Yesterday, I saw the other side of Hong Kong. The side that we occasionally, only very occasionally, read about in newspapers and which we cannot quite believe.
Having seen poverty, pollution, filth and corruption in Bombay, I do not believe it can be worse anywhere else, especially anywhere infused with such clockwork efficiency and dramatic urban prosperity as Hong Kong. When people out here complain, I roll my eyes. I tend to take the be-grateful-for-what-you-have and praise-be-to-the-MTR view.
But it was once pointed out to me by an activist in Hong Kong that this city does not bear comparison to the likes of Bombay because it is on a different plane and so there must be different expectations. Just because we do have more, are we wrong to want better? Are we wrong to want a government that listens, that does not ignore the (albeit few) poor, that does not tear down the tatters that remains of our heritage (even if some of it is colonial) and our local culture? Are we wrong to want to choose our own government so that it will be accountable to us?
And so, I will not say that poverty in Hong Kong is not so bad as poverty in India. Not because it is or isn’t but because it is a credit to Hong Kong that only a few are struggling, but should we let them die by the wayside?
Yesterday I picked my way through the labyrinth of Ngau Tau Kok estate, past dai pai dong stalls and cheap street shops and up and through corridors with barred doors, one of which opened to the home of a woman I shall call ‘Amy’. The home is exactly one room, but it is bright because there is a balcony which has been meshed in and has become her kitchen and um, toilet. The walls of the rooms are stacked floor to ceiling with possessions. It’s like a yard sale in there, only nothing is for sale because these are everybody else’s rejects. There is a bunk bed but the lower bunk is full of stuff and the upper is cordoned off with white lace like old French bed – a refuge for her 22-year-old daughter who goes to uni and has a boyfriend who she is ashamed to tell of her single mother who lives off the dole.
Amy herself seems cheerful enough but she is unstable. I discover the reason why this seemingly able-bodied woman is on the dole or CSSA as it is called here is because she is clinically depressed. She is on medication and talks non-stop, straying from one topic to the next, all dangerously close to the anxiety for her daughter and anger at her husband who divorced her 18 years ago, after which she and her life fell to pieces. She shows us her fridge which has a rope tied around it for fear that it will burst because it is so packed that things fall out as she opens it and she squeals with laughter. There is madness in that fridge, including a 20-year-old box of deer antlers that I know at once are supposed to give sexual vigour and which she says she didn’t think she needed then and (unsaid) which are of no use now though she cannot throw them away.
There are packets of McDonald’s sauce and Amy confides that her daughter goes to the different fast food chains and picks up whatever free condiments she can and calls McDonald’s her revision room because she takes her books there and studies in the summer because of the free air conditioning. I suddenly realise why there are so many old people sitting in McDonald’s looking furtive.
I learn that since Amy’s daughter chose to go to uni they lost her part of the dole and once she graduates, they will lose Amy’s as well and she will have to pay back her uni loan as well as support herself and her mother at a graduate’s salary. Amy calls her fridge her bank balance because it is on food that she cuts all the corners because it is where she can compromise. She won’t compromise on her daughter.
Amy’s life is better than that of most of the poor in India. She has a roof over her head, a TV, computer, fridge (all hand-me-downs). But were these not given she would fall apart because is too old to start a career and she would probably not find employment because of her psychological condition.
It is a stark contrast to a city in which some people pay HK$500,000 a month on rent and where your self-image is moulded by how many LV handbags you own. It must be hard to be a teenager in such a city and know that you have to survive on HK$1200 a month.