The disabled, homeless population in Hong Kong

Homeless and Disabled

In bad shape

The majority of beggars I’ve seen on the streets are disabled in some way. I am now even seeing a few who perform music on the streets – a man with a bad leg who plays the flute and a woman in a wheelchair who sings karaoke, the machine strapped in front of her. I couldn’t decide which was worse – do they feel as though they’re enough of a spectacle already without needing to put on a song and dance for their dinner, or is doing something for money an empowering display of agency on their part? Do they believe that they’ll get more funds if they do something like perform, or is this a matter of pride, and not wanting something for nothing? (Research shows that only 13% of the more than 30% of elderly impoverished are on social security despite being eligible due to the fact that they don’t want what they perceive as handouts.)


I’ve been wondering about this for awhile and I haven’t come up with much information on it, but I finally found a small blurb in an article I’m reading for my paper that sheds a bit of light. I will grudgingly admit that while the LAST THING I want to be doing is writing a research paper in an amazing city with limited resources, it’s still pretty cool to find these bits of information while I’m still here to actively wonder about them all the time.

The welfare sector has been hardest-hit by the budget stringency that followed [Referring to measures taken in response to the Asian financial crisis and the resulting recession]. After 1998, the government stopped preparing regular blueprints for the development of welfare programmes, which identified service needs, set detailed targets and deadlines and gave the public as well as officials the information needed to assess progress. Policy is no longer based on surveying service shortfalls, qualifying the population’s needs and allocation resources to fill the gaps, and the long-term consequences have been tragic for Hong Kong’s most vulnerable groups. Average waiting times for admission to residential facilities, for example, are alarming, Government statistics include:

  • “severely mentally handicapped persons”, almost seven years (2007 data);
  • “severely physically handicapped persons”, almost nine years (2008 data);
  • the elderly: nursing homes, 42 months; care-and-attention homes, 32 months (2008 data).

The full article: Politics and Poverty in Cash Rich Hong Kong by Leo Goodstadt

And the more extensive report is located here.

He's here in this spot everyday, in front of the subway entrance in Mong Kok

Hong Kong: Perception vs. Reality

Tai O Fishing Village on Lantau Island

[About the picture: Tai O Fishing Village is located on Lantau Island, one of the more scenic, undeveloped areas of Hong Kong. It was an amazing trip and I came back with a thousand pictures from that day alone. Unfortunately this was right before I got sick and I just realized today that I never sorted them!! It may take me awhile but I’m planning on making a Lantau Island slideshow…]

Before the trip to Hong Kong we were required to read a number of books and articles. I found myself feeling grateful for the curriculum numerous times, and it was interesting to see how my experience stacked up with the perceptions I had before I got here. Lengthy conversations with friends on their own perceptions versus what they came to experience ensued.

I was under the assumption that every family has a domestic worker. I got the impression from the literature that it was just the thing you do as a family living in Hong Kong. I’m not sure if this is correct, but given that the minimum wage for a domestic worker is $3580 per month (at current conversion rates that’s $461 USD) it seemed like something that even middle class families could easily afford and partake of. Now it is obvious that a specific subset of people employ domestic workers, rather than every Hong Kong family. (ETA: I’ve come across the figure of 10% of families being able to employ a helper.)

I also had this idea that droves of Hongkongers had joined the rat race – that basically, there were few people who weren’t employed in some high powered business related pursuit. This is quite untrue – there are actually plenty of jobs that seem to have been created just for the sake of someone having a job – for instance, I’ll never get over the women on the beach SWEEPING THE SEAWEED!!! I often wish I could get the viewpoints of the people who do what are the more visibly menial jobs.

Unfortunately I couldn't get a good picture of these women due to weather conditions, but I got something at least. Women sweeping bits of seaweed on the beach... I couldn't get over it and probably wouldn't believe it myself without this picture.

That the “real” Hong Kong was one of skyscrapers, business and financial services, and malls. The knocking down of old buildings for the sake of putting in new. Now I find myself questioning if the skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island, the businesses housed in them and the numerous malls are a representation of the “real” Hong Kong at all. While it is the desired image that is projected, it seems like such a narrow part of the place. Who are the people that rarely set foot in these areas? I feel like I’ve been fixating on this theme and these questions a lot, but I can’t really do any justice to them given the short time I’ve been here. It’s deeply frustrating to me as I feel like I’m lacking a nuanced knowledge and can only paint broad strokes.

I worried that I would be coming to a city that was familiar to me in the sense that it would be very Western and feel shallow, disappointing and devoid of culture. I thought the skyscrapers and the malls would squeeze the life out of what Hong Kong had been. I think it will take me longer to think about the implications of my thoughts of equating Hong Kong to the West because it had been colonized, but it seems like a pretty arrogant thing to think, that a region could have nothing to offer because of that. I’ve read a lot of critiques by scholars concerning the treatment of Hong Kong – that it is only defined through its colonization by the British or its Chinese ancestry, never seen as an autonomous entity. This is interesting and it seems I’ve done it myself. I couldn’t have been more wrong – I find Hong Kong to be this amazingly unique, otherworldy place.

I also figured that when I got here I would see the contrast between their manners and the rude American stigma given it’s a prevalent stereotype. Instead, I felt shocked and indignant at what seemed like a completely different set of social mores that made Hongkongers come off as rude. I have been cut in line A LOT. Also, ideas concerning personal space are very different here. People don’t apologize when they bump into you and I’ve been shoved by people trying to get past me to go somewhere plenty of times with no acknowledgment. I’m sad to say I’ve even adapted some of the behavior, inserting myself into the smallest spaces in crowds despite knowing I’m going to be crunched up against a bunch of people. I’ve been reasoning that if I don’t, someone else will!!

As much as it shocks and frustrates me sometimes, I’m sure it’s quite different from the perspective of someone who has grown up in Hong Kong – the city has always had space issues and the amount of people here makes dealing with massive, closely packed crowds an every day thing. To them, bumping into people is just a part of everyday life, and there isn’t a constant effort to maintain that bit of personal space. Amazingly enough, the people who DO apologize more often than not or say things like “excuse me” are people in their teens and twenties – it is so interesting to me, because often young people are considered to be the rudest subsection of a society!!

Photo Essay: Yuen Po Street Bird Garden (AKA – That bird is meowing at me.)

The Yuen Po Street Bird Garden is part market, part garden. People bring their caged songbirds to display and get some fresh air and may also purchase new ones. In addition there are also other birds – parrots, macaws and African Greys (babies this time!). There are also bird food vendors – as in, people who deal in live crickets and grasshoppers – fascinating!! I could have sat watching the birds all day – some of them definitely seem to have personalities, and they are so curious and intelligent. Below is a slideshow, with captions.

Thoughts on Hong Kong’s consumer culture

Graveyard in Macau - No relation to the post. I just thought it pretty dramatic.

I’ve been thinking a lot about consumer culture here in Hong Kong. It’s a lot of speculation on my part, and nothing I can substantiate right now – two months can lead one to make a lot of specious assumptions with no real knowledge. Part of this is asking questions I couldn’t even begin to answer.

Being in any sort of shopping area brings me extreme discomfort. As much as I love the atmosphere of the markets, it is here especially that one tends to be pounced on by the vendor of the stall immediately. I’m not sure if the same is true for everyone or if because I’m┬áCaucasian, they figure I’m a tourist and therefore going to be susceptible to spending more money.

There are times when I’ve been in more traditional areas where vendors are selling authentic Chinese goods and they have been kind enough to educate me more on the symbolism and the purpose of the items. While it is wonderful of them to do so, it makes me feel uncomfortable to walk away without purchasing anything, as it seems there is still an implicit relationship of buyer and seller. They have given their time to educate me about their goods, and I in turn purchase something.

There seems to be a point when the vendor in your average market stall will know they’ve lost the potential sale – the friendliness they greeted you with disappears and their faces are closed to you, sullen and cold. If I haven’t fled from their initial pounce, I will at this point – wondering about their practical situations – how much money they make and if it’s enough to survive – if they hate this job with an utter passion (I would) – 10-8, and how tiring it must be to endlessly try to peddle their wares to people – dealing with obnoxious tourists who will laugh at their prices, only accepting the rock bottom concession that is made by the vendor as they walk away.

Man Selling Shrink Wrap Machine

Man Selling Shrink Wrap Machine - I can't help but think that all the ladies were watching because he was good looking. I mean, really? A shrink wrap machine demonstration??

I can’t get over what feels like the shiny newness of the sales industry (I don’t mean the markets themselves). Hong Kong was primarily a manufacturing economy and in the past two decades has become a service economy. In the markets it is not uncommon to see someone with a hands-free microphone selling some gadget, charismatically giving demonstrations. What amazes me is that often I don’t know why the item would warrant such a sales act or why people would even buy it despite the act – a shrink wrap machine, a cleaning mitt, and sometimes even just little chachkas. All the same, the salesperson extols the value of the product like gospel.

Man selling I don't know what - I couldn't figure it out before I got a "Missy, missy - no no!!!" because I was taking pictures. Chachkas??

The atmosphere in your retail stores is much different than the market, but still makes me think “new”. You are greeted by every single person you encounter and I have yet to come across an unfriendly salesperson. I know some stores back in the US require you to greet each shopper you encounter, but it is nowhere near the scale of Hong Kong.

I’ve been wondering about class and the idea of being a retail salesperson – in a culture where consumerism and business are prized above all else, are these people proud of their jobs in a way that retail workers in the United States aren’t? Is a retail job in a shiny new mall more highly regarded than what is probably a much better paying manufacturing job? Or is this perhaps a holdover from colonial Hong Kong where a subset of people are expected to serve without complaint? I’m also really curious about how I’m treated and how it might be different in comparison to someone who is perceived as a native Hongkonger.

Despite the image that Hong Kong tries to put forth – a glittering, wealthy metropolis – how much of the population is truly able to partake in the life it represents?

The things the man was selling... nightlights?? Chachkas!!

Mong Kok Night Market: Photo Essay

Nike Night Market Stall

A Nike ad peaking out behind a night market stall - liked the concept, not sure about my execution.

This is going to be more photo than essay, but after nearly nine solid days of being stuck in the dorm room I couldn’t take it anymore. Needed to get back out there with my camera, was missing Hong Kong and the ability to explore its streets. It was a scary couple of days there where they wanted to put me in the hospital due to crazy painful tonsillitis that just wasn’t getting better… I’m sure I’ll be writing more in depth about the experience and it will be filed under the “Lost in Translation” category…. Given my condition has improved greatly and I’m going back to work tomorrow (yay!!!), I decided to take a short trip to explore the Mong Kok night markets again. It was so wonderful to be back out.

Some of the highlights of the night -

Share Tea! - Iced Vanilla Milk Tea, Lemon Black Tea and Mango Cream

  • FINALLY finding the Share Tea stand in Mong Kok!! My haul comprised of a beautiful, freshly made 24(?) ounces each of lemon flavored black tea, vanilla milk tea and mango with cream for a hefty total of about $5 USD. (Starbucks…. what’s Starbucks?!?)
  • Watching an old couple while waiting for my tea – the old man shuffling down the street, the woman yelling after him in Cantonese amidst the Mong Kok craziness of tons of people and neon lights. He turns back and looks at her, says something, and continues on as he smokes his cigarette. Despite the difference in language, you could just imagine by the set of his shoulders and the way he looked back that his words were “yeeeeah, whaaatever”. He continued on as she shook her fist and followed…. It was an amusing scene to say the least, and one I wouldn’t have witnessed if they hadn’t bumped into me in the process…..

Pictures aren’t the GREATEST, but hope it gives you an idea of what the night markets are like….

July 1 – Hong Kong SAR Establishment Day

Starting them Young - this girl knows exactly what to do with her protest sign!

Starting them Young - this girl knows exactly what to do with her protest sign!

Unfortunately the blog has been silent for much longer than I would have liked, not for lack of ideas or the desire to post but rather illness. Been fighting off what became a very bad case of tonsillitis over the past week and a half. Ironically, I think my issues started on July 1st. As today has progressed I’m finally feeling somewhat well enough to poke my head out of the rabbit hole and do something more than sleep. I’m going to start off with a bit of a history lesson, but I’m bolding my own impressions at the bottom….

1 July is a big holiday in Hong Kong as it’s the anniversary of the British handover to China – hence, Special Administrative Region Establishment Day. The reason Hong Kong has the “SAR” tag is because it was negotiated that the colony would be accepted into China as part of the country but would keep the political system it had already in place, the mantra being “one country, two systems.” A big worry with the impending handover was that China would strip away much of the mechanisms that make Hong Kong a laissez-faire economy and some of the greater freedoms that Hong Kongers have. This is still a worry, though “one country, two systems” ends in 2047, causing democracy activists to feel the need to cement the differences of Hong Kong even more by introducing democracy.

There are a number of events that mark HK SAR Establishment Day, the two biggest being the Pro-China parade in the morning and the Pro-Democracy parade and protests in the afternoon. I did my best to take in as much as possible, going out early in the morning with my friend Alex while she interviewed Filipinas and domestic workers.

Ended up catching most of the Pro-China parade, which was a wonderful combination of acts – including many traditional (my assumption) Asian dances, dragon dancers and even an International Latin formation team. I was approached by two young girls who asked to interview me. Not sure what it was for, but they seemed happy that I obliged – they asked me where I was from, why I was in Hong Kong and if I knew what the celebration was about. I was silently thankful for the curriculum we were required to familiarize ourselves with given I could tell them the significance of July 1!! I told them I was really enjoying the festivities, and was also looking forward to the Pro-Democracy parade later in the day. The interviewer wrinkled her nose, and I wasn’t sure if this was because she didn’t know what I was talking about, or because she disagreed with my sentiment. Regardless, I found the exchange amusing, especially the end.

I think what stood out so much to me was that despite all of the Chinese protesters who carried things advocating for a political system of universal suffrage and democracy in addition to more rights, it makes me sad that they seem to have so little interest in the issues that domestic workers face, many of whom were marching at their side. The rights they are looking to attain will not extend to domestic workers, as the immigration system is crafted to keep them separate from society. It also makes it incredibly easy to violate the little rights they do have – I have gone with domestic workers to “court” only to witness all parties pressure them into settling for less than what they are legally entitled to. The methods they must go through to get legal recourse are a series of steps that put them in situations like this again and again. It makes my blood boil.

A Man and His Radio, A Girl and Her Camera

A Man and His Radio

A Man and His Radio - Lou Lim loc Gardens, Macau

I constantly examine my pictures by “looking for the flaws” first. Rarely do I see a photo straight out of my camera that I deem stunning. It’s with trepidation that I say – the one above qualifies. (I’m sad to say that once uploaded, it doesn’t display the full range of color I’m getting on my own screen… Firefox, the bane of a photographer’s existence….)

Been running myself ragged since Thursday so I haven’t had much time for anything, including posting. I am continually blown away by the D700 and only wish I hadn’t held out so long. The classic line is that your lenses matter the most, the body not so much. I wish I had a more nuanced knowledge of this, as it was my original upgrade strategy and what I had thought was sound given my reading. I’m glad my hand was forced.

Also – just saying hi from Macau. I saw the reflections and couldn’t resist. I am indeed in one piece:

Reflection in Macau

Reflection in Macau

Erin and The Sands

Erin and The Sands - Waiting on the Ferry to go home.