And it was just another day when they walked through Tung Tau Estate, another public housing estate amongst numerous others in Wong Tai Sin, another district amongst districts in Hong Kong, another city among cities that are ageing. They entered a building oblivious of its oldness, walked along the aisle long and lonely, and reached a flat, growing nervous as they knocked the gate. Quietly an old lady slid open it. She was a scavenger.
Like many others, she had to go to grocery shops everyday to collect smelly and filthy paper scraps discarded. Like many others, the path she had to walk was long, abrupt, and excruciating with her cart and her back pain and her swollen veins. With nobody lending her a hand, she made her meagre earnings all alone. Being a scavenger for ten years had brought her nothing but a senile body and a fragile mind. The old lady, who turned the fan on for the visitors although she could not stand the lightest wind, shed some helpless tears when they left. She told them she sometimes wept alone without knowing why, and it’s okay.
Yes, as you could imagine, she is solitary. No, in this district of sorrows, she is not.
The elderly (aged 65 or above) account for 25% of total population in Tung Tau, 16.9% in Wong Tai Sin and 12.5% in Hong Kong while the WHO’s definition of an “aged society” is a ratio of 14%. The other morning, at 06:30, these similar students walked into an MTR station with stacks of unwanted newspapers in their hands. Two dozens of senior scavengers and a guard specially employed to safeguard the passengers from the elderly lying in wait were already staring at the students curiously. Soon the students conversed with the elderly and heard more stories – to save you from emotions, we write no more.
The issue is serious. While there are elderly people who collect free newspapers merely to entertain their otherwise boring lives, there are others who rely on unwanted ones to sustain theirs – oftentimes in plural form. So what has gone wrong?
Do not yell at the Government for not providing enough monetary aids, which is what most people deemed in our survey. Maybe it comes as a surprise to you that poverty does not top the list of reasons for elderly people scavenging for a living; however, we firmly believe all scavengers suffer from family problems of different degrees. Indeed, topping the list is absence of filial piety which serve only to generate various emotional problems of the elderly like boredom and hence an urge to look for diversions like scavenging. Economic reasons like family obstacles in applying for social welfare (e.g. ‘Declaration of not providing support to parents’ in CSSA application) and family hardships only come second in forcing the elderly to scavenge for scrap.
In one of a myriad of examples, the scavenger is abused, scolded and hated by her own son and daughter-in-law. She is forced to wash the dishes and sweep the floor before she is allowed to have dinner. Living under the same roof with her son and daughter-in-law, she needs to fend for herself and wander in MTR stations all morning for a few coins, for a few breads, for some tranquillity. You might think why she didn’t apply for CSSA. Well, it requires filial consent, for which she didn’t even dare to ask. Studies showed that only one in a hundred elderly people is willing to live in a Home for the Elderly. This old lady, however, begged us to mail the Housing Authority to secure for her a single apartment.
Society should quit debating whether Universal Pension should be implemented, CSSA relaxed and fruit-money increased; it should look at why all the money is not enough, or not delivered, or not of use. The answers ultimately boil down to the family. The answers always lead to the often overlooked psychological needs of the elderly. Nevertheless, options related to such needs are the unchecked ones in our survey.
We shall ask you: what do you think of those waste collecting elderly people? Impoverished, disheartened and miserable; dirty, greedy or hysterical: those are the adjectives you might use.
But have you ever related your grandparents to those elderly scavengers? “You’re kidding. My grandma doesn’t even collect free newspapers!” Well, that does not mean she is not lonely. That does not mean the couple of banknotes she gives you every now and then (or at Lunar New Year) are spare cash.
We are glad that, perhaps because we are some high school students, we understand that our caring heart is the ultimate need of the elderly. Sometimes, money just cannot be equated with happiness; love and family, however, always find their ways to rejoice.
To view the whole report (in Chinese), including figures, cases, District Councillor interviews, suggestions to the Government and much more, visit goo.gl/nsJ7D. The document was uploaded to the Internet under Creative Commons where everyone can freely view, transmit, cite or edit it.
About the writers
Henry Chan, Icarus Chan, Kelvin Cheung, Nathan Lam, Cabi Lau, Tony Lo, Sophia Wong, Yelly Yeung.
This project is part of YMCA’s Youth Leadership Development scheme; we are a participating school.
All photos edited by Icarus Chan; Shot by Rex Lee.