part to help himself. He quit drinking alcohol altogether, and he cut down on cigarette smoking.

When they met again for the next visit to the doctor, Lee noticed that Ah Poon—once a little stooped—was standing up straight. He said to her cheerfully, “My diarrhea is gone, and I’m sleeping well!”

After that second visit to the doctor, Ah Poon told the volunteers that in the future he could go to the doctor himself.

After each subsequent visit to the doctor, Ah Poon would call Leung to bring him up to date on what the doctor had said. He became healthier and healthier with each visit, and he even donated to the foundation the money that he had saved from smoking less.

Due to his illness, Ah Poon had not been able to work for a long time, and he had lived on public assistance all that time. He knew how hard it was to save even just a little money, and now he, of all people, had donated money for a good cause. That really impressed the volunteers. Ah Poon even said, “When I’m well enough, I hope to volunteer, too.”

On May 3, 2017, Ah Poon, second from right, attended a Buddha Day ceremony held by Tzu Chi volunteers in the New Territories.

The volunteers

Leung and Lee were both very comforted to see Ah Poon getting better.

“We don’t know when they will find a home, but we’ll give them care and support in the interim,” said Leung.

Volunteers can only visit the homeless at night, and it is often midnight by the time they get back to their own homes. Even so, Leung rarely skips a visit. He cherishes the opportunity to care for the homeless.

Leung works at a toy company. Aside from calling on the homeless, he attends to various other volunteer duties as well. His devotion to volunteering has sometimes prompted his wife to remind him that he ought to pay a little more attention to their son.

Leung knows well the importance of keeping his family, his career, and his volunteering in a proper balance. With that perspective, he still believes that the time he spends with the homeless is time well spent. He knows that the homeless long for the warmth and companionship of family and friends, and if he can give them that, he is more than willing to do so. Besides, he visits them only once a month. He thinks nothing of sleeping a little less once in a while.

As for Lee, she has been like a mother to the street people, always dishing out reminders here and there. She says she is pretty strict with them. She treats them like she treats her own children—with discipline, with love.

Her children are grown and have their own families. If she is not with her family, she is volunteering. She feels for the homeless, and out of love she reminds them to do what is good for themselves. “Don’t smoke and don’t drink,” she often tells them. Such apparent nagging from a mother cannot overshadow what is inherent in her messages: warmth that can be found only in a family.

See you next time

One night, Ah Choi had just returned from work and was about to crack open a beer when the volunteers arrived at the site under the bridge. He smiled, a little embarrassed. The volunteers smiled knowingly and offered him tongsui.

They sat in their usual spot, ate tongsui, and chatted. Ah Choi said to Leung, “Have you noticed that I’ve talked more recently? To tell you the truth, I didn’t trust you guys before.”

Leung had always thought that Ah Choi was quiet because he was more of an introvert. He didn’t realize that he didn’t say much because he was on guard. Leung said to him, “Thank you for trusting us now.”

Ah Poon developed a bad case of asthma recently. The Chinese medicine doctor suggested that he should see a doctor of Western medicine for treatment. When Lee saw Ah Poon, she couldn’t help saying to him again, “You must cut down on smoking.”

On Gok told the volunteers that as the Dragon Boat Festival was drawing near, the government would probably be cleaning up the riverbanks where spectators would gather to watch dragon boat races. If that happened, they would move to other spots for the duration. As to where they would go, they would figure it out when the time came. They were veterans and would have no problem in adapting to whatever was thrown their way.

On Gok reminded the volunteers to be sure to call before their next visit. He did not want them to waste a trip. On Gok’s concern was very encouraging to the volunteers. It meant their efforts in caring for the three of them over the previous two years had won them over.

The volunteers know that what they can give to the homeless is not much, but they want to let the street people know that, in an age in which profit alone seems to matter, society has not forgotten about them. Hopefully with their care and help, the homeless will one day get back on their feet, be reunited with their families, and find homes of their own.

Is Kowloon Home?

Some street people work and do not rely on social welfare. It’s not easy to get by, but they do what they can to support themselves. Making a living is difficult, but what they are more afraid of is scorn and prejudice from society and from those around them.

Many passersby shun them, if not disdain them outright. But Tzu Chi volunteers look beyond the surface and come back again and again for them.

It was night. Ah Wai walked into a 24-hour McDonald’s in Kowloon. He limped straight to an inconspicuous seat, sat down, and started playing games on his cell phone. He ordered no food or drink because he wasn’t there to eat. Instead, he was there to sleep—not for a short nap, but for the night. Though he wasn’t sleepy yet, others nearby, in their seats or on the floor, were already fast asleep.

The employees at this 24-hour McDonald’s were fully aware of the homeless spending the night in their store, but most of them just looked the other way. Likely getting paid a minimum wage themselves, they knew firsthand just how hard it was to live in Hong Kong.

Ah Wai once lived with seven other people in a room, paying more than a thousand Hong Kong dollars (US$130) a month for the use of a bed. Though it was a very small place, he had put up with it because it was a place to spend the night. However, the landlady kept more than a dozen dogs which relieved themselves everywhere and bit people. They drove him half crazy. One day Ah Wai had had enough and moved out.

He scoured the streets for a place to sleep, and finally he found a McDonald’s that was open 24 hours a day. It was well-lit, had clean hot drinking water and restrooms, and was safe. The place worked out so nicely for him that he lived there for five years. 

Ah Wai summed up the benefits of his sleeping arrangement: “It was free, I was at ease there, and I didn’t have to worry about bad weather.” 

A homeless person eats at his makeshift home in a corner of a pier.

 

The McDonald’s 

Kwun Tong, the largest administrative district in Kowloon, contains more people living in poverty than any other district in Hong Kong. Volunteer Ng Man Li has lived in this area for many years. He knows how difficult life is for people who do hard labor for little pay. Some are even forced to live on the street because they cannot afford to rent a place.

Actually, some homeless people work regular jobs or even multiple jobs to support themselves. They do not rely on government welfare. Even so, society at large regards them with contempt. “Most people look down on the homeless,” Ng said. “Some parents warn their children that if they don’t study hard, they may one day end up being street people.”

When Tzu Chi Hong Kong started its program to care for the homeless, the first thought that came to Ng’s mind was that this group of people really needed care. In early 2014, he started to seek out homeless people to help. He and a few fellow volunteers took some food to a temporary shelter for the homeless that the government had opened during a cold snap. That’s where they met Ah Wai.

Ng invited Ah Wai to join them for dinner, but he declined and went right back to playing a game on his cell phone. Ng was not disheartened though. He figured that since Ah Wai was sheltering there, he must live close by, and he would probably run into him again.

Just as he had expected, he saw Ah Wai again a few weeks later. One night, Ng went into a McDonald’s to invite the homeless people there to a distribution of boxed meals Tzu Chi was holding nearby. Ah Wai was in the restaurant at the time, so he was invited as well. But like before, he brushed Ng aside.

“I had no interest at all in going to that distribution,” Ah Wai recalled. “I was worried they’d ask me to join their religion or volunteer. I didn’t want to do either one.”

Ah Wai worked in a restaurant during the day, earning 8,000 HK dollars (US$1,026) a month. Unencumbered by family, he lived a carefree life. He spent most of his hard-earned money on games and cell phones. Not only did he not have any savings in the bank, he owed money to a cell phone store.

When it came to cell phones, only the latest model would do for Ah Wai. He wasted no time in upgrading his phone. The store had agreed to sell him phones on credit, and he would pay the money back after each payday. He was content to live like that, and he thought that he would always be able to keep on living like that.

At 11:30 at night, homeless people arrive one after another at a McDonald's restaurant on Hong Kong Island for a night's sleep.

 

A stroke

One night in 2014, Ah Wai slept in a government shelter during a hot spell. The next morning, as he was getting ready to check out of the facility, he felt weakness in one of his legs. He continued to feel unwell the following day, so he took that day off work and went back to rest at the McDonald’s. By the time the third day rolled around, even the owner of the McDonald’s could see that something was wrong and urged him to see the doctor.

Ah Wai took a taxi to the hospital. Just as he stepped out of the taxi in front of the hospital, his legs gave out and he fell. The doctor that attended to him diagnosed him with a stroke, based on his elevated blood pressure and the weakness on one side of his body. Ah Wai had no choice but to check into the hospital for treatment.

The hospital stay ran up a huge medical bill that he had no way of paying off. To make matters worse, the hospitalization also cost him his job. Fortunately his social worker helped him find ways to lower the bill.

Ah Wai was eventually released from the hospital, but his mobility and speech had been impaired. He was truly limping—in his stride and in his life. He loitered on the streets during the day and slept at the McDonald’s at night. When he received his social welfare allowance, he used half of it to repay his debts. He could not always be sure how or where he might find his next meal. During this difficult time, he ran into volunteer Ng Man Li again.

Whenever Ng had time, he went to the McDonald’s to spend time with Ah Wai. At first, Ah Wai felt that Ng was quite a nuisance because Ng kept inviting him to volunteer at Tzu Chi meal distributions or to take up recycling work. He even nagged him to get a haircut.

But Ng’s persistence eventually paid off. He finally convinced Ah Wai to serve as a recycling volunteer.

But Ng did not stop at that. “We’ve set up a monthly dinner,” he said to Ah Wai. “Can you help me round up your fellow residents at the McDonald’s for these get-togethers?” Just like that, Ah Wai became the contact person between his fellow street people and the volunteers.

At the invitation of Ng Man Li, front left, Ah Wai, front right, joined the Tzu Chi recycling effort at Ngau Tau Kok. He volunteers every Friday.

 

Monthly dinner

 On one such dinner day, Tzu Chi volunteers from different places made their way to the venue in Ngau Tau Kok. Li Kin Ping (李健平), a police officer, got off work at 3:45 p.m., went home to get dinner ready for his own family, changed into his Tzu Chi uniform, and went to Ngau Tau Kok to gather with other volunteers. Volunteer Lee Kwok Fu (李國富) took a bus from the island of Tsing Yi to Ngau Tau Kok.

Some volunteers lived near the venue, which was provided by a local community. They set up the tables with placemats, plates, and cups to give it an air of dining at a restaurant.

Cheng Yi Chiu (鄭以超), who ran a vegetarian restaurant, was to make the dishes for the dinner. He did not start preparing until five. “Food tastes good only if it’s served piping hot,” he said.

By seven, the McDonald’s-based people had arrived at the venue. Ng shared with the diners what Tzu Chi volunteers had done to help Syrian refugees in Turkey and Jordan. He hoped to help them stop feeling sorry for themselves by showing that they, though homeless, were not the most unfortunate people in the world.

Then the volunteers turned into dinner servers. They served the food and waited on the tables. One of the dishes was fried rice noodles, which the homeless people rarely had a chance to eat. They looked content and happy as they ate second or even third helpings.

After the dinner, some volunteers prepared boxed meals and took them to a nearby wharf, where a few homeless people lived. The volunteers arrived at an area encircled by wood planks at the end of a footpath. That was where some laborers working in the area called home.

Lee, 67, who worked as a cleaner, had lived there for many years. His income, though not much, was not low enough for him to qualify for government welfare. He had applied for public housing so that he could bring his wife from her native China to live with him, but his case was still pending approval.

Lee kept thanking the volunteers when he received his boxed meal. It turned out that, in order to cut down on spending, he rarely ate dinner. When he was hungry, he just went to bed. When he fell asleep, he’d forget his hunger.

Volunteer Li Kin Ping felt so sorry looking at Lee, who was old enough to be his father. He imagined how hungry the old man must be at nine o’clock, after a long day of hard work with no dinner.

As a police officer, Li used to take a dim view of the homeless. “My occupation led me to view street people as parasites in society,” Li said. “Only later did I gradually realize that in many respects they can’t really help themselves.”

After visiting with the homeless near the pier, the volunteers made their way to the McDonald’s. Ah Wai and his friends had already returned, ready to hit the sack. The volunteers offered boxed food to the street people at the restaurant who hadn’t attended the dinner gathering.

By now, it was close to midnight. Li Kin Ping had left home for work at six o’clock in the morning, about 18 hours earlier. Now he was exhausted, his eyes bloodshot. When asked if he was tired, he replied, “Of course I’m physically fatigued, but that gives me a better appreciation of how bad the homeless must feel for not being able to have a good night’s sleep every night.”

A street person in an underground walkway beneath Ching Ping Street devours food offered by a volunteer. It is likely the first meal he has had in a long while.

 

Another district

In Kowloon, volunteers have cared for street people not only in Kwun Tong, but also in the Yau Tsim Mong District, which is home to many laborers. The huge gaps that separate the haves and have-nots are clearly visible here.

At around seven one evening, volunteer Cheng Yi Chiu delivered some food he had freshly cooked to volunteers for them to put in meal boxes and deliver to homeless people. After packing the food, the volunteers split up and delivered it to street people at locations near the Yau Ma Tei Police Station, the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, a pedestrian overpass over Waterloo Road, and other places.

One group of volunteers went to Temple Street, known for its night market. After passing several stalls of fortunetellers, they came to a little space where a few people were sleeping on the ground. A customer was showing off his full-throated singing at a nearby karaoke stall.

Lee Kwok Fu handed over some boxed meals to the street people and asked, “How on earth can you sleep in such a noisy place?” One of them answered, “They’ll all quit at 11. We feel that with government offices just across the street, this place should be relatively safe for us.”

Next, the volunteers came to an overpass on Public Square Street. Under the overpass were a few wooden structures. Nima, a 45-year-old construction worker from Nepal, lived in a small space there with five other people.

When he could find work, Nima made over a thousand HK dollars (US$130) working eight to ten hours a day. He saved almost all of what he earned so he could support his daughter, who was studying in the United States. He did not want to spend money on rent, so he had been living with friends on the street. He would have much preferred to live with his family in the U.S., but he was afraid that he would not be able to find work there. “Only in Hong Kong can I make some money,” he lamented, his voice low and his brows knitted. Ng gave Nima some adzuki bean soup that he had cooked for the mission. He could only hope that the sweet dessert might lift his spirits a little.

Another team of volunteers approached a pedestrian overpass on Waterloo Road. They took the stairs up to the overpass, where about 30 small wooden huts spanned the distance from one end of the passage to the other. They entered one of the huts, which was about 100 square feet. It was furnished with a sofa bed, a chest of drawers, and even an induction stove for its two residents.

The volunteers knocked on the doors of the other units one by one. Though it was already 11, many residents had not returned. The volunteers only gave out three meals there that night, one of them to Ah Chong Bak, who worked as a cleaner.

He was glad to see the volunteers. He had lost contact with his family long before, and he hadn’t felt any care and warmth from other people in a long time. He was very thin. His shoulder bones, clearly visible, attested to a life of inadequate nourishment.

Ng pointed out that the ecosystem atop the overpass was quite complicated. People of all backgrounds could be living there.

Ah Cheung, 30-something, once lived up there too. Lee Kwok Fu recalled that the first time he met Ah Cheung, his face and legs were badly bruised. He told Lee that the bruises were a result of stumbling down a stairwell. Though not entirely convinced by his explanation, Lee did not press the issue. He just continued to visit Ah Cheung.

After a while, Ah Cheung owned up to his past. He told Lee that he had been a chef at a restaurant. He had been able to support himself because he had lived simply. But then he had fallen into bad company. He began using drugs and getting into fights. It got so bad that his own family turned their backs on him. He subsequently lost his job and was forced to live on the street.

“It must be very uncomfortable living on the street,” Lee said to Ah Cheung. “I really hope that you stay away from bad influences and try to get back on your feet again.”

Ah Cheung has since resumed working as a chef and has moved off the street into a subdivided flat. Even so, Lee has continued to visit him. He said, “I hope that by working with him, we can help strengthen him to fend off bad influences and stay on his path of righteous pursuits.”

As the volunteers stepped off the overpass, the repulsive and unmistakable smell of ammonia greeted them. The stink emanated from a spot nearby that the residents on the overpass were using as a toilet. The street people have long been used to their disorderly living environment, but no pedestrians ever cross the overpass now.

In May, Ah Wai moved out of the McDonald’s. He had received a subsidy from an association for the homeless that enabled him to rent a place to live for just 2,000 dollars (US$255) a month.

Though the situations of Ah Cheung and Ah Wai have improved, many more people have not fared as well. They continue to live on the streets or in places like McDonald’s. Where are their homes?

At this question, Ng Man Li said, “We have no answer for now. We can only continue to care for them the best we can and try to help relieve their loneliness.”

As a Tzu Chi volunteer, Li Kin Ping serves homeless people at a dinner gathering.

 

 

 

 

 

Fall 2017