THE POOR in HONG KONG—- Did you know?

THE POOR in HONG KONG—- Did you know?

Even the richest of the world’s communities has a percentage of people that live below the national standards. As I end the 15 part Hong Kong Chinese New Years series I want to write about poverty in this affluent city.

Not unlike in America where so many people from outside the nation (foreigners) believe America is a rich country and no one is poor, there exists the same misunderstanding about the SAR— Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong.  Marginalized communities do exist in rich cities, in the more affluent locations.

Did you know that 20% of Hong Kong people live below the average standard? Many live in squatter style tin huts hidden below hillsides or tiny 50sq ft rooms? These abodes are sheltered in ways that few people are aware of.  The conditions of the individuals and families who reside in such living spaces are cramped and many times fire and health hazards.

Although the statistics are not as alarming as in other parts of Asia (in a population of approximately 12M, 1/5 are poor), many of these people are old and do not have more than a few hundred Hong Kong dollars (USD $80-200) of their own income or of government subsidy per month.  They live with a roof over their head and very little cash. There is a silver lining, unlike in other societies in the world, the poor are not shunned or considered outcasts…. They are normally not individually bullied or pushed around yet they as individuals and as marginalized groups are just forgotten. They are left to their own initiatives to struggle and survive. The city moves fast and acts as if all people have wealth and can afford everything. Poverty in the eyes of most Hong Konger’s does not exist. Alleviating poverty is not the high priority of the government.

To survive in this city the poor work up into their 80’s and 90’s. They work as street vendors, wet market salespeople, and toilet and street cleaners.  They scrub the street alleys, pick up the litter, and collect building site and street side salvage materials (wood, steel, copper, tin, cardboard, plastic bottles, tin cans). They cart and carry away society’s rubbish:  Many are what I call “the first responders”—- those who sort, reuse and sell items that otherwise would be wasted. They survive on a meager income generated by doing these menial tasks. They, by dire need and necessity, are Hong Kong’s most conscious environmentalists.

To me these men and women are heroes. And, I wish they could be acknowledged and provided more assistance and support by the government and by the affluent community they serve. I wish people were aware of these hero’s.  In their quiet way, in their simple lifestyle they have helped the city to be a cleaner place. And, in the most densely populated, affluent city in the world where it is common place to consume more products per capita than in other countries of like geographical size, these local vendors and collectors of rubbish have shown an act of responsibility the rich may just take for granted. Without these people the streets of Hong Kong would not be clean and comfortable to walk down. Nor, would a reuse and resell sub culture exist.

I being a mobile resident of Hong Kong, never staying too long anymore, just passing through between assignments in other countries always is aware of this black n white, local Chinese style dressed women and men.  I understand poverty. I see it every day in Asia’s poorest communities. Thus, I expect a similar level of poverty to exist on the edge of any richer community. The poor have always coexisted next to the rich but as individual and family income increases people grow further away from understanding the woos of the poor.  As we improve our lifestyles we move ahead leaving behind past financial problems. As countries industrialize expectations change. And, it is mostly only those who work in the field of poverty alleviation that truly understands the concerns, issues, problems, risks of being poor in a modern world.

In Hong Kong indifference (attitudes of not wanting to know anymore) shows. People walk around, on top of, and without courtesy or concern for the poor.  It’s a hurried environment, busy, nonstop, non caring environment.  To me the SAR is the fastest and noisiest city in the world. It is a place where you need to have a lot of money to live comfortably.  No one expects or thinks anyone should be poor. Few acknowledge, except when they are doing their philanthropic duties at Rotary, Zonta, Lions, to go out of the way to help these hidden and hard working vendors and rubbish collectors.  And, probably these workers would really not like to be acknowledged publically. To me these hidden people are ‘just’ getting on with life.  They do feed their rice bowl (that is never more evident than at 7am in the morning at Dipidongs and Yum Chow Restaurants).  But, the difference in their food consumption, their personal home belongings is the polar opposite of those in the sky rise luxury city flats or beautiful village island homes.  Today in 2012, if any of those more affluent urban dwellers were to visit the government subsidized flats, the village or city hillside tin homes, I think many would feel ashamed and guilty at the realization that people in Hong Kong—- like these rubbish collectors, still live below world health standards. Many living in appallingly uncomfortable, unsafe abodes.  It’s terrible to see these squatter huts residing beside such a rich populated dense concrete jungle skyscraper society.

If you are a Hong Kong resident who lives comfortably in a flat in the Mid Levels or Stanley or Pokfulam or the Peak or in Kowloon can you name a village area with tin roof homes or 100sq foot subsidized government flats? Have you ever stepped foot into the poor’s domain?  Have you ever asked questions about these people?  I believe, but maybe I am wrong, that 90% of Hong Kong’s community can honestly answer NO to these questions.

For those of you who read this story today, I write to make you aware of poverty amongst opulence. To make you remember to open your eyes when you walk down any of the world’s city streets or visit Hong Kong.  I am sure if you look you will see evidence of the poor living amongst the rich. Be aware, it is not just in the back hills of China, or the Desert Mountains in the Middle East or the village seaside in the central Asia Pacific Islands that marginalized communities of people live. It is right here in the city in Hong Kong…….just as it is right there in America’s major cities.

Did you know that ¼ of HK children are poor, 1/6 of the households that are ranked poor are hungry, and 7% of the people live in flats smaller than 200 sq ft— (nicknamed TRAPPED CAGES)?  Twenty percent (20%) of Hong Kong residents live below the poverty line? And, as food prices increase (lunch boxes from street vendors today cost HKD 30-35 or approx USD $5-6), and inflation rises (in 2011 it was approx 7.9%); the number of poor households will become more impoverished, more hungry.

http://video.ft.com/v/1181961103001/Hong-Kong-poor-struggle-with-inflation

And, as more and more people move from rural areas to populated cities (for example from China to Hong Kong); there will be an increase of individuals, of families, living below the national standards. In Hong Kong, the vendors and collectors are just two of many marginalized groups existing today in the city.

Isn’t it interesting… I, THE AIDWORKER could be giving my time and service to the people of Hong Kong.
My knowledge on development issues pertains to this urban environment just as much as it does to a rural far flung location of the world. That’s fact not fallacy. It’s the sad truth.

What can you do to make this reality change?

2011 news on poverty in Hong Kong—–

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/hongkong/8818102/Hong-Kong-under-pressure-as-poverty-levels-rise.html

http://varsity.com.cuhk.edu.hk/?cat=19

http://www.oxfam.org.hk/en/news_1651.aspx

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